Live plants are ideal to add vibrant life to your home aquarium, and they help with optimal gas exchange and water oxygenation. However, maintaining your live plants can be a challenge.
Plants usually turn brown and transparent when things go wrong, especially if you are a beginner aquarist. Even easy-keeping plants can become ill if you don’t provide for their needs.
This article will guide you on keeping your aquarium plants from turning brown and ensuring they are healthy and thriving.
Table of Contents
Why Aquarium Plants Turn Brown and Transparent?
Unlike taking care of regular garden plants, things are different underwater. So, the same fixes for plant problems don’t necessarily work.
There are several reasons why the aquatic plants in your aquarium could be turning brown. Here are some possibilities as to why your aquatic plants are not thriving.
1. Nutrient Deficiency
Like any living thing on this planet, plants require optimal and balanced nutrients for growth. If your aquarium lacks the right balance of macro and micronutrients, it can lead to plants not growing and becoming discolored.
Some of the key nutrients that the aquarium plants need include:
- Phosphorus, etc.
When these nutrients aren’t present in the correct levels, the leaves turn brown. Some parts of your plant could become yellow or black if it has begun to decay due to poor growth.
Besides macronutrients, your aquarium plants also need a steady supply of micronutrients (just like people). When micronutrient deficiencies crop up, it can lead to prominent necrosis of the leaves, making your plant a brown or black mess.
You should also check the carbon dioxide levels in the tank water since too little CO2 can cause poor growth, while too much can lead to a bloom of bacteria and microorganisms that can damage the leaves and make them see-through.
2. Lack of Light Exposure
Except for a handful of low-light aquarium plants, most plants need the correct light exposure levels for growth and development. However, overexposure or harsh lighting can also lead to the plant dying.
Excessive lighting can damage your plant’s leaves, stems, and even roots. But too little light exposure will slow down your plant’s photosynthesis, which means the leaves will lack the pigment chlorophyll (these usually give plants a green or red color). Plants that don’t photosynthesis don’t produce vital building blocks for growth and end up dying.
Poor lighting conditions also lead to uncontrolled algae growth in the tank. This can inadvertently stunt the plant growth and lead to damage since the algae will consume all the essential nutrients in the tank, leaving none for your plants.
So, when choosing your aquarium lights, check whether these meet the requirements for a planted tank. Plants have slightly different color spectrum needs and light intensity requirements than fish. If you have a planted tank with fish, ensure you meet the middle ground regarding lighting.
3. Improper Plant Placement
As weird as it sounds, every aquarium plant you buy has specific requirements. Plants need precise environmental control, planting methods, and good plant husbandry.
Before introducing the plant to the tank:
- Cross-check its compatibility with your chosen fish, tank conditions, and other plants.
- Ensure that the plant will survive and thrive in your current tank setup.
- Read up on how to plant or root the new plant in your tank.
Aside from where you place the plant in your tank, you’ll also want to pay close attention to the plant roots. These should be anchored but not buried so deeply that they suffocate in the substrate. You want your new plants to propagate and grow correctly.
4. Dirty Tank Water
The dirty tank water affects the aquarium plants, not just your fish. An excess of nitrates and ammonia in the tank can be caused by an overabundance of fish fecal matter and other wastes (such as dead fish decomposing).
Some aquarium plants help neutralize the excess chemicals and convert CO2 into O2 in the water. However, when the balance of waste exceeds what plants can manage, it will eventually affect the plants. Dirty water with a poor pH balance also leads to wilting, further damaging the leaves.
Clean the tank water from time to time with a timely water exchange. A correctly functioning filter can also help your plants cope better by removing wastes and chemicals from the tank water. If you have serious issues with the water quality, it may be necessary to completely replace the tank water before planting new plants (and to save the old plants).
5. Transplant Shock and Aquarium Plants
While your aquarium may be the usual culprit in damaging your plants, you should consider other factors, too, such as transplant shock. Like your aquarium fish species, all living plants need time to adjust to a changing environment. When you transplant a new plant, you may see a few leaves browning, which you should carefully remove with an aquatic pruning kit.
