One of my favorite recent aquarium plantings is the 65-gallon setup that I have used to create a brackish mangrove habitat. While regular freshwater and saltwater aquariums are much more common in the hobby, the “slightly salty” brackish tanks offer fascinating options for livestock and plant selection. There are some truly odd and amazing fish that live in estuaries and other brackish habitats, including mudskippers (Periophthalmus spp.), puffers (Tetradon spp.), archerfish (Toxotes spp.), the four-eyed fish (Anableps anableps) and a true brackish water cichlid, the orange chromide (Etroplatus maculatus). The following picture shows, the marsh killifish, Fundulus confluentus, one of several US-native brackish water killis that I am keeping in this riparium setup.
While there is pretty good hobby information and availability for brackish water fish, brackish aquarium gardening with live plants is less developed. The information available online and in print generally recommends the brackish adaptable common aquarium plants that can survive and grow with some water salinity. These include plants that grow in lakes and rivers with hard water, or sometimes range into brackish water near the mouths of rivers, such as Vallisneria spp., Anubias spp., Microsorum pteropus and Cabomba spp. While these plants can live in moderately brackish conditions, most of them are more common in freshwater and the brackish estuary environment is generally less representative of where they live in nature. Fully aquatic plants are relatively uncommon in brackish habitats. This might owe to the frequently turbid and dark conditions of estuary waters, as well as the osmotic stress of varying salinity levels for underwater foliage.
Much more representative plants of these brackish estuary areas are the mangroves that grow rooted in the substrate, but hold their foliage above water. A mangrove can be a tree or other large plant that grows in this manner. Among the unique adaptations of mangrove plants are the ability to grow in soft, oxygen-poor muds with tidally-influenced water level changes, as well as the ability to withstand salt and fluctuating water salinity.
There is one true mangrove plant that is already common in the aquarium trade in the United States. Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) has the highest salinity tolerance of any North American mangrove and can grow in full-strength seawater. Reef aquarium hobbyists often plant it into sumps/refugia and it is pretty easy to find for sale in aquariums shops. While I did use red mangrove in my 65-gallon tank, I knew that there were more mangrove species that I could try. Of the five plants that I used, I actually observed the best performance (attractiveness, vigor, growth) from the other four selections:
- White Mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa)
- Hala Tree (Pandanus tectorius)
- Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans)
- Leather Fern (Acrostichum danaeifolium)
While the mangrove trees mentioned here are generally restricted to true mangrove habitats, I should add the caveat that the P. tectorius hala tree and A. danaeifolium leather fern are often found in other areas. Nevertheless, these two plants are salt-tolerant and they have grown very well in my brackish tank.
I intend to write another blog post with detailed information on growing these mangrove plants, but for now I would like to share some of the recent specimen photographs that I have taken. I will link these shots below along with a few additional notes and observations. The 300px images are clickable for a better view in a new window.
Also watch for a print magazine article that I wrote about these plants to be published this fall!
The mangrove propagules (seed like reproductive structures) for all three of the tree species begin to ripen in mid-fall. Now is a great time to begin planning a brackish mangrove riparium planting.
I have had the white mangrove growing for several years. The trunk has developed a pretty thick diameter and this plant also has a mass of thick prop roots around the ripairum planter.
Thanks for reading!
Summer is a perfect time for growing riparium plants. Most aquarium enthusiasts spend more time with their tanks during the fall and winter months, but most riparium plants take a little while to establish in their planters and beging to grow vigorously. By starting your riparium project during the early summer you can be sure to have nice, full, established riparium plants a few months down the road.
While we have kept our prices for live plants constant, all dry goods in the online store have been reduced 20% for the Summer Sale. Read each product description to find out your savings for each item.
We’ve been working on our riparium setups here. This is an update photo for the 65-gallon brackish mangrove riparium. The plants and fish are looking good!
Bonsai is the Japanese art of growing trees as miniature specimens to emulate mature wild trees. As significant as the tree’s form in bonsai gardening are other aspects of the visual presentation, including the plant’s pot and setting. Emphasizing the contemplative nature of training and viewing the tree, bonsai is intended to transcend the decorative aspects of gardening and reveal deeper meanings about nature.
