Are Fake Plants Bad for Fish: A Guide to Their Practical Uses

Are fake plants bad for fish? Can they harm their well-being? Are live plants really better than plastic imitations?

These are but a few of the questions I get from friends who come over and see my aquariums a day or two before their scheduled maintenance. Often, a detached leaf or two would be floating around, and another is brown and mildly disgusting among the vivacious greenery around.

Live plants are pretty but require a decent amount of knowledge, care, and infrastructure to thrive. On the other hand, artificial plants are becoming increasingly prettier and more life-like and require only two things: an anchor and the occasional cleaning. They don’t wilt because of a couple of days of irregular, inadequate lighting. Or because an oscar rammed into them a few times too many.

Are artificial plants OK to have in your aquarium?

Good quality fake plants don’t bring any major downsides. For certain species and fishkeepers, fake plants are the best option available. Artificial plants are the option for a limited budget that can’t justify investment in lighting for live water plants or low levels of experience.

The pertinent question is what a fish tank misses when live plants are absent. Because artificial plants aren’t bad in themselves, but they don’t contribute to the ecosystem nearly as much as real plants do.

All the same, “plastic” plants are an excellent option in the right situation.

Let me explain.

Pros of Plastic Aquarium Plants

Fake aquarium plants are an excellent choice in three situations

A limited budget can accommodate quite a few beautiful artificial plants much more easily than light, live plants, and fertilizers (and maintenance tools) for helping them thrive.

An inexperienced fishkeeper who wants to see the beauty of an aquarium in their house will have a much more headache-free experience.

And certain fish (*cough* cichlids *cough*) would brutalize live plants or totally rearrange the bottom, or both.

Cichlids like to move things around.

Artificial plants don’t care. I’m yet to see a cichlid enjoying silk leaves much. 

Here are the main advantages of artificial plants:

  • Any color you want
  • Don’t die – That saves money and nerves
  • Don’t carry disease or parasites
  • Provide hiding places
  • Can be planted anywhere
  • Can be moved around
  • Perfect for quarantine tanks
  • Easy aquarium maintenance
  • Don’t need special light
  • Don’t need fertilizers
  • Don’t need specialized knowledge

A few of the pros fake plants bring to the tank are self-explanatory. High-quality plastic plants look amazing and come in a variety of shapes, colors, and textures (silk plants are silky, indeed, and float beautifully). They are durable, and make the tank prettier with a small investment of time and money. Fake plants don’t need special conditions, nor do they need knowledge or much maintenance.

The fact they can’t die reduces the anxiety wilting live plants can induce and makes budgeting extremely predictable.

The Biggest Advantage of Artificial Plants — Mobility

The biggest advantage of fake plants is the fact they can be moved around at will. Experimenting with various setups or making obstacle courses aside, rearranging the tank can help with incorporating newcomers.

Sometimes a supposedly peaceful fish could start harassing new tankmates to the point of breaking. I’ve had danios rotationally attacking new guppies. Not a pretty sight.

New arrangements will likely force tank mates to adjust their dominancy hierarchies and territories, and that is likely to help newcomers settle.

The best part is that even if you maintain live plants in your tank you can use fakes to resolve conflicts. Keep a few leafy silk or plastic plants around to change the aquascape until the bullying is over.

Rearranging the decor is one of the best strategies for dealing with bullies, but it doesn’t always work. Still, it is worth a try and it is not something you should attempt with live plants.

Outside of war for territory, artificial plants are ideal for quarantine tanks. Assuming most folks aren’t buying fish several times a month, maintaining a permanent quarantine tank can be impractical. Assembling one when a new or sick fish should go in isolation is much easier with fake plants. They provide hiding places and comfort to the fish, don’t alter the water parameters, and don’t carry any diseases of their own.

All in all, you should keep a few artificial plants handy at all times. They have their utility.

Now, if they are the only plants in fish tanks, fakes have a few drawbacks. They don’t add anything bad to the aquarium, but they don’t contribute much to the ecosystem either. In that sense, they are as inert as hardscape or gravel substrate.

The cons of live plants are most obvious when compared to living species.

Cons of Artificial Plants

In and of themselves, artificial plants don’t have any significant flaws. Poor-quality plastics might have sharp edges, so examine any hard plastic purchase with care.

But the perceived fake plants’ flaws exist only in the light live plants’ numerous advantages cast. 

Simply put, live, breathing plants quickly become a cornerstone of any aquatic ecosystem. They can be a powerful filtration system that balances the water column in unique ways. Their growing leaves and burrowing roots house helpful bacteria, but artificial plants do that too, to an extent. Still, fake plants remain merely an inert surface.

Live plants interact with the water column in mysteriously magnificent ways, and the critters in your tank interact with them, in turn. Gouramis yoyos, and many snails enjoy the occasional nibble, especially from dying leaves.

