Aquarium Plants

Sumatran Fern – Ceratopteris thalictroides: Care Guide

The Sumatran Fern is a beautiful plant that can make a huge impact on your aquarium (both functionally and aesthetically). No matter what your goal is, this is one plant you should definitely consider getting!

In this care sheet, we will cover everything you need to know if you want Sumatran Ferns to thrive. General care, planting, trimming and propagation covered!

Species Summary

The water sprite plant (Ceratopteris thalictroides) is a favorite among aquarists and aquascaping fans. The delicate lace-like leaves offer a nice contrast to other popular aquatic plants. Meanwhile, the deep green color creates an eye-catching element in your underwater oasis.

Fortunately, Sumatran Fern plants are available in most stores. You may see them labeled «Indian fern» or «water fern.»

Versatile and easy to grow, the Sumatran Fern is an excellent choice for virtually any tank. Fish love them, and most aquarists will have no difficulty keeping these plants healthy. Plus, the water sprite can adapt to its carefully cultivated environment!

The benefits of having it in your tank

There are many reasons to consider purchasing a water plant.

Like all living plant species, Sumatran Ferns can have a positive impact on water conditions. The roots extract nutrients from the water to thrive. Two of those nutrients, phosphorous and nitrogen, usually come from food and animal waste!

While many see aquarium plants as nothing more than decoration, they can become an integral part of the ecosystem.

Another notable benefit is the plant’s ability to keep algae blooms at bay. As the plant matures, it will spread out to cast shadows throughout the tank. Limited light exposure depletes algae of their fuel, preventing massive, unsightly blooms.

Finally, your fish will enjoy having water sprite plants nearby. Timid fish species may use the plant for shelter and cover. Even the most mischievous fish will use it, choosing to tear through the delicate leaves in a rush of play.

Author’s Note: It’s not just the fish that take advantage of it! Invertebrates like shrimp and snails will use the plant for everything from shelter to food. If you plan on raising fish, water sprites can protect the fry from hungry adults and maximize survival rates.

Ultimately, Sumatran Ferns do a lot to improve your tank! They can improve water conditions while giving your tank inhabitants a better quality of life. On top of all that, plants make a great aesthetic addition.


Sumatran Ferns are a plant with fine leaves. The plant’s nickname, «water fern,» is an excellent descriptor. The leaves spring from a central stem and have a slender, finger-like shape. It is very similar in appearance to terrestrial ferns.

As a whole, the leaves are lacy and thin, which is perfect for smaller fish.

Author’s Note: On a healthy plant, the foliage is light green. The stems are usually a couple of shades darker, but the entire plant will have that natural green hue. Brown, yellow, or discolored leaves are a sign of poor health and stress.

There are a couple of ways to plant water sprites. Growing conditions will largely dictate its general shape.

When planted in the substrate, it is an excellent intermediate and background species that can fill empty stalls. With careful pruning, you can encourage it to become short and bushy like in the foreground.

If you choose to float the plant, it grows more like a ground cover. The leaves flare out to create a large swath of shade for the fish below.

size and growth rate

These plants are quite flexible when it comes to growing. However, the level at which the plant thrives depends entirely on the level of care it provides.

One of the most challenging aspects of caring for water sprites is keeping up with their rapid rate of growth! It doesn’t take long for these plants to reach their full height of about 12 inches.

If you’re not careful, they can also be somewhat invasive! Poorly maintained plants will quickly develop branching, resulting in massive plant propagation. Before you know it, the water goblin can take over an entire tank!

Fortunately, there are many ways to control their size and rate of growth (more on that later in the care sheet).

Sumatran Fern Care

Compared to other aquatic plants, water sprite care is fairly easy. Its adaptability makes it a choice for beginners and experienced aquarists alike. Thanks to the rapid growth rate and relatively undemanding requirements, this is a plant that most will have no trouble keeping healthy.

Of course, water sprites are still living plants with some basic necessities. Here are some crucial care guidelines that you should not ignore.

tank size

Technically speaking, Sumatran Ferns can be grown in any size tank. In the wild, they grow along the banks of slow-moving rivers and streams. They are usually rooted in mud and experience varying degrees of immersion.

That said, most aquarists agree that a minimum of 10 gallons is the way to go. A 10-gallon tank will offer enough nutrient support and space to accommodate the needs of the plant.

Author’s Note: If you have the means to grow, do it! A larger aquarium will encourage the plant to reach its full potential.

water parameters

When it comes to water parameters, Sumatran Fern plants are not picky. They thrive in standard tropical freshwater environments and are hardy enough to withstand slight fluctuations here and there.

One of the best things about caring for water sprites is that you can trust this plant to stay fairly healthy regardless of how you fine tune the water conditions. You are free to focus on the needs of your fish and invertebrates instead of a delicate plant!

For best results, follow the parameters below.

  • Water temperature: 68°F to 82°F
  • pH levels: 5.5 to 7.5 (slightly acidic water is preferred)
  • Water hardness: 3 to 8 KH

Author’s Note: As always, inspect your plant regularly. Pay close attention to the quality of the leaves whenever you do a water change. Discoloration and wilting could be a sign that you need to make some adjustments.

