Java Fern Care – A Complete Guide

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If you’re new to the world of planted tanks and looking for an easy plant to get started, this one is for you. The Java Fern, Microsorum pteropus, is a hardy plant that grows slowly and needs very little maintenance. Java Fern care can be a snap yet it is interesting enough to be valued in professional aquascapes.

This is one of the most popular aquarium plants for freshwater aquariums because it is so easy and fun to grow. Read on to learn everything you need to know about caring for and growing the Java Fern.

A Brief Overview Of Java Fern

Scientific NameMicrosorum pteropus / Leptochilus pteropus
Common NamesJava Fern
FamilyPolypodiaceae
OriginWidely distributed in Southeast Asia
Skill LevelEasy
LightingLow-Moderate, 40-125 PAR (Umols)
Tank PlacementMid ground & Background
Flow RateLow, Moderate
Temperature Range64 – 82°F
Height10 – 12 inches
pH Range6.0 – 8.0
ProprogationDivision/ Adventitious Plantlets
Growth RateSlow
Feed TypeColumn Feeder
Co2 RequirementNo

Origins And Habitat

Java Ferns are Asian Plants from tropical countries like Malaysia, Thailand, India, and China in the Southeast of the continent.

In nature, the Java Fern is most likely to be found growing on rocks or tree trunks in the forest rather than underwater. It is an amphibious plant though, which means it does just as well submerged as emersed.

As an aquatic plant, Java Ferns grow well in a wide range of habitats, like fast-flowing mountain streams, lowland marshes, and even some brackish environments.

What Does Java Fern Look Like?

What Does Java Fern Look Like

Java Fern, Microsorum pteropus (picture source), is an all-green plant that can vary quite a lot in shape depending on which variety you have. Java Ferns have dark brown or dark green roots and have leaves that are medium to deep green with a leathery texture and short stalks.

In the planted tank, Java Ferns that are grown under strong light often develop more dark green foliage than those in dimly lit aquariums. The leaves of this plant usually have a very upright growth form.

Leaf shapes vary a lot depending on the variety (more on that later in the article), but in the regular Java Fern, The leaves are long and narrow, ending in a sharp point.

The leaves have interesting dark veins in a very square, regular pattern. They also have interesting little structures on their undersides. These are called sori and they are perfectly normal and healthy reproductive structures that contain spores.

Java ferns grow from a rhizome which is a stem-like structure that usually grows horizontally. In the Java Fern, the rhizome is a deep green color.

Placement And Lighting

Java Fern is an epiphytic plant, which means that, unlike other plants that root themselves in the soil, this amphibious and aquatic plant grows by attaching itself to other plants or objects.

This means that it should not be planted in the substrate of the aquarium. Instead, you should grow Java Fern attached to the hardscape. Rocks, driftwood, or even ornaments are the best options.

Java Fern is a fairly large aquarium plant that is best placed in the midground or background of the aquascape. It depends on the size of your tank of course, but full-grown Java Ferns can make an interesting background plant in smaller tanks.

This plant works great for nature-style aquascapes. It is ideal for Southeast Asian biotopes because that is where these interesting plants can be found in the wild.

Java fern is a plant of shady tropical rain forests, which means it doesn’t really enjoy long periods of bright sunshine. In fact, growing this plant under too much light can cause burning and damage to the leaves.

Any low to medium strength aquarium light of 6500k or higher will do fine for the Java Fern. LED or fluorescent lights are the best light sources to use.

What Are Good Tank Mates For Java Fern?

Fortunately for such a ‘leafy’ plant, Java Fern foliage contains some chemicals that taste bad for plant-eating fish. This means they are one of the few safe options for keeping with almost all tropical fish.

Even the usual suspects like goldfish and cichlids that damage most aquatic plants can be kept with Java Ferns, although keeping aggressive fish with any plant species is risky.

Good Tank Mates

You can keep just about any freshwater aquarium fish with Java Ferns. Here’s a short list of some great options:

Java fern also happens to be one of the fish plants that goldfish will not eat to death.

Fish Species To Avoid

Although Java Ferns can be kept with African Cichlids, these plants are not always immune to damage from these aggressive fish. Mature plants are usually just fine but young growth and young plants might still take some damage. Large predator fish and aggressive New World Cichlid Types should also be avoided as their destructive habits can damage and destroy plants.

Feeding Java Fern (Fertilization)

Java Fern is a slow-growing aquarium plant that is able to thrive in low nutrient conditions. This means that additional feeding is not usually absolutely essential for Java Fern care.

Of course, all aquatic plants need some nutrients to grow, and this plant is no exception. If you keep fish in your aquarium, the nutrients from fish waste and food will provide most of what the plant needs to grow. If you are using CO2 or dealing with lots of plants, aquarium fertilizing should be considered.

