Water sprite is one of the easiest set-and-forget plants I’ve ever encountered. If you’re on the hunt for some, it also goes by Indian water fern, water fern, or scientifically as Ceratopteris thalictroides.
Regardless of what you want to call it, it works fabulously in goldfish, fry, breeding, and community tanks. It can handle low levels of salinity, harder water conditions, and a wide range of temps.
But it’s not perfect.
For one, people usually mislabel it as water wisteria (Hygrophila difformis.) PSA:
But, more frustratingly, it can quickly outgrow your tank, has a tendency of browning, and sheds tiny leaf fragments worse than an old Christmas tree. On its best behavior, it rewards you with its rapid growth, crazy oxygen output, and ability to keep your water clean and algae under control.
So today we’re going to answer two important questions. Number one: is it worth having? And – more importantly – is it better than water wisteria?
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Table of contents
Why is my water sprite turning brown?
This is a common problem – but it’s rarely a serious issue.
If you bought your plant in the last month, it’s likely some light melting and it should bounce back. If you’ve had your plant for a while and it’s floating, it’s likely too much light. But it’ll keep growing even if it burns.
If neither of those sounds like your situation, it’s either an excess of iron – which can sometimes “bronze” plants. Or it’s a lack of nitrogen. In any case, it’ll keep kicking 90% of the time.
Do goldfish eat water sprite?
Goldfish love to nibble on water sprite. And, fortunately, water sprite loves the nitrogen goldfish produce. So win-win.
However, a large goldfish can easily wipe out even the largest of water sprite if you’re not careful.
Distribution & Natural Habitat
Most sources claim you can find Indian water fern on almost every continent. And that’s kind of true. You can find small, confined, populations of water sprite on almost every continent.
In reality, the majority is contained to the central and southern portions of India – hence the other common names. Though small populations exist in Florida (naturally) as well as in California (invasive.)
Indian water fern is usually found in marshes, swamps, and slow-moving bodies of water. But it can grow in ditches, puddles, irrigation canals, and basically anywhere else where the water is near-stagnant.
Its versatility makes it great for aquariums, but it also puts it fairly high on the list of potentially invasive species list. Though, it’s reported as invasive in relatively few locations.
Size: 2′ (61 cm)
Propagation: Rosettes or plantlets
Speed Of Growth: Fast
Temperature: 66 – 85 F (19 – 30 C)
You can float or plant water sprite. If you’re stead-fast that you’re gonna plant it, be aware that it does have a tendency to uproot itself. You’re likely going to need several plant weights or consistently replant it. Probably both.
The constant uprooting and replanting will eventually kill it. So my preferred method is to leave it floating. It seems to grow better that way. But – more importantly – it’s just less work.
And you guys should know by now that I’m all about less work.
For water sprite, you don’t need any crazy or fancy lights. If you’re planning on floating it, you’ll probably want some less intense lighting. Once they start throwing rosettes, they can and will burn new leaves on your lights.
If you’re going to plant your water sprite, you can go a bit more intense if you want. But low to moderate light is fine. If you want to invest in some decent lights simply because you can, I have my top light picks below for you.
Fluval Plant 3.0 Light
Rating: 4.8 stars
Price: $150 – $210 *size dependent
Par: 45 at 24″
I love this light. It’s expensive, so prepare for a sticker shock, but it’s totally worth every penny of the price tag. It’s a fully customizable, automatic, and adjustable light that I can’t get enough of. Plus, it doesn’t have a remote, it’s controlled by your phone, so it fixes all the issues that the Finnex 24/7 had.
You know, like the remote not working six months after you bought it kind of thing.
Finnex Stingray 2
Rating: 4.8 stars
Price: $35 – $73 *size dependent
Par: 60 at 24″
The second iteration of the stingray is much better than the first – which was still pretty great – and they kept the same super sleek design while pumping up the power. Not to mention it’s super affordable!
Finnex Planted+ 24/7
Rating: 4.7 stars
Price: $67 – $106 *size dependent
Par: 58 at 24″
My one issue – everyone’s issue, really – is that the remote gives out. If you don’t care about being able to control it, it’s a great light. If you’re excited about it being “fully” customizable (it’s not compared to the Fluval 3.0,) then this probably isn’t the light for you.