Keeping the light levels dimmed to introduce the plant to artificial light is also a good idea. If plants have begun showing signs of sickness, you should quarantine them to ensure they don’t infect healthy plants with parasites and necrosis.
How To Prevent Brown Aquarium Plants in an Aquarium?
Transforming your brown aquarium plants to green, lush, and thriving is a systematic process. Not only should you find what made your beloved aquarium plants turn brown, but you also need to take appropriate action.
Here are some things you can do to improve plant health:
1. Take Care of the Planting
You can’t expect to chuck new plants into the tank and expect them to grow on their own magically. There are different ways to help plants root into the substrate and anchor (if they are floating plants). New plants need to develop fresh roots to help ensure the success of their propagation, absorb nutrients and anchor the plant in place.
Most aquarium plants get their nutrients from the substrate. So, ensure that the substrate has an optimal depth of about two inches and is the right type for your chosen plants. Some plants prefer a larger gravel size, while others root better in aquarium soil.
How you secure the plant to the decorations (such as driftwood) or substrate matters, too. You can’t just tie them down with string or even attempt to glue them into place. Not all plants can be tied down, and floating plants may need to free-float, while others need to be secured to root into an organic substrate like driftwood (which provides essential nutrients for the plant, too).
Research your chosen plant better to understand the unique care requirements of the chosen plant. When handling your aquatic plants, a specialist plant pruning kit is advisable to prevent damage to their soft roots.
Aquatic Plant Pruning Kit: Liveek Aquarium Aquascape Tools Kit
This nifty tool kit has everything you need to handle your aquarium plants, prune the excess pieces, propagate, and secure them to different tank parts. The tools are sterile, stainless steel, and rust-resistant.
- The kit has straight and curved tweezers
- It contains a precision curved scissor
- Spatula helps clean the area around the tank of any algae buildup
- Budget-friendly price
- Those with large hands may struggle to handle the small handle of the scissors
2. Sort out the Lighting Intensity
Both excessive and insufficient light conditions contribute to browning. So, you have to ensure the light source of your aquarium is sufficient if you want your plants to grow optimally. Instead of fluorescent lights, choose LED fixtures with red, white, and green or full spectrum (including blue).
LED aquarium lights are more advanced, offer better coverage, and are energy efficient. They come with adjustable light settings such as dimming, color channels, and ramping up with different light effects, which can all benefit your plants.
Control the growth rate of different algae with light. So, if brown algae are rampant in the tank and are damaging the plants, optimal light exposure will limit their growth.
LED Light for Planted Tank: Hygger 9W Full Spectrum Aquarium Light
For planted aquariums with plants that require low to medium light, the Hygger 9W LED light is ideal. The light has a full spectrum of light, including red, green, blue, and white color bands. Red light is perfect for increasing plant photosynthesis and improving growth.
- Light provides optimal red light and white light for growth
- It is ideal because of the metal and plastic mounting brackets and easy setup
- Lights are dimmable
- Use the timer to set light cycles according to the needs of your plants
- The light isn’t waterproof, so take care with the installation
3. Add Carbon Dioxide to the Tank
As we mentioned before, the lack of carbon dioxide contributes to browning when plants don’t get enough fertilizer and nutrients. Fertilizers play a crucial role in plants to get the nutrients needed for growth. The leaves and the root system need specific nutrients, too.
You can start by gradually adding fertilizer and see if it makes a difference. If the leaves change color to green, the issue stems from nutrient deficiency, and the fertilizers help.
However, if the problem persists, you might have to inject carbon dioxide into the tank. By adding CO2, you can boost plants, help them grow more effectively, and restore the imbalance in the tank.
Note: CO2 should always be added in small doses as fish and other living organisms may react negatively to it.
CO2 Plant Booster: API Co2 Booster Freshwater Aquarium Plant Treatment
CO2 is an ideal booster for your plants. However, administering the gas form is difficult and requires specialized equipment. Fortunately, you can easily administer this liquid form of CO2, boosting your plant’s growth.