Feeding can be helpful for increasing the growth rate of the plant, just keep in mind that excess nutrients in the system can quickly turn into an algae problem.

A quality supplement like Seachem Flourish or APT Complete that has a good variety of micro-nutrients will provide everything that the plant doesn’t get from the fish and fish food. Flourish is good for lightly planted tanks and APT is excellent for an aquascaping like a nature scape using Java Fern.

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How Much And How Often To Feed

The precise dosage you need for your aquarium will vary depending on many factors, including:

  • The size of your tank
  • How many plants you have
  • Whether you keep fish
  • Your light intensity
  • Whether you are injecting CO2

It is best to follow the instructions of the specific product you use. As an example, Seachem Flourish can be dosed at 1 capful per 60 gallons of water, every 5 days or so.

CO2 Injection 

CO2 injection isn’t really necessary for healthy Java Fern growth. The plants will appreciate added CO2 though, as will any other plants you keep in your aquarium.

If you want to run CO2 in your tank, you will need to provide at least moderate lighting for the plants to be able to benefit from it. It is very important to regulate the amount of this gas you add to the system.

Without going into too much detail, the key to success with carbon dioxide injection is to keep the levels below 30 ppm, because above that your livestock will struggle to get enough oxygen from the water.

Plants can only use CO2 while your lights are on, so this gas should only be injected during your light period. It takes about 2 hours or so for the CO2 levels to rise in the water though so have your system start up about 2 hours before the lights go on. If you are looking for a CO2 system, CO2Art provides excellent regulators and bundles.

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Types of Java Fern

There are many great varieties of Java Fern, each with its own unique look. All of them are easy to care for and have basically the same needs. Let’s take a brief look at some of the most popular types available in the hobby.

  • Windelov Java Fern – This popular variety has a really interesting leaf shape with finely branched leaf tips. On closer inspection, you’ll see that the end of each leaf is split into 3. A group of these planted together creates an interesting a dense effect.
  • Trident Java Fern- The leaves of this variety have a really interesting, narrow, and branching form. This creates a more complex but sparse effect in the aquascape.
  • Narrow-leaf Java Fern- As its name suggests, this form has a narrow leaf shape. Another interesting characteristic of Narrow-leaf Java Fern is the tight, upright branching form these plants tend to take.
  • Needle-leaf Java Fern- This highly sought-after form has even thinner leaves than the Narrow-leaf variety. Needle-leaf Java Ferns look amazing when planted in groups in the mid-ground of the aquascape.

Java Fern Care

Java Ferns are very easy aquarium plants to care for. If you’re new to the planted aquarium hobby, this species is a great place to start! Let’s take a look at some of the most important keys to success when growing Java Fern plants. 

Planted Tank Parameters

One of the great things about these aquatic plants is their adaptability to a wide range of different water parameters. They do prefer soft acidic water but will do just fine in slightly alkaline conditions too.

They can grow in soft to hard water and carbonate hardness between 2 and 15dKH. Water temperatures between about 64 and 82°F are best for this popular aquarium plant. They are well adapted for cold water and heated tropical aquariums.

Water Quality

Maintaining good water quality is the number one goal of any aquarist. In a healthy environment, your plants and animals have the best chance to grow and thrive. The best ways to maintain good water quality are:

  • Stocking your aquarium correctly
  • Not over-feeding your fish
  • Not using too much fertilizer
  • Adequate filtration
  • Doing regular partial water changes
  • Adding livestock to a cycled aquarium

Water changes can make all the difference when it comes to maintaining good water quality. As a general rule, the smaller your aquarium is, the more often you should do water changes.

The volume of water you change will also vary, and that follows the same general rule. This is especially true for aquariums stocked with a lot of fish and animals.

Filtration 

Filtration isn’t only important for keeping your planted tank looking great. It is also really important for keeping the water in your aquarium safe for your plants and animals.

Aquarium filters remove solid waste particles, chemical impurities, and convert harmful toxins from fish waste into safe compounds. You can use just about any type of filter in your aquarium with Java Ferns. Power filters, sponge filters, canister filters, or even under-gravel filters will work fine.

If you don’t know which size filter to buy, a good general rule is to choose a model that can process the total volume of water in your tank 4-6 times every hour. For example, if you have a 10-gallon aquarium, a filter with a flow rate of 40-60 gallons per hour would be ideal.

Flow

If you look at the natural environments where Java Ferns live, you’ll find that they occur everywhere from dry land, to partially submerged, to the middle of strongly flowing streams in the height of the rainy season.

This wide range of tolerances means you can grow Java ferns in just about any flow rate. The narrow and needle-leaf varieties can look very interesting with a bit of water movement.

