Anubias

The family Aracea includes many familiar decorative plants, both terrestrial and aquatic. One genus that is particularly desirable for aquarium use is Anubias. Unfortunately, the hobby books available on aquarium plants do not do justice to this group of plants. Most books show no more than one or two varieties (usually barteri and barteri var nana) or use outdated nomenclature. It's frustrating to see a sales list showing a number of different "species" of Anubias for sale!

These pages will help you identify the plants in your tank. Anubias are quite variable. If you can't positively identify your plant don't enjoy it less!

The Genus Anubias
Anubias are found only in tropical West Africa, from Senegal to Angola and Zaire. The genus was erected by Schott in 1897. In 1913, a new genus, Amauriella was erected for a single species, Amauriella obanensis RENDLE. In time, other species were moved from one genus to the other. In the most recent revision of the genus, done by Dr. Wim Crusio, 1979 these two genera have been reunited as Anubias, and only eight species of Anubias are recognized (see below).In the wild, Anubias grow on the edges of streams and rivers, often with their roots firmly anchored around rocks, boulders and fallen logs. They are found in wet, shady, forest areas, often completely emersed, other times submerged.

Not all species of Anubias are currently available in the hobby, and for that matter, not all are suitable as aquarium plants as some get much too large for the average tank. To make things more confusing, a number of commercially available Anubias are not different species, but varieties, and some species names still currently in use are obsolete or just incorrect.

A. barteri
Most of the Anubias available in the hobby belong to this very variable species. It is probably the most vigorous species, and one of the smallest. It is hardy to the point of being almost indestructible. I've heard it jokingly described as the plastic plant that grows. The varieties of this species flower quite freely under good aquarium conditions, and the attractive Calla Lily shaped white flowers can last as long as a couple of months.

A. barteri var. nana
The most often encountered variety is A. barteri var. nana. This diminutive variety has pretty, bright green broadly ovate leaves on short petioles. It has been found growing wild in at least two locations in Cameroon. While it grows in typical Anubias fashion, with the roots branching down from the rhizome, the whole plant is small enough that this feature is not as noticeable as it is on larger varieties. Typically, nana leaves are about 6 cm long, and the plant stands no more than about 12 cm tall. The variety is so tough that I've seen plants under adverse conditions turn into "bonsai" Anubias, with leaves as small as 3 mm, but still look vigorous and green. When these plants were placed back in a tank with good conditions, they grew back to normal size within a year. A man-made variegated form of nana is sometimes available, although the white markings tend to fade under aquarium conditions.

A. barteri var. barteri
The barteri variety looks similar to A. barteri var. nana, but can on occasion grow up to 45 cm tall, although most specimens are quite a bit smaller. Our cultivated plants tend to be a little lighter in color than nana and about twice the size, making it still a useful plant in the smaller tank. Besides the size difference, the other noticeable difference between these two plants is the length of the petiole in comparison to leaf size. In nana, the petiole is rarely more than half as long as the leaf, while in barteri the petiole is about 1 1/2 times the length of the leaf.

A. barteri var. augustifolia
This is a very different looking plant from the former two varities. This plant was described in 1915 by Engler as Anubias lanceolata, but is now recognized as a variety of A. barteri. It is still usually sold in the hobby as A. lanceolata, and is another of the more commonly available varieties. This plant, as its old name implies, has lanceolate leaves, up to 18 cm long on a 30 cm petiole. the leaves are 5-9 times as long as they are broad. As it is quite a large plant, it is best suited to the medium to large size tank, but is otherwise as undemanding as the other varieties of barteri.

A. barteri var. caladiifolia
This variety is usually sold as simply "Anubias caladiifolia" in the trade. It is one of the larger varieties. With leaves up to 22 cm long and half as wide on petioles up to 50 cm, it is a pretty big plant. Add the fact that its roots make a pretty impressive set of "stilts" below the rhizome, and it becomes clear that the plant is only suitable for larger tanks. Even within the variety this plant is quite variable. I have one specimen that is shorter, with almost smooth leaves, and another that is very tall, with deep grooves along the vein lines.

A. barteri var coffeefolia
The coffeefolia variety is another plant offered in the trade. It is very beautiful, and usually quite expensive. It is a naturally occurring variety of barteri. It is shorter than var.caladiifolia, in part because of its more spreading, less upright habit. The leaves are a dark, very glossy fir-tree green, while the petioles of newer leaves are a striking wine red color. The veins are so deeply indented that the leaves look almost like large ruffled potato chips. This striking plant is well worth the premium price it commands.

A. afzelii
If everything sold as A. aszelii is correctly identified, this species is variable indeed. It is, however, a true species. The petiole is up to 30cm long and the leaf lanceolate or elliptic, up to 35 cm long and 12 cm wide. It has many prominent lateral nerves. The plants I've seen that I think are probably the real thing have fairly wavy edges on the leaves, while on other specimens, the leaves are quite flat. In my experience, this species appears to be a little less vigorous than the barteri group.

A. gracilis
This pretty plant is often sold under the name A. hastifolia, which is the true name of a completely different plant. A. gracilis has leaves of a much softer texture than most Anubias species and so will not stand up to as much abuse by herbivorous fish. It is distinguished by the strongly triangular shape of the light green leaves. The leaves attach to the petiole at an angle, and bottom lobes of the leaves often curve upwards. The leaves grow up to 12 cm on a 33 cm petiole. A. gracilis is the least robust species commonly available in this sturdy genus. That is not to say that it is particularly difficult, but it will not tolerate quite the amount of abuse that some others will. In particular, it does not tolerate excessive handling and uprooting. Place it where you want it in the tank, and take care not to disturb it until it's root system has developed.

