Fake vs. Live Aquarium Plants: Does it Matter?

Pet stores stock both fake and live aquarium plants; it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons to choose the best option for your fish, aquarium, and lifestyles.

May 23, 2024By Maya Keith
fake vs live aquarium plants

Any list of basic aquarium supplies will tell you that you need plants to keep your fish happy and your aquarium stylish. Will your fish die without them? Probably not, but the benefits of adding plants surely make them worth the investment.

Your next step is to decide between living and fake plants. While both are a viable option, differences in appearance, upkeep, biological benefits, and durability may make one more preferable.

Keep reading to learn whether live plants or fake fauna are a better option for you.

Appearance of Aquarium Plants

positive nihilism aquascape
Image Credit: 조재선, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most immediate benefits of having live plants rather than fake ones is their aesthetic appeal and enrichment for your fish. Some fake plants are obviously manufactured, with cheap, gaudy coloring and fraying leaves that betray their secret.

Even more annoying are the fake plants that refuse to stay anchored, floating to the top of the tank and forcing you to reinstall them a dozen times in a single week.

While there once was a time when you couldn’t mistake a fake plant for a live one, we’re living in the 21st century; there are plenty of fake plants that garner a second glance. In most cases, a keen eye can discern the two, but for most people high-end silk plants copy their organic model well enough.

Unfortunately, these plants are almost always more expensive than both live plants and fake ones. If you decide to go this route, make sure you’re making a sound investment and prepare well for the initial cost.

Upkeep of Aquarium Plants

tank scape
Image Credit: JaynesAlien, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While fish are fairly hand-off companions, their tanks require regular maintenance and cleaning. Whether your plants are living or mere copycats, they also require certain cleaning.

Fake plants come out on top here. They’re easier to purchase, come sterilized (making tank set-up a breeze), and don’t have the same light and feeding requirements as live aquarium plants.

Fake aquarium plants can be rearranged more easily, and you don’t need to worry about disrupting roots when you’re doing water changes or vacuuming your substrate. If your tank needs specialized care or treatment, most fake plants can be removed, cleaned, and disinfected.

Live plants, on the other hand, require more specialized care and make caring for your tank more difficult.

Just like your fish, live plants have different needs–such as water chemistry, light, and nutritional needs–depending on what type of plant they are. You need to make sure these are compatible with your fish, environment, and other plants when making your decision.

girl looking in axolotl tank
Image Credit: Los Muertos Crew on Pexels

You must be more careful when interacting with your tank, especially when doing water changes or cleaning the substrate. Recklessness may uproot your established plants, potentially killing them and disrupting an otherwise peaceful environment. It’s also much more difficult to rearrange a planted aquarium.

Live plants may require pruning to ensure they don’t overrun your tank or to get rid of less desirable parts. Sick plants can easily impact the water chemistry of an aquarium, and they require the same prompt specialized care a fish would get.

Unless you’re the type who finds caring for plants peaceful, you might want to go with the artificial option.

Biological Benefits of Aquarium Plants

planted tank the wandering angel
Image Credit: The Wandering Angel from Makati City, Philippines, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Biological benefits are where live aquarium plants really shine. It’s because of these natural benefits that live plants require more care; in many cases, the trade off is more than worth the extra labor.

While animals breath, plants utilize air in a process called cellular respiration. Instead of simply trading off oxygen and carbon dioxide, the plants can break down these compounds to obtain energy and more effectively process them.

This is great news for a manufactured environment like your aquarium, especially as you try to replicate the nitrogen cycle. In an aquarium, perfecting the nitrogen cycle is essential to attaining optimal water chemistry and keeping your fish happy and healthy.

Live plants can help deal with harmful materials like the ammonia from waste and bacteria that feed on it. Instead of throwing your water chemistry out of balance, the plants “eat up” the ammonia and release beneficial oxygen or carbon dioxide into the tank.

Less waste also means there is less for algae to feed on, reducing the occurrence of the unsightly (usually green) film and saving you from cleaning its slime out of every nook and cranny of the tank.

Unfortunately, live plants can also throw the environment out of balance if they’re sick or overgrown. Because of this, it’s recommended that beginners or those cycling a fish tank start without live plants until they get everything under control.

Durability of Aquarium Plants

fish multicolor substrate artificial plants
Image Credit: Billjones94, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fish may only live a few short years, but an aquarium can house generations of fish. When choosing plants, you don’t want to spend money on anything that won’t last.

Fake plants may last longer on average, but live plants often propagate and provide plenty of baby plants to take their place. It’s also worth noting that some cheaper fake plants may deteriorate in a few short months or fade under light or water, affecting their aesthetic appeal.

As long as you take care of your live plants, they should keep a healthy population in your aquarium.

The exception to this is if you have fish known to be tough on decor. Some tank cleaners, like plecos, will pursue your beautiful greenery if they can’t find enough to eat. Fish that like to rearrange, like the African Cichlid, may uproot your plants and leave them littered in the water.

Live plants may also struggle to survive in unique tank environments, like the brackish water required by a Green Spotter Puffer.

Ultimately, choosing between fake and live plants comes down to weighing your wants and needs as well as the plant’s pros and cons. After reading this guide, you’re sure to understand what each type of decor has to offer.

Maya Keith
By Maya Keith

Maya is a lifelong animal lover. While she switched from studying veterinary medicine to English, she continues to help by fostering animals in her community. Her permanent residents include 3 dogs, 2 cats, 5 quail, 19 chickens, and a small colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.