Trimming

Java Ferns are slow-growing plants that really do not need to be trimmed very often. If you want to remove some unhealthy leaves or reduce the size of the plant, this can be done quite easily with your aquascaping scissors.

The important thing to remember is that these plants can’t be trimmed like grass where part of the leaf can be removed. You’ll need to remove the whole leaf by cutting the stalk close to the rhizome.

Always use a sharp pair of scissors for pruning and trimming your aquarium plants. Blunt scissors tend to tear more than they cut, and this can cause some damage to the plants that might cause melting or disease.

Aquarium Maintenance

Aquarium maintenance is very important for keeping a healthy aquarium that looks great. Let’s take a quick look at a few aquarium maintenance tips to keep your tank in great shape.

The most important ‘chores’ are keeping up with your regular water changes and cleaning the glass and the bottom of your tank. You may as well do all these things on the same day so pick a day each week that works for you and make it part of your regular schedule.

Use a gravel vacuum to siphon water out of your tank and into a bucket. Suck up water from the bottom of your tank to pick up any solid waste that has settled on the substrate. Clean any algae that have grown on the walls of your tank with an algae scraper.

Always use a water conditioner when adding fresh water to your aquarium after a water change. This will neutralize some of the harmful chemicals found in tap water and make it safe for your livestock.

You can use the old water that you have taken out to rinse out your filter media. Never use straight tap water for this because the chemicals can harm the good bacteria that live inside your filter sponges.

Testing Water Conditions

The best way to know if your aquarium maintenance schedule is sufficient is to test your water regularly. You can do this with liquid test kits from your local pet store. Simply dip the strip into your aquarium water and compare the color changes with the parameter chart.

You should test the water you are going to use in your tanks before you add any plants or animals to see what your natural parameters are. After that, test the water before each water change to see if you are doing frequent enough maintenance.  

How To Set Up Your Aquarium Tank for Java Fern

Java Fern in Nature Scape

The great thing about java fern is that it really doesn’t need much to grow well. In fact, you could drop this plant into a bare glass aquarium and it would grow just fine as long as it gets a little light and some nutrients.

Although they are slow-growing, Java Ferns get pretty big, producing a number of large leaves. For this reason, it’s best to use a tank size of at least 10 gallons.

Make sure you have some hardscape features that you can attach the plants to because this is the best and most attractive way to grow Java Ferns.

How To Attach Java Ferns to Aquarium Decor

Although you can simply let these plants drift around in the tank, most aquarists grow Java Fern attached to a nice piece of driftwood or rock. You can also get creative and attach these plants an aquarium rock like dragonstone.

You can attach these plants using quite a few different methods. the best ways are:

  • With Rubber bands
  • With cotton thread (thin black/brown thread works great)
  • With fishing line
  • With Superglue (gel works the best)
  • By wedging the rhizome into a hole or crack 

Here’s a great video from AquatikGuru that shows how to attach Java Fern using superglue

In time, the roots will take hold of the object and you can remove the fishing wire, or whatever it is that you have used to anchor the Java Fern. Remember, however, that the smoother the object, the longer it will take for the plant to get a good grip.

For those of you looking to attach your Java Fern to aquarium driftwood, here is a good video from Fishaholic. Check it out!

How To Propagate Java Fern

Java Fern is one of the easiest and most satisfying aquarium plants to propagate. It is quite an amazing process to watch in the home aquarium!

Tiny Java Ferns, or adventitious plantlets as they are correctly known, will develop at the ends of mature leaves. These plantlets will develop their own tiny leaves and come complete with a root system as well. In time, they break off to find a new place to settle, but you can also break them off yourself if you’re a little impatient.

Just be sure to wait until the Java Fern plantlets have a few leaves and roots first before you remove them from the parent plant.

An easy way to propagate new plants is to divide the rhizome. The rhizome is the thick, stem-like structure that the leaf stalks and roots grow from. For the best results, always cut a section that has some roots, and preferably, some leaves as well.

Health And Disease

Java ferns are usually very trouble-free aquarium plants. They can have a few issues though so let’s take a closer look at some of the warning signs to look out for and how to treat some common problems.

Signs Of Health in Java Fern

Healthy Java Ferns have a strong root system that grows from a well-developed rhizome. They are very firm plants when healthy, with tough leathery leaves and hard roots.

The edges of the leaves should be complete, without tears or chunks missing and the leaves should be all green, without any yellow, brown, or clear patches.

Signs Of Ill Health

Although producing new plantlets at the leaf tips is normal for this plant, it isn’t always a sign of good health. When Java Ferns are under stress, they make new plantlets, in case the parent plant does not survive.

If you have a Java plant with discolored leaves with loads of plantlets developing, it could be a sign that the plant is in poor health.