And while the biggest advantage of plastic and silk plants is their mobility, live plants grow by themselves, constantly changing your aquarium.

Artificial plants are extremely useful in certain scenarios and I strongly recommend for any fishkeeper to have a few. But live plants simply add so much more.

Granted, they also require more, especially in terms of setup. Fishkeeping is a very affordable hobby, and the relatively steep initial investment can be scaled down by starting with fake plants.

How to Switch from Plastic to Live Plants

Switching from fake to live plants can be daunting. Indeed, live plants require care and knowledge, but if you set things up the right way, they are likely to thrive.

Light, adequate placement, and the appropriate temperature will do it for most beginners’ plants. 

Don’t fret much about the substrate. Gravel is an excellent choice, affordable and pretty. Sand is another great option for plants, as long as the sand is not too fine. Basically, whatever substrate you have will do. Only make sure it is thick enough wherever you plan to plant. Two-three inches will definitely do, one will barely suffice for plants with small roots.

In the presence of fish and other livestock, inert substrates like pebbles, gravel, and sand can feed plants well enough. Fertilizers are an option but better keep things simple with your first few plants.

The light is by far the most crucial component for aquarium plants. Check at your local fish store if you need a better light than the one you currently own. See prices and ask how each model available impacts your fish tank.

When buying lights you don’t really know, it is best if you can test them and see them in action before purchase. Online purchases may be cheaper but only when you know what you are buying.

How to Clean Plastic Plants

Regardless of whether you use plastic and silk plants sparingly or as a mainstay, they must be cleaned. The actual cleaning can be split into mechanical scrubbing and chemical cleansing.

Before cleaning them, you must pull them out of the fish tank.


A brush dedicated to aquarium maintenance is essential. It must be clean, and never used with soaps or any cleaning solutions; they can leave residue that can harm your fish. If, for whatever reason, your aquarium brush gets in touch with cleaning liquids, boil it. Wash it well under warm water, soak it in vinegar, and then boil it for a few minutes.

As long as you have a clean, dedicated brush, you can use it to clean off any algae growth appearing on the plants. Done regularly, such minimal maintenance will keep your decorations clean.

It’s best to use a soft brush, to not harm the silk plants. Their leaves are strong but regular scrubbing will wear them down.

For more in-depth cleaning, you can resort to chemical and physics aid.

Before discussing the exact steps of cleaning plastic plants with the methods below, a word of caution. Don’t clean your plastic or silk plants too often. All methods that follow will speed up discoloration, especially when overdone. Use them only when necessary and for them recommended duration to keep your artificial plants vibrant for longer.

Boil the Plants

Boiling water can strip any polyps and unwanted algae rather quickly. Check the label of the plant when purchasing it to ensure it is safe in boiling water, but in 99% of the cases they should be fine.

Don’t let the plants boil for more than 3-4 minutes.


Plain old vinegar makes real plants better in a salad and fake plants better in the aquarium. It is particularly effective against limestone.

A 50-50 mixture works fine, but you can water it down more if it is unpleasant to touch. You can spray the plants or dip them in the solution. Once wet, let the plants rest for a couple of minutes so that the vinegar can work its magic, scrub, rinse, let them dry out, and replant.

Hydrogen Peroxide

One part hydrogen peroxide in 10 parts water can receive your artificial aquarium plants. Leave them soaking for 10-15 minutes, take them out, rinse, scrub, rinse again, let them dry nicely, replant.


Hydrogen Peroxide is known to discolor certain fake plants, though. It is a bleaching agent, so silks are particularly susceptible. Before you submerge them completely in their cleansing bath, sprinkle a bit of the solution on a small leaf to test whether it reacts negatively.

Potassium Permanganate

Here comes the cavalry. Potassium permanganate is a powerful cleansing chemical that should be handled with care. Always use gloves when dissolving it in water and when putting things inside the solution.

One part permanganate mixed with 20 parts water will kill any parasites or pests that live on the fake plants. Snail eggs stand no chance. Make the solution dark pink color and submerge the plants for 4-5 minutes. Then you know the drill: rinse, scrub, rinse again, let them dry, and then place back in your tank.

Should I Have Real or Fake Plants in My Tank?

Are fake plants bad?

No, it is fair to say that artificial plants aren’t bad for fish. They don’t harm them in any way (unless they are pointy, cheap plastics; better avoid those). It is better to have a few than a bare tank. And in certain situations like a temporary hospital tank or dealing with bullying they are extremely useful.

But if you are wondering whether you should have live plants instead, I’d say yes. Live plants contribute immensely to the water column and fish health. But they call for more commitment, both in terms of time and money.

Make the switch when you feel ready.

All in all, fake plants have their uses and users.

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