By Robert Paul Hudson
Different shades of red, orange and yellow add a distinctive beauty to an aquascape, but how it is used in the overall design plays an important role.
Ways of using color
Using reds creates contrast, depth, and focal points. A focal point is something that draws your eye and stands out. Usually only one or two focal points are used. Any more than that creates visual tension and chaos, with the eye being drawn all over the tank. This has long been a principal used in both Dutch and Japanese style aquascaping. Used strictly for highlighting an aquascape, bright colors are used very sparingly. When large amounts of bright colors are used it becomes a very strong, dominate part of the aquascape. If done properly this can be a breathtaking site. It really comes down to the same principals of landscape gardening. If you desire to have a Rose garden, you may have other plants around the rose bushes, border plants, bed plants, but nothing that draws the eye away from the roses or detracts from the visual impact of the dark red roses. No matter what other plants you use it will always be looked at as a “rose garden”. In the aquarium one could have a large group of dark or bright red plants, but then the entire aquascape is centered around those plants. There are several colorful aquatic plants that could be used in that way to be the “rose” of the aquarium. One such plant is Rotala macrandra, which I wrote about in an earlier column.
James Hoftiezer designed this aquascape a few years ago and it won first place in two planted aquarium aquascaping contests. The overall design very heavily uses dark reds and purple that casts a shadowy tone to the entire aquascape. There is still a sense of balance and harmony without being chaotic. It may appear a bit overpowering for some taste, but it is unique and striking.
Stem plants vs rosette plants
Stem plants have the most variety is leaf shape and color, and are used for the ability to shape and sculpt by pruning and re-planting. Sword plants, (Echinodorus) are used as stationary focal points, (changing only as the plant grows taller) that draw the eye not only for the color but the large size of the plant, and Cryptocorynes have dark earthy colors that when planted in groups or rows provide a dark contrast in specific key areas.
Placement of colorful plants
Focal points are set just left of center, or the “golden ratio”. This is defined as the point in the visual field where a ratio of 1:1.618 meet. To find this point do the following: measure the length of your tank and divide it by 2.618. Take the result and measure it from one side of your tank. Mark it. The remaining distance is 1.618. Where these two measurements meet is just left of center and where your focal point should be, (or reversed would be just right of center). To create “highlights” the red plants should be very sparsely planted just barely outlining groups of other plants. It is so subtle that the red plants help create the contrasting plants as a focal point instead of the red plants themselves. Another factor to consider for placement is lighting. Most plants retain their red/purple/orange coloring or enhance their color by being under direct, bright light. The plants should not be overshadowed by larger plants. Cryptocorynes that mostly have a brown to bronze color may be the only exception.
Here is a guide to some of the more popular plants used for various shades of red and orange:
Rotala macrandra: dark red, large leaf, has special growing needs. Used in large groups to make a very bold visual impact
Rotala rotundifolia, from pink to orange, small leaves, easy to grow. Used for contrast, highlights, soft colors
Rotala magenta narrow leaf version of macrandra, dark red, moderately difficult
Rotala wallachii and
Rotala Vietnam both have needle, brush like leaves and a soft red color. The ‘vietnam’ variety is more brownish with red highlights.
Alternanthera reineckii long narrow leaves that grow upright revealing a fire engine red to purple/red underside. Easy to grow
Ammania, long narrow leaves on thick, tall stems ranging from dark red to light orange. Used for strong visual affect.
Eusteralis stellata, (Pogostemon stellatus), when in color it is a stunning dark red/purple, otherwise it is solid green. Leaves are whorl shaped on thick stems. Used for strong visual impact. Difficult to grow.
Nesaea sp ‘Red” a small leaf, low growing plant that is dark, beet red. Nice accent plant close to the substrate.
Cabomba furcata, thin whorl like leaves that get bright red at the leaf tips. Nice color without being to over powering. Fairly easy to grow with soft water. Distinctly different in color from common Cabomba species.
Ludwigia arcuata needle like leaves ranging from pink to dark red. Adds a nice delicate looking red touch to the aquascape. Great for subtle highlights and contrast.
Myriophyllum tuberculatum- Bright light, soft acidic water, and elevated C02 provide the best growing conditions for this plant
Rosette plants, (leaves that grow from a crown)
Echinodorus, (sword plants)
Red Rubin, Ozelot, Rose, Indian Red, and many more hybrids and cultivars feature dark red with yellow veins or various red markings on broad or tapered leaves. These plants grow quite large for most aquariums, and generally are used as solitary focal points.
Known as “Tiger Lotus” This water lily has broad dark red or mottled red leaves that are hard to miss. At maturity it can have leaves as big as your hand. A great solitary focal point. Easy to grow
The most common Cyptocoryne used in aquascaping is “wendtii “ which comes in brown/red and bronze colors. It can vary in shape and size depending on conditions, but has mostly been used from the middle to the front of the tank to provide a dark contrast between other groups of plants.
In planted aquascape designs, red plants are an important component, but how it is used really comes down to you the artist. Do not be afraid to experiment. For the most part red plants are no more difficult than any other plants if their needs are being met and the reward may take your breath away.