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Part 1: Three Riparium Biotope Ideas

Part 1: Three Riparium Biotope Ideas

This short series of posts will offer suggestions for planning and establishing biotope ripariums to represent the aquatic habitats of three different regions. Aquarium biotopes create the most natural-looking combinations of plants, substrates and livestock, while also providing excellent opportunities to learn about the flora, fauna and ecology of beautiful wild places. We should all build more of them!

Part 1: Southern United States, Mexico & Central America   

120-gallon Mexico River Riparium

Above, Mexico river biotope riparium in 120-gallon aquarium.

The Biotope: the freshwater aquatic habitats in this vast area are represented by a wide variety of distinctive ecosystems that include swamps, rivers, lakes and mountain streams, but there is a certain amount of overlap in the aquatic plant and fish diversity. While planning a riparium biotope for specific kinds of fish, the aquarist should focus on a specific area and habitat to guide plant, hardscape and substrate choices.

Hardscape & Substrate: try to find photos or scientific descriptions for the specific area you wish to represent. There is wide variety. Mountain streams in the Southern United States, Mexico and Central America are typically lined with large rounded boulders and finer gravel particles. Swamps, marshes and quiet creeks can be recreated in the aquarium with gentle water flow and finer gravel substrate combined with sunken manzanita twigs and oak or magnolia leaves. Lakes often have more angular boulders and beds of sand or fine gravel. A large sunken driftwood stump can also help to recreate a lake environment. 

Livestock: the most popular aquarium fish from this region are livebearers in Family Poecilidae and various cichlids (Family Cichlidae). Among fish from the Southeastern United States, an area with exceptionally high fish biodiversity, are a few other groups kept in aquariums, such as cyprinids and darters. Very small livebearers, such as Heterandria formosa, can be housed in nano tanks of just a few gallons, while large Central American cichlids or groups of Poecilia sailfin mollies might require aquariums of 75 gallons or larger. There are also many fish species options from this area to inhabit medium-size tanks, such as wild type Xiphophorus platies & swordtails and Cryptoheros cichlids. The Mexico-endemic livebearer family, Goodeidae, also includes fascinating and beautiful aquarium choices.

Riparium plants: fortunately, a number of the best, well-tested riparium plant choices originate from this area. The following lists several of these with notes:

  • Asclepias curassavica "Mexican Milkweed" - this tropical relative of the familiar monarch butterfly food plant grows in wet, sunny places throughout the Southern United States, Mexico and Central America. It is one of the easiest riparium plants to grow and bloom. Combine it with grassy riparium plants, such as Cyperus, to create a riverbank or marsh environment.
  • Cyperus spp. dwarf "Umbrella Sedge" - there are three or four different small-growing Cyperus species available for sale in the gardening trade. While they may not necessarily be from this area, there are dozens of native species of Cyperus from wet habitats in this area that share the characteristic tall stalk with a a whorl of grassy leaves on top, so the common garden varieties will work well as riparium stand-ins.
  • Echinodorus cordifolius - another species that occurs throughout this area, this is also the Echinodorus swordplant that adapts best as an emersed plant in riparium conditions. The all-green species plant grows to a large size relatively fast, so it is a good choice for filling out a larger planting, while the white-variegated cultivar E. cordifolius 'Tropica Marble Queen', stays shorter. 
  • Ruellia brittoniana "Mexican Petunia" - another widespread plant in this area, R. brittoniana is available as several different cultivars that vary in stature and flower color. The dwarf forms of Ruellia brittoniana have foliage that reaches out across the water horizontally and are especially useful for adding visual depth and hiding riparium planters. Provided with good light and fertilization, Mexican petunias will flower abundantly in the riparium with white, blue, pink or violet blossoms.
  • Spathiphyllum spp. "Peace Lily" - this familiar houseplant originates from the tropical species that grow along rainforest swamps and streams in Southern Mexico and Central America, as well as South America. Use it with the above species and others to create a biotope for poecilids and cichlids from these more tropical areas.
  • Zephyranthes spp. "Rain Lily" - this true lily grows from a bulb and blooms with beautiful white, yellow or pink flowers. It is very easy to grow, but the the flimsy, onion-like leaves provide little foliage, so it should be combined with other more robust plants in the riparium layout.    

