African water fern aquarium

Bolbitis Water Fern: Growing African Water Ferns

Submerged water plants that work in the warm liquid of a fish tank are few and far between. Some of the tropical fern species, such as Bolbitis water fern and Java fern, are commonly used as greenery in tank situations. African water fern grows from a rhizome which can easily be attached to a rock or other surface. They are easy to manage in soft water with either fertilizer or no fertilizer. Below you will find some African water fern info so you can use this lovely plant to aquascape your tanks.

What is an African Water Fern?

Fish keepers will know the Bolbitis water fern, or African fern (Bolbitis heudelotii). It is a tropical shade epiphyte found around bodies of water and boggy regions. The fern is a robust specimen and useful as a natural plant in fish tanks. It will grow on a rock or piece of wood, which helps anchor the plant to the floor of the tank or even the wall.

Bolbitis is found in fast-moving tropical waters. It is an epiphyte and anchors itself to rough rocks or pieces of wood. Also known as

Congo fern, the plant is dark green with delicately cut leaves. It is slow growing, but can get tall and is most useful as a bottom plant.

The rhizome should not be buried in the substrate but rather tethered to an appropriate piece of lava rock, bark or other medium. The fern can grow 6 to 8 inches wide and as tall as 16 inches. This is accomplished at a snail pace since growing African water fern leaves can take up to 2 months.

Growing African Water Ferns

In order to grow the fern in water, it must first be attached to a medium. Release the plant from its nursery pot and clean off the rhizomes. Hold the rhizomes in place on the chosen medium and wrap them onto it with fishing line. Over time the plant will self attach and you can remove the line.

The fern prefers slightly acidic to soft water with gentle current and medium light, although it can adjust to brighter light levels. Keep the plant looking its best by removing dying fronds at the base of the rhizome.

Propagation of Bolbitis water ferns is through rhizome division. Use a sharp, clean blade to ensure a sterile cut and then tie the new rhizome to a rock or piece of bark. The plant will eventually fill in and produce another thickly fronded fern.

Use a diluted liquid fertilizer at start time that is consistent with aquatic use. The best growth is achieved by plants situated near the bubbler or current source.

African Water Fern Care

These are fairly easy plants to maintain as long as the tank and water health is good. They do not do well in brackish or salty water, and should be grown in fresh water only.

If you wish to fertilize after its initial planting, use a balanced liquid fertilizer once per week and infuse the water with CO2. Fertilizer is not necessary in a low maintenance tank where fish waste will provide nutrients.

Keep temperatures between 68 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit/20 to 26 degrees Celsius.

African water fern care is minimal and this easy-to-grow plant will decorate your natural tanks for years to come.

African Water Fern Guide

The African Water Fern, or Bolbitis Heudelotii, is a robust aquatic fern commonly found in streams and boggy areas throughout Africa. Another common name is the Congo fern, as it is very common in the Congo River Basin.

This fern thrives best attached to lava rocks or pieces of wood in water moving areas. With its delicately cut dark green leaves, it grows extremely slow with a single leaf growing in about two months.

It can reach a maximum of 22 inches in height and 8 inches wide, depending on the living conditions, with light, nutrients, and CO2 levels being the most important.

Tank Requirements

Being a large plant, the African Water Fern is not suitable for small and Nano tanks. Instead, it will make a great foreground plant in medium tanks or a pleasant accent in large ones.

Find out which plants are suitable for Nano Tanks.

Water temperatures should be between 74-84 degrees Fahrenheit and in slightly alkaline water with pH between 6.0-8.5 and hardness in the 5-15 range.

Planting your African Water Fern

The Bolbitis is not a plant to just stick in the sand or gravel and watch it grow. Instead, it has to be attached (unless it attaches itself) to a piece of driftwood or a porous rock.

You can attach it by using a piece of fishing line, rubber band, or cotton thread. Cotton thread is usually preferred, as it is softer and dissolves over time. The need for attaching the plant to something is the main reason why most dealers will hardly sell a few pieces or why the African Water Fern is not available for shipping, as shipping is usually done by detaching the plant.

The African Water Fern’s attachments are very fragile, so handle with care. It will attach best to soft wood and will even make it hard to saw apart.

Attachments to hard wood or rocks, though, are superficial; more assertive fish may even uproot the plant.

Care for your African Water Fern

Maintaining this plant is quite easy although its growing rate is extremely slow. It needs a nutrient rich substrate and weekly fertilizing unless the fish produce enough waste to provide the necessary nutrients. CO2 supplements will accelerate the growth rate, especially after establishing in your tank.

The African Water Fern requires strong lighting (at least 3 watts per gallon) to grow properly, but you must keep an eye out for algae, as they can be fierce competitors for food, while also preventing the plant from getting enough light.

Clean up the algae or place some algae eating fish or shrimp to take care of them. This fern will also survive with less light, but it will hardly grow any further.

The Bolbitis will do best in a tank area with currents or medium water movement. It doesn’t tolerate salt, so it should only be grown in freshwater tanks.

Always remove dead or unhealthy looking leaves and sections to allow the plant to use its energy only for the healthy segments. Dead plant matter rots and spoils the water, leading to more health problems throughout the tank.


Rhizome division, using a pair of very sharp scissors or a razor blade, can help with propagation. The new plant can then be attached in the desired location and will make a nice contrast with older plants, as the young ones are usually bright green, unlike mature ones, which show a dark green coloration.

Tank Mates

If you consider algae eating fish, forget about the Pleco, as it will eat all the plant down; use Otocinclus or shrimp instead.

Goldfish and Koi are an absolute no-no with the Bolbitis, as well as most cichlids, except rams or Kribensis. Silver dollars and Ditto tinfoil barbs are also very likely to eat it, so keep them away from your tank.

Provided you place suitable fish that won’t try to graze on it, the African Water Fern’s wide leaves will make a great hideout for small fish that need some privacy or try to run away from harassing fish.

Being so difficult to grow and requiring quite a lot of attention, this plant is not recommended for beginners. It is also very pricey and hard to find, so no wonder only experienced aquarists who really love how it looks will try to get one and grow it in their tanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *