Java Fern Care 101: How To Grow, Plant & Propagate

It’s difficult to find a more popular plant for freshwater aquariums than Java fern. And with it’s hardy nature and beautiful appearance, it’s not hard to see why!

The guide below will teach you everything you need to know about Java fern care. Ideal conditions, planting, propagation, and growth rate are all covered!

Species Summary

Of all the available aquarium plants in the trade, Java fern (Microsorum pteropus) is one of the most popular. Praised for its hardness and adaptability, it’s a suitable cultivar for a wide variety of tanks. Java fern care is simple and this plant is relatively easy to grow, making it a fantastic choice for beginners and seasoned aquarists alike.

Java fern plant in a freshwater aquarium tank

Java fern comes from bodies of water in Southeast Asia. It typically flourishes on rocks, roots, and tree trunks that grow alongside rivers and waterfalls. The plant can grow fully or partially submerged.

Author Note: Unlike many aquatic plants, Java fern doesn’t rely on its roots to draw nutrients from the substrate. It can cling onto any textured surface where it’ll use its leaves to stay healthy.

No matter what type of tank you have, Java fern is a worthy addition that can improve the quality of life for aquarium inhabitants while providing an unmistakably tropical look.

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The Advantage Of Having It In Your Tank

Having plants of any kind in your aquarium is beneficial, but Java fern takes the cake for its low maintenance requirements and easy proliferation. 

Java fern is an easy-to-grow plant that actively supports fish and invertebrates. Right off the bat, the leaves of this plant provide shelter and security. Fish will use it to hide when they feel threatened or find a moment of solace in a rowdy community tank. Many will also utilize the plant’s leaves to get away from the light.

Another benefit of having Java fern in your tank is its impact on water quality. It absorbs carbon dioxide, which fish produce when they respirate. The plant uses the carbon dioxide to thrive, replacing it with healthy oxygen for tank inhabitants.

The plant can also help handle nitrate levels. Nitrates are a dangerous byproduct of fish waste that can slowly kill every living creature in your tank. Constant water changes and powerful filtration help keep nitrate levels low, and plants like the Java fern will support those efforts to provide even more peace of mind.

This is why knowing how to provide good Java fern care is such a valuable skill. You’re not only helping this plant thrive, but you’re also aiding the rest of your tank!


The Java fern is a beautiful plant with a lot to offer in terms of aesthetics. The main part of the plant features thick, green leaves with a leather-like texture. They’re surprisingly durable, which decreases the chances of physical damage from rowdy fish.

The intensity of the coloration can vary from plant to plant. However, the level of light it receives matters as well. With just the right amount of light, leaves have a deep green color to indicate their healthiness.

If you look closely, you might notice some dark black veining or brown spots. The veining is typical and is usually more noticeably on mature leaves. Meanwhile, the brown spots are often signs of plant reproduction. More on that later.

Author Note: There are several types of Java ferns out there. You can find plants that feature narrow leaves, fat leaves, or even lance-shaped leaves. Others take on a bushier appearance thanks to frilly foliage. The most common type has wide, grass-like blades with a distinct texture.

Size & Growth Rate

A mature Java fern can grow to heights of around 13 inches tall. The plant can spread between six and eight inches wide, creating plenty of coverage within your tank. 

One of the best things about the Java fern plant is that it has a slow growth rate. Unlike other plants, it takes its sweet time to reach its full potential. As a result, there’s no need for continual pruning or rearranging. 

Once the plant establishes itself, it will produce slow and steady growth for years to come.

Java Fern Care

Java fern care is an extremely easy process that any aquarist can handle. It’s low-maintenance  and easily adapts to many different environments.

That said, the plant does have its preferences when it comes to tank conditions. Failing to meet its basic needs will prevent the plant from thriving. Luckily, Java fern is beginner-friendly, making it an excellent choice for aquarists of all skill levels.

Here are some essential guidelines to follow when it comes to Java fern care.

Tank Size

To successfully grow Java fern, most aquarium experts recommend tanks of at least 10 gallons in volume. Anything less than that could end up stunting its growth.

Author Note: A 10-gallon aquarium is a good starting point for a single plant. But if you want to keep multiple, it’s best to go bigger. Many recommend transplantation as the plant reaches maturity as well. Larger plants could overcrowd small aquariums, especially if they have fish.

Water Parameters

One of the most important elements of Java fern care is growing it in an environment that mimics its natural habitat as much as possible. In the wild, the Java fern grows alongside rivers, streams, and waterfalls. There’s ample water flow and a decent amount of oxygen.

The plant doesn’t need a ton of extra CO2. It can do just fine without liquid fertilizer as well.

The most important factors to pay attention to are temperature, pH level, and hardness. The Java fern prefers warm environments with soft, slightly acidic water. As mentioned earlier, this plant is adaptable. As long as water conditions fall within the following parameters, the Java fern should have no problem thriving.

  • Water temperature: 68°F to 82°F (mid 70s is ideal)
  • pH levels: 6.0 to 7.5
  • Water hardness: 2 to 15 dKH


Java fern grows in most lighting conditions. However, it does best with low to moderate light levels.

Anything too intense can cause severe health problems. Burn spots can develop on the leaves, resulting in an increased risk for infection. Some leaves may even lose color and turn transparent.

Lighting conditions significantly impact growth and appearance, so finding the right balance is a must. Excess light could result in physical damage and stunted growth. But, the same can occur with not enough light!

Author Note: A good middle ground is about 1.5 watts of light per gallon of water in the tank. Bulbs with a color temperature between 5,000 and 7,500 Kelvin do just fine. At this level, the plant should look very healthy with intense coloration and no noticeable burn spots.


For the Java fern, the substrate in your tank is not something you need to worry about. In fact, it can grow well in bare-bottom aquariums!

That’s because this plant doesn’t draw nutrients from the substrate at all like other plants. Absorption occurs in the leaves rather than through the roots. Burying the plant’s roots into a substrate of any kind could lead to stunted growth and eventual death.

It may survive for several weeks in gravel or plant soil, but the plant’s roots shouldn’t be buried for long-term health.

Java Fern Melt

Like any other living thing in your tank, Java fern plants are susceptible to disease. These plants might be hardy, but they’re not indestructible.

One widespread issue to plague this plant species is called Java fern melt. This condition refers to a unique phenomenon when dark spots develop on the leaves. The brown spots eventually turn mushy and rot away. The problem areas can become more prevalent as the plant suffers, leading to quick aesthetic destruction and death. If you plan on practicing top-notch Java fern care, melt is something you need to take seriously.

So what causes Java fern melt?

Generally, the condition is a byproduct of stress. It’s an unsavory reaction to poor living conditions.

Many factors can contribute to melt. The most common is improper lighting conditions. The symptoms of too much light are benign in the beginning. However, the discoloration, loss of color, and overall sickly look are just the beginning.

If you don’t address the light issues, Java fern melt can take over. Luckily, the problem is easy to resolve. Turning off the lights for several days will give the plant plenty of time to recover.

Java fern melt also happens because of poor nutrition and too much algae in the aquarium.

These plants don’t require regular fertilizer treatments in a healthy tank. However, lackluster water parameters can result in nutrient deficiencies. In those cases, the plant could benefit from a boost of fertilizer to kickstart its growth.

Author Note: Interestingly enough, algae problems can develop from a lack of nutrients. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, cover the leaves of the plant like a film. If not removed, the algae will cause Java fern melt.

How To Plant Java Fern

Learning how to plant Java fern requires you to think outside the box a little bit. Because it doesn’t need substrate, planting methods are a little more involved than you would experience with other species.

The plant has tiny rhizomes that don’t like to live under sand or soil. They look like dark, hair-like roots. While the rhizomes are referred to by many as roots, they function more like anchoring stems.

A Java fern plantlet

The roots cling onto rough surfaces. In the wild, they grab onto rough rocks, tree trunks, or even underwater roots. Once anchored in place, the rhizomes will continue to grow, eventually creating a network of root-like structures that keep the plant in place.

When you plant a Java fern in your aquarium, you must attach it to a piece of rock or driftwood. Rough, textured surfaces are best. The rhizomes use jagged facades to get a good grip, so ultra-smooth finishes on polished stones or glass won’t work.

Lava rocks, natural mineral slabs, and wood are the best options. Driftwood is an ideal choice, as the large surface area gives the rhizomes plenty of opportunities to spread.

If you’re buying Java fern at a pet store, you might see it anchored onto driftwood already. However, you’re free to move it and set the plant where you want it.

To do so, tie the roots down using fishing wire. Black fishing wire blends in well with the rhizomes as the plant grows. More visible rubber bands or zip ties work well, too.

Eventually, the rhizomes will wrap around the surface you attach them to. At that point, you can remove the fishing wire. Some aquarists leave it on to be safe. Either way, the rhizomes will continue to grow and provide a more reliable anchor.

Trimming & Pruning

If you’re looking for a plant that doesn’t require constant pruning, Java fern is an excellent choice. As stated earlier, this species grows relatively slowly. It takes a while to reach its full potential, so there’s no need to prune the plant continually.

Of course, you can always trim your Java fern to achieve the look you want.

If you prefer a more open appearance, you can thin the leaves out for less density. To do that, cut the leaves as close to the rhizomes as possible. Continue to prune the plant as new growth appears to keep the spread under control.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can promote more foliage density. Plantlets can develop on the leaves. Instead of cutting them off, let them proliferate. 

Over time, the plant will become bush-like, creating even more places for your fish to hide.

Author Note: Generally, mature plants will only need a single annual prune. During that yearly trimming session, you can scale back the plant’s spread, remove dead or discolored leaves, and stop overgrowth.

Tank Mates

Java fern has all the characteristics to assure broad compatibility. It’s a must-have plant that can serve a wide variety of fish quite well.

Some plants are more delicate than others, creating problems with more rambunctious fish. The risks of damage are heightened with nippy fish that gravitate to flowy leaves.

Fortunately, that’s not an issue with Java fern.

It has a very tough leaf structure, making it tough enough to withstand known plant-eaters. The texture is far too challenging for fish to eat. As a result, most tend to stay away from it. They’ll still use the plant for its shelter, but plant-eaters pay it no mind whatsoever.

The plant may take a beating from more aggressive fish, as they like to take advantage of its rugged nature for play. But even then, Java fern is usually tough enough to withstand anything.

Some good tank mates for Java fern include:

Author Note: When it comes to tank mate compatibility, you only need to exercise caution with Java fern in the early stages of its life cycle. New transplants are pretty vulnerable, as the rhizomes are weak. It’s a good idea to give the plant some time to adjust before introducing rowdier fish.

If you plan on keeping Java fern in a tank with larger fish species, make sure it’s firmly planted on large rocks or sizable pieces of driftwood. That way, you don’t have to worry about accidental tipping.

Java Fern Propagation

Java fern plants reproduce through apomixis. This species doesn’t develop seeds. Instead, it sprouts perfect replicas of itself on its leaves. 

Remember those black spots we mentioned earlier? Sometimes, brand-new clones of the plant sprout from those spots. This process takes several weeks to occur and only happens on mature plants.

The longer you let the process continue untouched, the more growth you’ll observe (this is one of the hardest parts of Java fern propagation for many aquarists). Eventually, you’ll start to see small leaves and root systems sprout up. These tiny plants are referred to as plantlets.

In the wild, the plantlets naturally fall off due to the strong current. They get washed downstream until they latch onto a firm place to grow into a new plant.

In the closed environment of your aquarium, you can take matters into your own hands.

To propagate the plant, use sterile scissors to cut off those plantlets. Carefully remove them from the leaves and anchor the fresh rhizomes down to a new surface. In a few weeks, the plantlets should develop into another healthy Java fern.

Java fern propagation is also possible by cutting off existing rhizomes. All you have to do is cut a rhizome in half, replant it in a new location, and wait for growth to flourish. This method can be risky, as there’s always a chance that you might damage the existing plant.

The plantlet route tends to be the safer option. Luckily, mature plants can continually produce new replicas, resulting in an ongoing supply of propagations.


As you can tell, there’s isn’t much to worry about when it comes to Java fern care. As long as you follow the recommendations in the guide above, you won’t have any trouble making this plant thrive.

Let us know if you have any questions about this plant, or ideas on how we can make this guide even better! We love getting feedback from our readers.

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