With some research, a dedicated hobbyists can find other possibilities among hardscape, livestock and riparium plants choices to recreate aquatic biotopes for this region. Some of the plants mentioned in the list above are actually represented by numerous different species in the Southern US, Mexico and Central America that might be difficult to find, but the species available as garden plants, including the Riparium Supply selections in our online store, can work well as stand-in representatives.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned and watch for our next two articles to offer  more ideas for planted riparium biotopes.






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No extra CO2 Required!...And Other Reasons for a Planted Riparium as Your Next Aquascape.

No extra CO2 Required!...And Other Reasons for a Planted Riparium as Your Next Aquascape.

We are quickly approaching the long, grey, cold winter months and the best time of year for new aquascaping projects. As you start planning your new layouts, consider trying a planted riparium.

40-gallon Planted Riparium

Above, riparium layout in a 40-gallon tank.

Ripariums are a special kind of planted tank featuring marginal aquatic plants; species adapted to grow their roots in very wet soil or in the mud under shallow water, but with most of their foliage in the air. Some very popular aquarium selections, such as Cryptocoryne, Echinodorus, Anubias and many stem plants can grow as marginals with emersed-adapted foliage growing above water, although for aquariums these are usually grown in their immersed (underwater) forms.

Ripariums are further distinguished from another special kind of planted model ecosystem, the paludarium. While they look superficially similar, paludariums use a built-up hardscape to support the planting, whereas ripariums use planter cups positioned on the aquarium glass. Furthermore, the paludarium hardscape is intended to function as part of the visual design, while the riparium planters are hidden from view as the plants grow in.

The following lists the most appealing features of planted ripariums as living displays: 

  •  No extra CO2 required - carbon dioxide gas, essential for plant growth, is many times more available in the air than underwater. Plants in traditional aquascapes are usually limited more be the availability of CO2 than any other factor, so serious aquascapers install CO2 injection systems with pressurized tanks, regulators and diffusers. While CO2 systems can be fun to set up and run, they also represent extra expense and maintenance demands. Riparium plants easily get all of the carbon dioxide they need from the air, so they do not need extra CO2 for vigorous growth.
  • Biotope representation - some of the most beautiful wild aquatic ecosystems have few fully submerged underwater plants. Among these are blackwater swamps, mangrove swamps, mountain streams and others with underwater conditions that are tough for plants. These habitats are home to many of the most appealing aquarium fishes, while also hosting distinctive marginal aquatic plant species. A planted riparium is the best way to represent this kind of area with an aquascape biotope.
  • Robust plant-based filtration - riparium plants, not limited by availability of dissolved CO2 or algae growth, can grow quickly with new foliage and roots. As they accumulate biomass, the riparium plants will also remove fish waste products (especially phosphate and nitrates) and other pollutants.
  • Beautiful blooms and foliage - having evolved in the special marginal aquatic habitat, the best choices for planted ripariums have distinctive shapes, colors and growth habits. If provided with the right nutrition and lighting, a number of the best riparium selections, such as Ruellia, Spathiphyllum, Hymenocallis and Zephyranthes, will also bloom readily with lovely flowers. The planted riparium genre is relatively new in the aquarium hobby and there are still many new plants to be discovered and trialed as riparium choices.

 Thank you for reading! We hope that you can also enjoy creative challenges and new discoveries with planning and building a new riparium aquascape. 

120-gallon Planted Riparium

Above, 120-gallon Mexico river riparium biotope.

Planting Zephyranthes Rain Lily in Aqua Verdi Riparium Planter

Above, Planting Zephyranthes Rain Lily in Aqua Verdi Riparium Planter.

Zephyranthes Rain Lily in Planted Riparium

Above, the lovely white bloom of Zephyranthes Rain Lily in a planted riparium.

Above, a Borneo blackwater swamp riparium biotope.

Acrostichum Leather Fern in Riparium Supply Riparium Planter

Above, Acrostichum Leather Fern in a riparium planter.

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Growth Update: Acid Bog Paludarium

Growth Update: Acid Bog Paludarium

We have a few updates for this paludarium setup planted to emulate a native acid bog, a special kind of wetland habitat dominated by Sphagnum mosses and other plants adapted to acidic, low nutrient conditions.

