Why Aquarium Plants Go Transparent and What to Do

If you want to be connected with nature, owning an aquarium can be such a beautiful experience. If you are thinking of owning an aquarium, there is an incredible amount of science to understand before you can keep your sea life alive and not going the transparent shade of death. If your plants start going translucent, yellow, or brown, then you need to address what is not working in your tank.

Why do aquarium plants go transparent? They go transparent due to different types of nutrients, calcium, or iron deficiency.

The factors that will influence your tank and plant life are:

  • Plant type
  • pH
  • Ammonia levels
  • Nitrate levels
  • Hours of lighting per day
  • Lights being used
  • How long the tank has been running
  • Dimensions of the tank
  • The temperature of the tank
  • What fish you have living with the plants
  • Nutrient levels you’re putting in the tank (potassium, iron, phosphate, etc.).

Transparency in aquarium plants can easily be summarized as a nutrient deficiency. The solution will be in balancing your specific tank based on these factors and resetting the balance of your tank.

Picture your happy, healthy aquarium full of wildlife that is swimming happily around flourishing flowers and underwater plants. Now picture your transparent, ghostly plant in its present state. If you’ve owned a lively aquarium, then you know how difficult it can be to own a tank, yet also how rewarding. This guide will help you understand the common issues you may not even be aware your tank is going through, and how to remedy any problems that could compromise your tank’s chemistry.

Why Aquarium Plants Go Transparent and What to Do

Having an aquarium with an entire ecosystem of plants and wildlife can be seriously hard work. You are responsible for keeping these living things in balance and not just alive but thriving.

You will visibly notice if your ecosystem is not thriving because fish will die, and your plants may go transparent or yellowish-brown.

If you can do the necessary research to have a successful tank, this will result in years of owning healthy plants and fish as beloved pets, experiencing that piece of the sea that you clearly love – right in your own home.

First, you will need to diagnose your plants and realize per your specific tank. No one can fill in the above blanks on all of the factors which influence your tank except for you. This will take measurements and a basic understanding of the pH/chemical balance of your tank.

If you’re researching transparent plants in your tank, I’m going to assume you’ve already established your tank, and this isn’t a brand-new plant. You’re researching because you know a bit about Aquarium 101.

Some of the reasons your tank may have plants that are going transparent are due to:

  • An Iron Deficiency – many reviewers and tank owners in aquarium forums feel that the root of the transparent issue is an iron deficiency. There isn’t a lot of solidified research stating this, but it is certainly worth checking.
  • A Nutrient deficiency in the food you’re supplying to the tank – check the actual food you’re inputting in the tank and perhaps experiment with new brands.
  • Be sure you have the right plants – meaning, are you certain that your plant is a freshwater plant in a freshwater tank? Or do you have a freshwater plant in a saltwater tank? Give it a google as this could be a root of your discoloration issue.
  • The lighting in your tank – It may be that your plants need less light. You’ll need to be aware of how much lighting your fish need because maybe they are not related. You don’t want to solve the plant issue only to have a tank of dead fish. Research each type of plant that you have in your tank to determine if this may be the issue.
  • The fertilizer you’re using – again, this will depend on the plant type; for example, the Hygrophillia Plant may require more fertilizer while the Anubias plant which is prone to going yellow/transparent, but it may require less fertilizer even with the same lighting.
  • Your tanks pH – I can’t tell you the proper pH for your tank as it will all depend on the fish you’re caring for and the plants you own. You’ll need to research each individually to understand what your specific tank needs to thrive.

Fertilizing Your Tank Properly

I’m going to reference this assuming you have a medium to large tank with low light. If you don’t have much light, you won’t need much fertilization, so research per your specific tank.

The fertilization is closely related to adequate lighting and the balance of CO2.

You can think of these critical nutrients as the core foundation for a happy and healthy tank. If you don’t know where to start, start here.