A. hastifolia
A. hastifolia has only recently been offered commercially in the aquarium hobby. This is a big plant - one reason that it will probably never be popular. The leaves grow to 33 cm on a 65 cm petiole. In the fully adult form, the leaves are nearly tripartite with the middle lobe lanceolate. The lateral lobes are smaller, but still up to 25 cm long and 8 cm wide. In younger plants the leaves can be lanceolate with a short cordate base.

A. heterophylla
This species is usually offered under the obsolete name of A. congensis. It is variable in size, ranging from 10 cm leaves on 10 cm petioles up to 38 cm leaves on 65 cm petioles. Those offered commercially seem to get somewhat larger than A. barteri but are still a useful aquarium size. My specimen is about 45 cm tall including exposed roots, leaf blade and petiole. The leaves of this species are elliptic-ovate or lanceolate, and 2-6 times as long as broad. The plant is another of the lighter green species of Anubias. It is the only Anubias outside the A. barteri complex that I have had the pleasure of flowering in my tanks.

Culture

Anubias are very sturdy aquarium plants that grow well, albeit slowly with minimal care. They are very tolerant of low light levels, and while they prefer an aerobic nutrient-rich substrate, they seem to grow slowly in plain gravel. Some will even survive nicely left floating in the water column. The tough, long lasting leaves of most Anubias species stand up to all but the most confirmed plant eaters. They can be placed either in the substrate itself, or grown epiphytically, attached to a piece of driftwood. Because of their amphibious nature, they are a useful addition to the paludarium as well as the aquarium.

Anubias grow with a long thick horizontal rhizome. The leaves grow up from the rhizome on petioles that vary from quite short to very long depending on the species. The stiff roots extend down from the rhizome and actually hold the plant up off the bottom, giving them a "spidery" appearance. It is very important not to bury the rhizome as it can rot and kill the plant. Temperature, hardness and pH are not of major importance when growing Anubias, as the plants are very tolerant of aquarium conditions. In fact they are one of the few tanks that can be successfully used in the hard alkaline water of a Rift Lake tank.

The long life of Anubias leaves can be a disadvantage in a tank with algae problems, since the leaves can become encrusted with algae almost like a plastic plant. This rarely harms the plant, but can be unsightly. In a tank with severe algae problems, the slow growth rate of Anubias can mean that the plant never outgrows its algae "coat".

Propogation

Anubias are easily propagated. Simply use a sharp knife or a pair of sharp scissors to cut through the thick horizontal rhizome. Make sure that each section contains at least a few leaves, and a healthy number of roots. Specimens can be encouraged to branch by taking a sharp knife or razor blade and just nicking the tough outer layer of the rhizome. Before long, the plant will send out a branching rhizome from the damaged area.

Buying Anubias

Anubias can occasionally be purchased at better pet stores, particularly specimens of A. barteri and A. barteri var. nana. Other species and varieties can be ordered from mail order plant suppliers. Even common Anubias are more expensive than the average aquarium plant, and less common varities can be pricey. Don't let this hold you back, however. These plants can be thought of as an investment. It is entirely likely that you will never need to buy another specimen of any particular species or variety. In fact, if you take good care of your plant, before long you'll be selling cuttings to fellow hobbyists and will have earned your purchase price back!

Size Key

Petiole (cm)

Blade (cm)

Species/Variety

4 8 barteri var. nana (ENGLER) CRUSIO
18 12x3 barteri var. barteri
20 30x12 heterophylla ENGLER
30 18x3 barteri var. angustifolia (ENGLER) CRUSIO
30 33 afzelii SCHOTT
33 12 gracilis CHEVALIER ex HUTCHINSON
50 22x12 barteri var. caladiifolia ENGLER
65 33 hastifolia ENGLER
    barteri SCHOTT
    barteri var. glabra N.E. BROWN
    gigantea CHEVALIER ex HUTCHINSON
    gilletii DE WILDEMAN et DURAND
    pynaertii DE WILDEMAN"

 

Taxonomy:
This list of Anubias species is based on the 1979 revision done by Dr. Wim Crusio. Click the species or variety name link to see a picture.

afzelii SCHOTT
barteri SCHOTT

var. barteri
var. angustifolia (ENGLER) CRUSIO
var. caladiifolia ENGLER
var. glabra N.E. BROWN =minima=lanceolata
var. nana (ENGLER) CRUSIO
barteri var. coffeefolia

gigantea CHEVALIER ex HUTCHINSON
gilletii DE WILDEMAN et DURAND
gracilis CHEVALIER ex HUTCHINSON
hastifolia ENGLER
heterophylla ENGLER =congensis=congoensis
pynaertii DE WILDEMAN
frazeri (status is questionable)

Glossary of terms used in this article

Term Description
cordate heart-shaped
cultivar cultivated variety
eliptic oblong with bluntly pointed ends
lanceolate lance-shaped
ovate oval-shaped
petiole leaf stem
rhizome a specialized rootlike plant part that forms shoots above and roots below
tripate three-part

References:
Aquarium Plants Their Identification, Cultivation and Ecology by Dr. Karel Rataj and Thomas J. Horeman TFH 1977 ISBN 0-87666-455-9

Baensch Aquarium Atlas 2 by Hans A. Baensch and Dr. Rudiger Riehl Tetra Press 1993 ISBN 1-56465-114-2

The Genus Anubias SCHOTT (Aracea) by Wim Crusio Meded. Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen 79-14 (1979)

Content © 1998 Karen A. Randall. All rights reserved.


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