Fertilizers & Substrates
I’ve never felt the need to fertilizer these guys. But if you’re set on using fertilizer, you’ll want liquid.
Even if you plan on planting your water fern, you’re going to want to grab liquid fertilizer. Like most plants, they can use substrate, but they do best with liquid.
You could run Co2 if you want, but they don’t need it and it’d be a pretty big waste of money. In my opinion, at least. But if you’re really struggling with it, you could give it a go.
One of the best parts about plants like these guys is that they grow too quickly for algae to take hold. So you can bump up your fertilizer regime however you see fit with little to no repercussions for it.
However, if your tank is heavily stocked (like a grow out tank,) you might want to consider going a bit light on the fertz.
Again, I wouldn’t suggest fertilizers, per se. But if you really want to use them, here’s what I’d suggest grabbing:
Recommended substrates & fertz
Rating: 4.4 stars
This fertilizer is specifically for low-tech but heavily planted tanks. As with any fertilizer, a test kit and consistent monitoring for the first few weeks is essential.
Rating: 4.8 stars
Flourish has been around for quite some time, they’re trusted, reliable and – overall – it presents very few issues. Particularly for the low-tech and low-maintenance plants. More expensive and needy plants will likely need tinkering with dosing and additional supplements.
Common Water Sprite Problems
One of the biggest issues people run into is browning. Which isn’t typically an indication of a problem with your plant or your tank.
These plants grow fast and they produce a ton of leaves. Even under the best of conditions, these leaves will eventually turn brown and die. But, in some cases, people think their entire plant is dying because of a few leaves.
With Indian water ferns, that’s rarely the case.
If your plant is unable to hold itself upright, then you likely have an issue going on. Clip off the dead parts, if you can, and check your water parameters. Typically fluctuation in parameters is what will get these guys to melt on you.
That’s the most common issue people report, but there’s a few others you might run into on the way:
While rapid plant growth is a great thing in most cases, it can also become a problem when it comes to regular upkeep on trimming, nutrients, and excess plant disposal. Since fast-growing plants usually present an issue for local waterways and most are considered to be invasive species, taking care to properly dispose of excess is incredibly important.
In addition, it’s quite possible that it can choke out your other plants by out-competing them for nutrients. This can, of course, be remedied by changing the water more frequently, adding more fertilizer to the water, or keeping up on trimming of the faster-growing plants. But, since trimming and disposal also comes with its own issues, this last option is probably the most time-consuming.
Plant debris in your tank is a relative problem. If you’re a breeder, your fry and shrimplets will likely enjoy picking off the infusoria and other critters that munch on decomposing plant matter. Similarly, if you have snails, this issue will likely never amount to much. And, so long as you’re not a neat freak, this issue probably won’t bother you.
However, if you don’t fall into one of those three buckets, the mess will probably infuriate you. Additionally, it may cause water quality issues as the plant decomposes and leaches everything it absorbed back into the water.
Melting is incredibly common in aquatic plants as most of them are grown above water. If you pluck off the dying parts of the plant before they start rotting, the new aquatic growth should appear soon enough, and it’ll do just fine.
Water Sprite Maintenance
Maintaining water sprite is as easy as turning the lights on and off. It’s not hard.
However, it’s easy for this stuff to take over your tank. This is especially true if you leave yours to float. There’s a better than average chance that you’ll need to thin it out a bit.
The tricky part here is that water sprite grows new rosettes from its center. The leaves spread outward to make room for new rosettes. Each rosette eventually forms its own root systems and can be seperated into new plants.
But if you thin it too heavily, they all look… leggy.
Eventually it’ll fill in again. And eventually you’ll have to start the cycle all over. Though disposing of it is probably the biggest pain.
You can opt to melt your extras in a bleach and water mix, soak them in salt to kill them, or simply let them dry out. But in any case, you should be wary of just tossing them in the trash. They can eventually make their way down to your local waterways that way!
Propagating Water Sprite
Getting water sprite to make more of itself is an easy task. All you need to do is leave it alone.
If you’re in a rush, you can take relatively large clips of leaves and let them float. They’ll typically develop roots that way as well. But be careful to get a chunk of leaves that sit evenly on the water, otherwise you’ll get lopsided mother plants eventually.