Some things that you can experiment with while finding a balance in your tank’s fertilization are:

  • Address the nutrients in your tank – these include the nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, with CO2 being the main ‘fertilizer’ in this equation. These will be like giving your body fats, amino acids, and vitamins.
  • The CO2 is essentially the air your tank breathes with, so you need to be certain you have a high-functioning filter and air pump to keep air circulating. If it’s not moving naturally and fluidly, this will become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria that will destroy the ecosystem of your tank.
  • Nitrogen should be given on a daily basis at around 5-20ppm (Do 10-20ppm if you have red plants).
  • Potassium should be purchased in quantities of 1LB to last your tank a while. Keep potassium levels at around 10-20ppm. Dose this on a weekly basis.
  • If you start to notice algae appear in your tank, you may need to lower the dose of potassium. You may need to play with the calcium and potassium levels depending on the type of plants you have in your tank.
  • Phosphates will be at low levels because these are like the fats to our body. Good in small doses, but you don’t want to overdo it. We’re going to give your tank the equivalent of an avocado for healthy fats, not a cheeseburger.
  • I would recommend around .5-1.5ppm to avoid algae development, so start with .5 and experiment. Does this about 1-3 times weekly, and you can test with kits like SeaChem to test your phosphate levels. If there is a lot of algae on the tank’s glass, you’ll need to up the dose of phosphates. You may consider a joint combination like Mono-potassium Phosphate (KP04).
  • Some great nutrients I recommend are:
    • Plantex CSM+B
    • SeaChem Flourish
    • Leaf Zone

These will all be essential components in finding the proper balance for your tank.

Iron Deficiency Causing Transparency

Iron is one of the most crucial elements in your tank. Like anything else, you don’t want to overdo it, or you will see your issue get worse.

I would recommend starting with an iron test kit to determine if this is your issue. It needs to read around the levels of 0.1-0.3ppm.

If you have a low-light tank:

Iron will be a more significant component to your tank than if you had a high-light tank. The perk of your low lighting is that it won’t burn through the iron as quickly and ought to hold on to its nitrate/phosphate levels longer a well. An excellent nutrient for low-light tanks that I recommend is Tropica Master Grow.

If you have a high-light tank:

Iron may not be the issue. Again, it will all depend on your plant types.

I would recommend gradually adding in a few more drops of iron a few times a week to your nutrient combination and see if you’re plants started getting healthier. If you see no change or the issue gets worse, lower your tank’s iron balance.

I would also recommend using an iron-based fertilizer to aid your issue. This is a more subtle way to sneak more iron into your tank while still balancing other nutrients. Try to find a slow-release fertilizer that will save you some time and take care of itself.

Balancing Your Tank’s PH

As an owner of an aquarium, a considerable part of your tank’s health will lie in how you balance its pH. Doing this wrong will result in a ghost tank of dead fish and plants that will absolutely haunt you. Doing it correctly will result in an ideal tank environment for your fish family.

PH levels can be defined as the measurement used to distinguish levels of acid or alkaline in water.

Reading the PH Scale will help you to understand where your tank is at currently and how to adjust its chemical makeup. The scale looks like this and is measured from 0-14:

Photo sourced from PH Scale Business Dictionary

  • If your tank reads at 0 to 7, that means it is acidic (with a 2-3 being very acidic)
  • If it reads 7 to 14, this means it is alkaline (with 12-14 being very alkaline)
  • While a 7 is a neutral tank

I want to stress that this is not only dangerous to your tank, but if you pet or someone else comes into contact with a tank that is not balanced correctly, it could be poisonous to them. It can be a breeding ground for spreading contamination and disease, and then considerthe disease your fish friends will catch from having a non-balanced environment.

How to Balance Your Tank’s pH

PH levels will be different for every kind of tank, so I can’t advise you individually. You’ll need to understand what the specific fish in your tank and the plants you own require in pH value.

I would suggest you research each species individually and understand each of their needs. It would help if you didn’t put a tank together with fish and plants that require entirely different environments, so you will want to select species that would cohabitate together naturally.