- Available in two sizes: 8 and 16 ounce
- Dose at a rate of 1 ml per 10 gallons
- It can be used with a CO2 system
- Overdosing can happen if CO2 levels are already high
4. Maintain Cleanliness
Poor tank water parameters can kill the fish and the living plants in the aquarium. So, if your tank gets cleaned infrequently, we’d recommend you start a better tank hygiene routine now.
The flora needs optimal water conditions to thrive. So, do your research and check if your tank water is suitable for your plants. If the tank is in poor condition, your plants will likely suffer.
Besides manual cleaning and water changes, an aquarium filter will help with daily cleaning and water quality maintenance. Filters keep the biological waste and nitrates to the bare minimum. So, select an appropriate filter for your tank as well, and set a schedule for cleaning out the filter and replacing cartridges as soon as these are clogged.
Remove waste material from the tank, such as floating dead fish, decaying plants, and food leftovers. When these sink to the bottom, the tank’s cleanliness will be negatively affected. Use your aquarium net to scoop up floating debris.
Filter for Plant Hygiene: Marineland Penguin Bio-Wheel Power Filter 150 GPH
A filter is ideal for circulating tank water, removing harmful chemicals and decaying organic particles, and aerating the tank. Plants need oxygen, too. If the ammonia levels are too high (from waste and plants rotting), the remaining plants will die. This filter provides excellent filtration by pushing a 150 GPH, which is ideal for tanks of 20-30 gallons.
- Available in five sizes from 75 GPH to 350 GPH
- Offers mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration
- Filter cartridges make changing and cleaning easy
- Affordably priced
- The biowheel quickly becomes clogged by silt
5. Regulate the Water Parameters
The individual water parameters make a lot of difference, not just the overall water cleanliness. Plant rot could be caused by incorrect water temperature, pH, or even the hardness level.
If you aren’t entirely sure what the exact issue with your plant is, we recommend changing one water parameter at a time over a week or two. During this time, assess if that particular parameter makes a difference to the plant and then go from there.
To adjust one parameter at a time, you can consider a water heater to regulate the water temperature, add water conditioners for pH levels, and manage water hardness. You can consider having your water tested by a professional aquatic supplier for large aquariums.
Planted Tank Water Conditioner: Seachem Prime Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner
Tap water tends to be rich in heavy metals and deposits, which makes it unsafe for your aquarium fish and the plants there. A water conditioner removes ammonia, chlorine, chloramine, nitrites, and nitrates. Seachem Prime is an ideal conditioner for a new tank. Cycle it through once a week to maintain optimal tank cleanliness.
- Available in seven sizes from 500 ml to 20 liters
- Ideal for saltwater and freshwater aquariums
- Safe for plants and fish
- It won’t affect the tank pH
- Affordably priced
- It may leave a slimy layer on some plants, which usually doesn’t affect plant health
6. Indulge in Water Change
If none of your steps have worked, the last step is to change the water. You don’t have to empty and change all the water. A water change of 20% works well. This will dilute the chemicals and reduce the contaminants in the water exponentially without completely stressing your aquarium or the plants and fish in it.
Besides cleaning and balancing the water parameters, a water change eliminates excess fertilizer in the tank. Using a siphon is a great way to do this while also suctioning the substrate for excess fish waste.
Aquarium Siphon Kit: Laifoo 7ft Aquarium Siphon Vacuum Cleaner for Fish Tank Cleaning Gravel & Sand
The siphon kit allows you to remove soiled water from between the tank’s substrate, gravel, or sand. The water at the bottom of the tank is usually the most heavily soiled, and using a siphon to do a water change is ideal for removing contaminated water (up to 20% of the tank’s volume) without upsetting fish or damaging plants.