I have long wondered about the idea of combining bonsai trees with planted aquaria. Bonsai is an old and rich tradition, but planted aquariums share many of its visual design aspects while also being an intimate way to experience the culture of live plants. Riparium growing methods and plant selection show great promise in growing bonsai trees with aquariums.
There are three especially important considerations to have in mind while selecting plants for riparium growing: 1. adaptability to wet conditions 1. adaptability to indoor growing 3. growth habit. The best riparium plants are species that occur in habitats such as swamps, marshes or riverbanks that have very wet soil. While such plants are adapted to having low oxygen levels around their roots, plants from more upland habitats, such as forests or prairies, will likely perish if planted in a riparium planter or similar setting. Many of the tree species popular as bonsai have seasonal dormancy cycles and require a cool winter rest period. Plants like these cannot prosper long-term indoors, so better choices for riparium growing are tropical or subtropical species that do not need a cold winter period. The plant growth habit comes into play while planning the full planted riparium layout. Some riparium-suitable plants work best as erect background foliage, while others grow such that they functions better as sprawling midground riparium plants.
I kept all of these criteria in mind while choosing plants for this bonsai riparium project. Most of the most popular bonsai trees are cool temperate species from upland forest areas and thus very poor choices for growing in the water indoors. I also sought plants that would lend themselves to bonsai miniaturization. I had considered trying money tree (Pachira aquatica) as a bonsai riparium tree. This plant grows in very wet areas along rivers in tropical forests and it is commonly available for sale as a houseplant, but it also has very large leaves and is difficult to train as a convincing bonsai.
I spent hours researching plant species requirements and commercial availability. The following lists most of the species that I encountered as promising riparium bonsai trees and shrubs:
- Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum)
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
- Hummingbird Flower (Sesbania grandiflora)
- Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus)
Most of these species grow in swamps or other very wet habitats in tropical or subtropical regions. The Cephalanthus buttonbush is an exception as it occurs in the Northern US and into Canada: I have seen it growing in floodplain swamps along the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Nevertheless, I decided to try this species because it can also be found as far south as Central Mexico and I found a couple of online references to training it as an indoor bonsai specimen with good results.
I have acquired small sapling specimens of most of these species for training. The remainder of this blog post will describe my experiences working with a Taxodium Montezuma cypress as a riparium bonsai subject.
Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a very large riparian (riverbank-growing tree) that occurs from Southernmost Texas through various areas in Mexico as far south as Guatemala. It is very similar to the North American bald cypress (T. distichum), but differs in habitat, preferring rivers over swamps, and does not grow the characteristic “cypress kness” of bald cypress. I have considered trying T. disticum bald cypress as a riparium bonsai tree, but, true to its name, this plant is strongly winter deciduous and I suspect that it would fair poorly without a cool winter dormancy. As a subtropical plant, Montezuma cypress seems like a safer bet. Montezuma cypress can grow to be among the largest trees on earth () but along with bald cypress they respond very well to bonsai training methods and can look very good as miniature specimens.
I found Montezuma cypress for sale and available for shipping from a nursery in Texas. After a four-day UPS trip the well-packed tree arrived in great shape.
The tree was rooted in a one-gallon pot, so I had to prune the roots back quite a lot to fit it into the one-cup riparium planter. The next two photos show the root system before and after pruning.
Since I removed so much root I decided to also prune about 50% of the tree’s foliage.
While the Montezuma cypress tree was very pretty with its soft, fine foliage, the stem was very straight and with little character. I decided to use aluminum bonsai wire to add a few natural curves. Here is the tree after wrapping with two different gauges of wire and before bending.
This shot shows the tree after bending with a few natural curves. I have very little experience with bonsai trees, but I think that I got a pretty good result.
This tree is probably best described as being in the literati bonsai style. Literati bonsai do not have thick trunk bases and are not necessarily intended to emulate very large trees, but instead feature longer bare trunks with expressive contours. Literati can be a good option for bonsai training of young, slender sapling trees like my Montezuma cypress.