The paludarium was planted about a month ago and the bed of Sphagnum moss has begun to green up and fill in. The native sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) also shows visible progress, as does the tiny Family Ericaceae shrub, small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos). The other ericaceous shrubs have not made much headway, but all of them have established well in our other similar setups, so we expect good results from them.

These photos also show a few of our special hardware solutions, including the 60mm Fan Mount and fitted acrylic frame top.

Thanks to for the EpiWeb planting substrate. Thank you Reeseville Ridge Nursery for most of the plants.

Scroll down to see a couple of older shots from the project set up, along with these new updates.





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Mangroves in Planted Ripariums

Mangroves in Planted Ripariums

New planted riparium methods create opportunities for growing many kinds of plants that have not been kept previously as aquarium foliage. There are likewise several kinds of wild aquatic habitats that can be represented more faithfully with a riparium setup. Mangrove swamps, estuary areas characterized by brackish water and the growth of mangrove trees, are among the Earth's most distinctive kinds of ecosystems. While the plant diversity in mangrove swamps is rather low, true mangrove plants grow nowhere else and exhibit remarkable adaptations to this challenging, but productive environment. Mangrove trees and other features of the mangrove swamps create critical habitat for birds, ocean fish and other animals.

Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is the only species of mangrove plant that has been used extensively in aquariums in the United States. While other mangroves trees grow in estuary areas further from the sea and have varying levels of salt tolerance, Red Mangrove can grow directly in seawater. For this reason it has been employed as a biological filter component in illuminated refugium or sump areas of reef aquarium systems. Red Mangrove grows rather slowly, so its true utility as a nitrate or phosphate-removing plant might be questionable, but its dense and fibrous root system creates extensive habitat for de-nitrifying bacteria and other beneficial microorganisms.

Several other kinds of mangrove trees and other plants should be explored more for their riparium display potential! These include species that can grow in moderately salty water, along with others that only tolerate lightly brackish conditions. A number of unusual and beautiful fish, such as Mudskippers (Oxudercinae spp.), species Mollies (Poecilia spp.), Sheepshead Minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) that characterize mangrove swamps are available as aquarium selections to complete a riparium mangrove biotope.

I wrote a magazine article on this topic for AMAZONAS Magazine (November/December 2013) and used it to share experiences developing a mangrove riparium layout in an open-top 65-gallon tank. The following lists the plant species used along with a few notes for each:

  • Pandanus tectorius, Hala Tree - most often found on ocean beaches in Hawaii and other places in the Pacific, this lily-like tree also sometimes grows in or near mangrove swamp habitats.
  • Laguncularia racemosa, White Mangrove - this tree grows near the coast in Florida, Texas and other environments further south in the Neotropics, while also extending to the Atlantic coast of West Africa. It is found in estuary areas further away from the ocean and adapted to water with moderate salinity.
  • Rhizophora mangle, Red Mangrove - while it is often used as a living filter in reef aquariums, this species was found to grow very slowly in the riparium. The foliage was also the least attractive of the five mangrove species in the setup.  
  • Avicennia germinans, Black Mangrove - this mangrove tree also occurs near the coast in Florida, Texas and elsewhere. While it usually grows further away from the sea than Red Mangrove, it can also tolerate the salinity of seawater.
  • Acrostichum danaeifolium, Leather Fern - this huge fern with a prehistoric appearance grows wild in Florida, Mexico the Caribbean and Northern South America. It grows in freshwater swamps, as well as lightly brackish water in estuary areas some distance away from the ocean.

Red Mangrove is fairly easy to find for sale by aquarium vendors, but I found all of the other mangrove species to be more appealing as brackish riparium foliage. Both White Mangrove and Black Mangrove can withstand light pruning, an important feature for maintaining the plants at the proper scale for an aquarium enclosure, but a young Red Mangrove tree can perish if just a single twig is trimmed.

They are more difficult to find for sale, but the propagules of White Mangrove and Black Mangrove can be purchased from vendors at and a few online stores. Leather Fern is usually sold as a freshwater pond plant. I had the most difficulty finding seedling Hala Trees, but I was able to find these listed by an ebay seller based in Hawaii.

For readers interested in developing planted mangrove ripariums, please email us ( for a few additional tips and suggestions for finding, establishing and growing these specialized and fascinating plants.        








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