Some different measures you can take to put your tank back to its healthy original state are:

  • Water may alter by the end of the nitrogen cycle and end up being more acidic at the end of a nutrient process or fertilization. Keep the tank clean and monitor pH levels.
  • Don’t use tap water as it will cause your tank to quickly become unbalanced because of the chemical makeup of tap water.
  • You may get a faulty reading if you have tannins in your tank. The tannic acid will alter the acidic value in your reading, so keep this in mind if you have driftwood or plants that release tannic acid.

The Basics of pH Tank Science

Again, I can’t completely advise you because I don’t want to be responsible for fish or plant deaths that you haven’t properly researched. But to offer you a basic guide which you can build off of with independent research:

  • If you have a freshwater tank – aim for pH level between 5 and 7.5 (depending on fish)
  • If you have a marine water tank – aim for pH level between 7.5-8.5 (depending on fish)
  • If you have a tropical water tank – aim for a pH level between 6.0-7.0 (depending on fish)
  • If you have a reef tank – aim for a pH level between 8-8.5 (depending on fish)

Start by doing a pH reading to see what the base-line that you’re starting at is. Then you can gradually manage the pH from there and adapt your tank according to its needs. Purchase your pH testing kit here.

You can also balance your tank’s pH by cleaning 25% of your tank’s water about every 2-4 weeks. This will mean scooping out 25% of the water concentration in your tank to continually replenish it with fresh water. This will challenge the environment and keep it just challenged enough to thrive.

Bonus Tips and Tricks to Experiment With

A few other issues you may want to consider experimenting with are:

  • Your gravel – it may be strange to believe, but the root of your problem may be how much gravel your plants have to grow in. If they don’t have any room for their roots to stabilize in, they won’t be able to survive. Your substrate should be around 2-3 inches for your plants to have enough room to anchor their roots
  • Adjust your lighting – we discussed lighting a bit, but most tanks will need approximately 10-12 hours of light a day to flourish. Most plants prefer fluorescent lighting with full spectrum. Without the light, your plant can’t do its natural photosynthesis work to survive.

This is how they regenerate their energy and keep your tank balanced with oxygen releases. Please don’t overlook the lighting as it could be vital to your plant’s success. Leave the light on longer, and your transparent plants may return to their natural green coloration.

  • Consider a new aerator – learn more about how your tank’s aeration is vital. 
  • Try baking soda – this is a way to alter your pH with natural ingredients and may help your plant’s health. As baking soda is pH 8.4, it will raise your pH if your tank is low or too acidic.
  • You may need reverse osmosis – this is the best way to keep the water fresh and continuously being circulated and cleaned. It may be killing your plants, and you don’t even realize. Invest in a quality reverse osmosis system for your tank.
  • Add peat moss – this may help to balance your tank and get your other plants back to health by reducing the pH of the tank. Peat moss should be put in a mesh bag or something that will contain it but allow it to release nutrients, but it may slightly discolor your tank temporarily. Ride it out, and it will go back to normal color, with the side effect of a balanced pH in your tank.

Final Thoughts

If you have an aquarium, you know how serene these home ecosystems are and how beautiful it is to have one in your sanctuary.

Please keep in mind that your tank is an entire ecosystem, which means it is prone to water shifts, diseases, and stress, which may lead to the death of the plants in your tank. It is your responsibility to understand the chemistry of your tank and balance it according to the varieties of plants and fish you own.

Always research the plants you have to be sure it is the right types of plants for these fish/ this tank. Then your fish can keep swimming, and your plants can dance in the turquoise blue waters for you!

Good luck with your tank, and I hope experimenting with these chemical and nutrient levels will take that transparent plant ghost out of your tank for good!

No more hauntings for you because we’re going to have happy fish swimming around in a happy tank. With a little tender love and care, your plants will thrive for years to come. 

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Author Profile

Adam Edwards
Hi, my name is Adam and I'm an aquarium enthusiast! I didn't discover the joys of being an 'aquarium fanatic' (as some of my friends call me!) until I was in my 20's. When I first started out I found it difficult to find all the information I needed so I started this website to compile all the useful information I can think of. Enjoy!