I was surprised at how well this tree adapted to the bonsai training. I had pruned away so much root that I worried I might kill the plant, but it retained its healthy green foliage and quickly began to grow new roots in the planter. Just three weeks after transplanting the tree had grown many new white roots in the planter.
I decided to build a special tank for use with the bonsai tree. So that the bonsai would not become lost among other plants or in a large enclosure I opted for a small rimless glass aquarium 18″ wide by 14″ deep by 5″ tall. This shallow box more or less resembles a broad and shallow traditional bonsai pot. The next picture shows construction detail for the tank. After bonding the five glass panels with silicone I used a razor blade to scrape all extra silicone away, then masked for 1/8″ seams all the way around the inside. Masking is the easiest way to make tidy, straight aquarium seams.
I set up the tank in a temporary way on a bench in my basement shop. After resolving the visual design of the planting I will move it to a more attractive and formal setting. I used a couple of coats of black latex paint on the aquarium rear glass panel. There is also a piece of black foam rubber beneath the tank: this foam cushion is very important as it prevents pressure points that would exert extra force on the tank glass and seams.
I will add a few other plants in addition to the Montezuma cypress bonsai tree. I think that a low carpeting emersed aquatic plant, such as Bacopa monnieri moneywort or Lysimachia nummularia creeping Jenny, will look very good growing along the water’s surface aroudn the base of the tree. I might also add a short grassy riparium plant, such as Acorus gramineus sweetflag, in a second riparium planter.
In another month or two I will write another blog post to share progress of this unique bonsai planting. I hope to create an attractive bonsai riparium setup with the addition of a few more riparium plants, substrate, hardscape and a few nano fish. Please stay tuned for updates! We do not currently offer any of the trees or shrubs that might work as riparium bonsai in the online store, but we can help to track down material offered by various other online sellers. Please send us an email (support “at” ripariumsupply.com) if you have any questions at all.
Thanks for reading!
In appreciation for all of the recent interest in planted ripariums and riparium aquascaping we have decided to activate a new “general promotion” coupon code valid for a 10% pre-shipping discount on any combination of items in the online store. Please copy the code, use it at checkout and save! Here it is…
Feel free to share this offer with your friends, too. This coupon is effective right now and will expire on April 30th, 2013.
I found an old tank photograph that I don’t think I have shared here before. This setup was a 120-gallon aquarium featuring Mexican flora and fauna. Among the fish were Ilyodon furcidens and Poecilia chica, two very pretty and hardy Mexico-native livebearers.
I’m trying out a new kind of riparium plant! Last year I saw an interesting setup description here on the UK Aquatic Plant Society forum site by somebody in Japan who grew paddy rice (Oryza sativa) in a fish tank on his balcony outside. Here is the link…
He grew the rice up and actually harvested a small bowl of edible grains! The rice plants were attractive in the setup and I thought that rice could be a good riparium plant as tall background foliage. It has a formal, upright growth habit.
I looked around some more and found a decorative O. sativa variety, ‘Black Madras’. I was also able to source seeds for this selection…
‘Black Madras’ develops purple-green foliage as the plant matures. It is apparently more sturdy than most regular grain paddy rice and the plants can stand up straight without the support of water or neighboring plants.
I planted the seeds in a riparium planter and they sprouted in just a few days. Here is a shot of the planter where I planted five ‘Black Madras’ rice seeds…
Rice grains are large, so the little plants started out with lots of energy. I saw these beginning to sprout only about a week ago, but already they are about 6″ (15cm) tall. I really like the sap green color of the blades and you can also see the beginning of the purple coloration on the leaf tips.
I’ll post more updates as I grow these little rice plants. I just have this planter in a growout setup right now, but I am thinking about a dedicated display tank to feature rice and a few other plants with fish.
I have a quick photo update for my 12″ X 12″ X 18 Forest Floor terrarium setup. The plants are growing! I am really happy with these little mini epiphytic ferns. the one in the middle with the fine-cut leaves is I think a Davalia. The leaves are only about 1/2″ long.
Here’s a shot of the whole setup shortly after I planted it.