If you water wisteria is planted, you’ll need to wait for roots to form from the joints of the plant. Once a defined root structure appears, you can safely break off the portion at the joint and plant or float the plantlet.
In most cases, however, it’s best to just let it spread.
What About Fish?
Most fish do fine with water sprite. But there are a few things to think about before you decide to go tossing it in every tank you own.
The first being that it does best with little to no water movement. So flow-loving species will be out of the question here. Or you’ll end up with plant pieces everywhere and nothing to show for it.
Additionally, it does best as a floating plant. Fish that needs lots of ground cover likely won’t love the fact that you can’t actually plant any plants in their tank.
And, as a final note, because these things get so big, you’ll want at least a 20-gallon stocked with fish that don’t need oxygen from the surface of the water. Or, if they do, you’ll want to be on top of trimming this bad boy back.
Again, there’s a ton of fish that this will jive with, but here’s a few if you’re lost for ideas.
Paradise Fish (Macropodus opercularis)
Paradise fish, unlike most other gouramis, do best alone or in pairs. If you want to keep them in a group, and an all-female group of six or more would be your best bet. They tend to only be aggressive with each other, other anabantoid species, or towards much smaller tank mates.
Sparkling gourami (Trichopsis pumila)
Little known fact about sparkling gouramis; they’re quite social and gregarious creatures! Although they don’t school or shoal, they do enjoy social interactions with their own kind – in fact, most gourami do! – and we suggest a four minimum to make sure they’re comfortable.
pH: 6 – 8
dKH: 5 – 18
Temp: 72 – 81 F (22 – 27 C)
Size: 1.5″ (4 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, can be aggressive when spawning
Swimming: All water
Black Neon Tetra (Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi)
Not to be confused with the black tetra (or “black skirt” tetras) or neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi,) the black neon tetra is a separate species. They do best in groups of eight or more – but more is always better when it comes to shoaling fish. They have the peaceful demeanor of the neon tetra without all the health issues.
pH: 5.5 – 7.5
dKH: 4 – 9
Temp: 73 – 81F (23 – 27C)
Size: 1.5″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top
Cherry Barb (Puntius titteya)
Cherry barbs are small and peaceful. They’re undemanding and pack a colorful punch when cared for correctly, making them an ideal community inhabitant. They’re shoalers, so they need to be kept in groups of 6 or more to bring out their best behavior.
pH: 6.0 – 8.0
dKH: 2 – 20
Temp: 68 – 81 F (20 – 26 C)
Size: 1.5 – 2″ (4 – 5 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling
Cherry Shrimp (Neocaridina davidi)
Neos enjoy munching on decomposing plant matter, grazing on algae, and picking sunken pieces of wood and plants clean. This makes them a perfect addition to a naturalistic tank. They come in a variety of colors including the oh-so-common cherry shrimp!
pH: 6.5 – 8.0
dKH: 8 – 20
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)
Size: 1.6″ (4 cm)
Swimming: Anywhere there’s food to pick, but usually bottom
Emerald Dwarf Rasboras (Microrasbora erythromicron)
A beautiful shoaling species that needs to be kept in groups of six or more. Even still, they can be a little timid without the right plant coverage. Once settled, they’re an active, gregarious, and beautiful addition to the right aquarium!
pH: 7.0 – 8.0
dKH: 12 – 20
Temp: 68 – 76F (20 – 24C)
Size: .75″ (1 cm)
Temperament: Shy shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top
Water Sprite V. Water Wisteria
Distinguishing water sprite from water wisteria is a bit tough. Especially when one was grown submerged and the other was grown floating. Since the leaf structure of both plants depends on how they were grown, it does make matters considerably more confusing.
Regardless of planted or floating, the leaf and stem structures are always thinner and finer. Even when grown floating or allowed to reach the surface, it still has a delicate and lacey structure to it.
Water wisteria, on the other hand, is a bit more robust. It’s leaf tips are more round than pointy, and it’s stems are thicker. This is particularly noticeable when grown floating as the leaves become broad and thick.
So. As promised in the beginning. Which one is better?
If you want the ability to plant or float these, with a broad range of environments, and a wider range of water movements it’ll tolerate, with less maintenance and less mess, I’d say water wisteria. Sorry, water sprite.
Further Reading & Resources
Invasive.org – Water Sprite
IUCN – Water Sprite