Four years ago, wildlife photographer Ashwin Aranyakam from Kozhikode, Kerala, zoomed in on setting up an aquarium for his young nephew. The endeavour brought him closer to the “beauty” of aquatic plants, triggering an interest in water flora.
“There are a number of water bodies near my house and I started exploring and collecting the few varieties of aquatic plants around. Gradually, I started sourcing new species from acquaintances and online stores,” he says.
Today, Ashwin maintains close to 30 varieties of aquatic plants, grown in compact ferrocement tanks, in his 1,000 square feet garden. The garden-cum-nursery includes the popular freshwater cabomba that is commonly used in aquascaping, fast-growing aqua rose ( Hygrophila difformis ) with fine leaf divisions, cryptocoryne (water trumpets) and so on.
With gardening in general attracting wider interest since the pandemic-induced lockdowns, some with green thumbs are dedicating their downtime to growing aquatic plants.
Nishant Kumar, a pilot from Delhi, says tending an aquarium kindled his enthusiasm. “I have noticed people keeping artificial plants and plastic decorations in fish tanks but wanted to keep mine natural. I started reading about the art of aquascaping (the craft of aesthetically adorning an aquarium) and was hooked. It is quite popular in countries such as Japan,” he says.
Nishant keeps about 10 types of water plants, like Sagittaria subulata (narrow-leaved arrowhead), Java moss and the floating Limnobium laevigatum (West Indian spongeplant), in his 30-litre tank, which has six varieties of ornamental fish.
He says the hobby is a stress-buster. “When I come home after flying, the first thing I do is turn on the aquarium lights. I sit by it for a while and examine if any new leaves have grown and how the fishes are. I have realised that if the plants are maintained in good condition, the fish will, in turn, be healthy. In fact, the quality and growth of the plants can indicate the quality of the water,” he adds. Nishant keeps himself updated on new techniques of aquascaping via YouTube tutorials dedicated to the craft.
Aquatic plant hobbyist Janani Santhanam from Chennai vouches for the calming effect of her plants. “We keep them on our balcony as sunshine is necessary. My school-going kids love to top up water on the pots and tubs when required, and prune dying leaves. Since the pandemic, we mostly spend the evenings drinking coffee on the balcony. Perhaps, the pick of our collection is hornworts (Ceratophyllum) that my husband gifted me from Thailand after a business trip,” she says.
Apart from the aesthetic factors, such plants offer a welcome practical solution to others, like Raja Chadha, an inspection engineer from Vadodara. He keeps over 300 water plants on his terrace in an attempt to naturally bring down the room temperature. “Vadodara predominantly has a warm climate. It struck me that it will be good to have some ‘water body’ above my house. Moreover, I did not want to have a set-up with soil on my terrace that could create seepage,” he says.
Raja initially procured water lilies from local nurseries, then imported some varieties of the same from Thailand and Vietnam. His terrace garden now boasts a wide variety of water plants including parrot feather ( Myriophyllum aquaticum ), water bamboo (aka Lucky Bamboo), water cabbage, papyrus (paper reed), azolla (duckweed fern) and so on.
“In some of the larger tubs, I keep fish to prevent mosquito breeding. One obvious advantage of aquatic plants is that I do not need to water them everyday. But I spend about an hour or so for their maintenance before leaving for office. Timely removal of decayed leaves and topping up water, are paramount,” says Raja who uses slow-release fertilizers.
Ashwin says several common varieties of aquatic plants are often freely found in local water bodies, a sentiment echoed by Pius CP, who runs the e-commerce platform Bunnycart, which sells aquarium products, including water plants. “Like cabomba that are abundant in many ponds. Other plants are elodea ( Hydrocharitaceae ) or waterweeds, Bacopa monnieri (water hyssop), Echinodorus muricatus green Java fern ( Microsorum pteropus ) etc. But the problem is their identification. Many are unable to distinguish between weed and useful aquatic plants,” says Pius.
Botanists advise exercising discretion while introducing novel species of plants to a new place lest invasive ones put down roots. Pauline Deborah, associate professor, department of Plant Biology, Women’s Christian College, Chennai, highlights the importance of verification. “When you introduce a new plant or species to your home garden, it is perfectly fine as long as it is confined to your garden for aesthetic purposes,” she says.
Pauline adds, “However, care must be taken not to allow an invasive species to enter the wild or water bodies as they can proliferate into choking agents. For instance, Eichhornia crassipes , known as common water hyacinth, bear attractive flowers and can be beguiling. But, this is a highly invasive variety.”