- Available in two sizes: 5 foot and 7 foot
- Affordably priced
- Gravel tube has built-in filter
- Easy to prime and use with the siphon ball
- Suction power may be too weak for deep tanks
Other Common Problems with Aquarium Plants
Besides browning, aquarium plants can suffer several other ailments too. Here’s a look at each in detail:
1. Leaves are Turning Transparent
Besides browning, some aquarium plants’ leaves turn transparent. This is a lot more common than you think. The primary reason behind this complication is iron deficiency.
Adding fertilizers rich in iron is the easiest way to fix this issue. Also, low-light exposure leads to a transparent appearance as chlorophyll pigment becomes underactive due to the lack of light.
So, if adding some iron-rich fertilizer doesn’t work, adjust your tank’s light exposure to ensure your plants get enough light, especially red light.
Iron Supplement: Seachem Flourish Iron
This highly concentrated iron supplement provides iron in an easily absorbed form to plants. It can be administered daily or as needed by plants. Use a syringe with a section of aquarium tube attached to administer directly to the plant roots to avoid increasing iron levels in the rest of the tank.
- Easy dose of two drops per gallon of water
- Fairly priced
- Not for use in tanks with a hard water quality
2. Leaves Are Turning Yellow
Another common issue with aquarium plants is when the leaves turn yellow. This is again due to poor lighting conditions in the tank and a lack of potassium.
Insufficient potassium levels in the water can stunt growth. We’d recommend adding a potassium supplement and increasing your plants’ light exposure until there is a sign of improved growth and leaf color.
Potassium Supplement: Continuum Aquatics Flora Viv K – Concentrated Potassium Supplement
It is an ideal supplement when suspecting iron, potassium, or nitrogen deficiency in your plants. Improves growth by facilitating root growth and photosynthesis. The supplement enhances the uptake of other nutrients.
- Easily administered
- Suited to freshwater tanks
- Excessive application may trigger over-absorption of other nutrients
3. Leaves Are Turning White
Carbon dioxide deficiency in aquarium water is a severe issue. This can lead to the plant turning white and dying eventually.
In such cases, look for good-quality carbon dioxide supplements for the tank. You can assess iron levels because iron deficiency can also turn the leaves white.
A lack of calcium can also cause new leaves to grow stunted and pale, so a fertilizer with calcium will help improve new leaf growth.
4. Leaves and Plant Is Disintegrating
Are you noticing damaging rot and holes in the leaves of the aquarium plants? The chances are that your aquarium plant has crypt rot. This is a common disease that affects aquarium plants, damaging their growth.
Check for potassium levels and the water parameters to fix them accordingly. Once done, monitor the plant and see if the condition improves. Poor nitrogen and potassium levels may also cause rot and holes to develop as the plants’ cell membranes disintegrate.
Check out our article on Choosing The Right Freshwater Aquarium Filter.
Best Planted Aquarium Fertilizer: Seachem Flourish Freshwater Plant Supplement
A good quality fertilizer will cover all your bases to ensure healthy growth for your aquarium. Rot and holes forming on the leaves often indicate nutrient deficiency. This fertilizer has a broad spectrum of nutrients to stimulate growth and health in aquarium tanks.
- Available in four sizes
- Reasonably priced
- Use small quantities
- The copper content may not be safe for shrimp and invertebrates in your tank
Check out our article on ‘Choosing The Right Freshwater Aquarium Filter‘.
Lack of nutrition is the most common issue that leads to the aquarium plants’ death. It could be a deficiency of several primary nutrients like iron, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, etc. Besides that, carbon dioxide deficiency or poor water parameters also contribute to the issue.
Aquarium plants will show multiple signs before they die, from wilting to sudden changes in leaf color and several complications like misshapen leaves.
You need to be vigilant and assess the extent of the damage. It is a prominent sign of damage if you notice the leaves turning yellow, brown, black, or white.
Dead plants, if not removed from the tank, will drastically reduce the oxygen levels in the tank. It will also decompose, causing further ammonia and nitrates. This can kill the fish species in the aquarium.
If you have wondered why your aquarium plants turn brown, we hope this answers it. However, before you start panicking, we recommend finding the cause. Most of these issues are reversible, and you can fix them with any of our easy care measures.