Turning on

Sumatran Fern plants require a moderate amount of lighting. In most cases, your standard aquarium lights will work just fine.

However, the level of light exposure the plant receives will have a huge impact on its growth rate.

If you submerge the plant in a deeper tank, it will be more difficult to reach the light. As a result, you may experience slightly slower growth.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are floating water sprites. Floating plants are only a few inches from the light, so the leaves get much wider to absorb all those rays.

Author’s Note: Ordinary tank lighting is all a Sumatran Fern needs. If the rate of development is too slow for your liking, you can always supplement the light with aquatic fertilizers. It is not necessary to adopt special lighting for these plants.


As mentioned above, you are free to plant Sumatran Fern in the substrate or on the surface of the water. For the latter option, the type of substrate will obviously not be a concern!

Floating Sumatran Fern plants will develop long, hair-like roots that dangle into the water column. Roots do not stick to a surface. Instead, they collect nutrients from the water to thrive.

For rooted plants, you have a couple of options. You can use sand or gravel substrate. The roots, while delicate, are tough enough to push through small stones as the plant grows. Many aquatic plants are not so lucky, so using a rocky substrate material is very attractive to aquarists.

The best option for any rooted aquatic plant is underwater soil substrate. Typically made from minerals such as volcanic or clay, these materials are rich in nutrients. They are a good option if you want to prioritize the development of your plants.

how to plant it

Planting water goblins is very easy.

First, look for healthy plants. Avoid any that have discolored or wilted leaves. Vibrant green plants are healthy enough to take the stress out of transplanting.

To root the plant in the bottom of your tank, you will need about two to three inches of substrate. Examine the root mass of the plant and create a small indentation to accommodate it. We recommend choosing a location away from the filter inlet as leaves can easily clog your system if dropped.

Author’s Note: Many vendors grow water sprites in cages or pots. You will need to remove the plant from the pot before planting it. To do that, gently grab the plant by its crown. That is the place where the central stem meets the root mass.

Gently lift the plant out of the pot and insert it into the indentation you created earlier. Be careful not to damage the roots in any way.

Then cover the roots and fill the hole you created with your growing medium. The crown of the plant must be visible and level with the surface of the surrounding substrate.

The roots will not take long to establish and spread.

If you want to float the plant, the process is even easier! All you have to do is drop the stem and leaves into the tank water. In a few days, the roots will start to develop and hang down below the central mass of the plant.

Trimming and pruning

Trimming is paramount! It’s not easy to keep up with the water sprite’s rapid growth cycle, but it’s a must if you want to prevent invasive growth patterns.

Once you learn how to trim Sumatran Ferns, it’s an easy and straightforward task. With pruning shears, all you have to do is cut off the excess growth.

Avoid pulling the stem or leaves of the plant. Always use shears or scissors to make a clean cut. Otherwise, you will most likely damage the healthy parts of the plant that you want to keep.

When you prune, focus on dead leaves and outer stems. You can cut secondary stems to control the overall shape of the plant. However, try to avoid that main central stem. Cutting the main stem can cause the plant to die completely.

You will find yourself trimming the Sumatran Fern quite frequently. Most aquarists will prune your plant every two weeks to prevent excessive growth.

Author’s Note: Be sure to remove all trim residue! The last thing you want is decaying debris ruining your tank water.

tank mates

Water sprite plants are a good match for most peaceful fish and invertebrates. The delicate leaves are perfect for smaller fish species as it is soft enough for them to swim through without hurting themselves.

Live fish such as mollies, guppies and platies also make the most of Sumatran Ferns. Many aquarists like to use them in rearing tanks to keep the fry safe from hungry mouths!

Even shrimp enjoy the water goblin plant. You can often see them rummaging through leaves to find food scraps. They also like to move through the hanging roots of floating plants.

The Sumatran Fern is a fantastic choice for some of the most popular community fish. Some examples include:

  • tetras
  • guppies
  • cherry picks
  • molly fish
  • cory catfish
  • Platy Fish
  • betta fish
  • glass catfish
  • cherry shrimp
  • Amano Shrimp

Some species of snails can also co-exist with water spirits. However, we recommend avoiding any species that feed on live plants, as water sprites will be your first target.

It is also important to avoid fish species that are known to eat or uproot plants. For example, most cichlids and types of goldfish are prohibited.


There are a couple of ways to propagate this plant.

The former is a natural process that often occurs without any human intervention. The water goblin plant develops shoots from adventitious seedlings. Basically, they are tiny plants that have their own root system.

The seedling continues to develop on the main plant until it is ready to stand on its own. Then, it breaks off and forms a completely new plant.

This process is what makes water spirits so invasive. You can easily control the spread by cutting off shoots when they appear. Alternatively, you can wait until they are ready to grow on their own and plant them in nearby substrate to expand your collection.

Another propagation method is to use a clipped stem. Stems with a healthy number of leaves will develop root systems when floating or anchored in the substrate.


Provided you have the correct information, the Sumatran Fern plant is incredibly easy to care for. With its low maintenance requirements and simple beauty, it’s no wonder many aquarists add this plant to their tank.

If you have any questions that are not included in our care sheet, please do not hesitate to send them. We always enjoy helping our readers.

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