The good news of course is that you’ll be able to start over with the new plantlets, but you’ll want to figure out what’s causing the stress.

Common Health Issues And Treatment

One of the most common health issues that we see with Java Ferns is when people mistakenly bury the rhizome in the substrate. This can cause rotting and if this is the case in your tank, go ahead and lift it out of the substrate carefully.

Remove any dead or dying growth and simply allow the whole plant to drift freely in the tank until you’re ready to attach it to something.

Java Fern Melt

Like other aquatic plants, this species often needs to go through a period of adjustment when first added to your aquarium. The new conditions and water parameters can be quite a shock, so Java Fern melt can be a common issue.

These are tough and hardy plants though so they will usually pull through just fine. Be sure to remove any dead or dying leaves from your tank before they spoil and affect your water quality.

Java Ferns that are grown under very bright light can take some damage to the leaves. This often shows up as brown spots or patches.

Nitrogen Deficiency

Nitrogen deficiencies in an aquatic plant usually show up as yellowing leaves that start at the tips, spreading towards the base. Affected leaves will also begin to turn translucent in bad cases.

This isn’t usually a serious problem in Java Ferns but it can happen in tanks that are not properly cycled. A lack of nitrates in the tank can also result in another common problem, blue-green algae growth.

Algae

As expected with any slow-growing plant with large leaves, algae can be a bit of an issue, especially if you run your lights for a long time and provide a lot of nutrients. The best fix for any algae problem is always to figure out the cause and try to make some adjustments to the system. Possible solutions include:

  • Decrease your photoperiod (hours of lighting)
  • Decrease your light strength
  • Use less fertilizer
  • Perform more frequent/larger water changes
  • Avoid overfeeding your fish
  • Introduce algae eaters (Otos, Amano shrimps, Nerite snails, etc.)
  • Add a fast-growing new plant (Watersprite, Vallisneria, etc.) to compete with the algae

Plant Pests

Often, when you bring a new Java Fern home to plant in your tank, there can be some snail eggs or other pests hiding within the plant that just can’t wait to start their new life in your fish tank. If you wish to prevent that from happening, it’s best to sterilize the plant before you introduce it to your aquarium.

You can sterilize your Java Fern by dipping it in 20 parts water mixed with one part bleach. Let the plant soak for 2 minutes or less and then rinse it off carefully with dechlorinated water before putting it in your aquarium.

Sometimes these plants are also available as tissue cultures, which is a really safe bet. These plants are grown in a completely pest-free environment, so you don’t need to bother with chemical or quarantine treatments.

Where To Buy Java Fern

Java Ferns are usually a very easy plant to find because they are easy to propagate and easy to keep. You can usually find Java Fern at most local aquarium stores and online pet stores.

If you want one of the more interesting varieties or a tissue culture plant, consider purchasing online for a specialty retailer, as many local stores tend to have limited availability.

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FAQS

Why are my Java Ferns Dying?

There are many possible reasons why your Java fern might not be doing as well as it should. The most common reasons are:

  • There is too much, or not enough light
  • The rhizome is planted in the substrate
  • There are not enough nutrients in the water
  • The water temperature is too high

How much light do Java Ferns need?

Java Ferns are great low-light plants, but they can also be grown under moderate light intensities. Aim for about 60-125 PAR of light and provide your plants with a photoperiod of 6-10 hours per day.

Can Java Fern grow out of water?

Java Ferns can grow very well partially submerged or emersed (out of water). The secret to growing them this way is to keep them in a very high humidity environment.

In nature, they grow outside of the water in tropical rainforest habitats. This means you’ll want to grow them in something like a paludarium to keep them moist enough outside of the water.

Do Java Ferns need fertilizer?

Java Ferns don’t necessarily need fertilizer if kept in a tank with fish and other livestock. They will, however, grow faster and healthier with access to the nutrients they need in the right concentrations.

Applying small doses of a balanced liquid fertilizer like Seachem Flourish can help keep your plants healthy and allow them to grow faster if they have good light and added CO2.

How do you plant Java Ferns?

The secret to growing Java Fern plants is to attach them to driftwood or rocks in your aquarium, rather than planting them in the substrate. These plants grow from a rhizome that should never be covered in sand or gravel.

Use super glue, thread, fishing line, or zip ties to attach the rhizome to your hardscape until it has anchored itself with roots. Once it is secure, you can remove the thread or leave it where it is.

Closing Thoughts

The Java Fern, Microsorum pteropus, is one of the best beginner species for the planted aquarium. These plants can be grown in just about any freshwater aquarium and are usually very trouble-free.

Planting Java fern in your aquarium could be the start of a wonderful new side to your aquarium hobby. So what are you waiting for? order one of these beautiful plants today and get growing!

by Mark

Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping - both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.

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