African Cichlids Tank Decoration Ideas

Decorating a fish tank is one of the most entertaining and relaxing activities when keeping fish. You get to create a cozy little world that not only looks good but also helps your fish feel at home. But how do you do it? What should you be looking for? That’s what I’m here to help you with! In this article, I’ll go over everything you need to add to your African cichlid tank.

I’ve kept both aesthetics and functionality in mind, and only included the best options for African cichlids. So, if you want to decorate a unique and attractive cichlid tank without skimping on practicality, keep reading. I’ll give you a list of all the decorations you’ll need for your aquarium. Let’s get started!

Substrate for African Cichlids

The substrate is the first thing you should think about when decorating an aquarium. And trust me, this choice can either make or break the entire look of your tank. You need a good substrate to anchor your plants. The substrate should also closely mimic the cichlids’ natural environment. Taking these factors into consideration, there are two main substrate choices for a cichlid tank.

– Sand Substrate

First, you have a sand substrate. Sand substrates are made up of small, roughly equal-sized grains. They’re light and usually come in colors like white, wheat, or light tan. The great thing about a sand substrate is that it looks very natural and closely resembles the sandy bottom of an ocean. It’s perfect if you’re going for a soft, bright, natural look.

Being so small and lightweight, sand makes scavenging and digging very easy for cichlids of all sizes. The main disadvantage of sand is that there’s too little space between the grains. Sand gets compacted easily under a large volume of water. This can damage plants and water quality.

This issue can easily be solved by regularly sifting through the substrate with either your fingers or a small gravel rake. Sand is also more difficult to clean due to its small grain size. It’s so light that it can easily get sucked up and removed by a substrate vacuum.

On the flip side, sand substrates can add a lot of beneficial minerals to the water. Aragonite sand contains high concentrations of calcium, carbonate, potassium, and magnesium. These minerals raise and stabilize the water pH and hardness to a level suitable for cichlids. Weighing the pros and the cons, a sandy substrate is the best option for African cichlids.

– Gravel Substrate

The second option you have is an aragonite gravel substrate. It has to be specifically marketed as an African cichlid substrate. That’s how you know it contains the necessary minerals to maintain proper water chemistry. This type of substrate has the same practical advantages as aragonite sand.

But unlike sand, gravel substrates come in more colors, from white to very dark brown. There’s a lot of variety to choose from. Gravel is also not perfectly uniform, which creates a rougher but natural-looking texture. If you want a darker, more rocky-looking substrate, this is the best option. It certainly creates a nice contrast with green plants and other decorations.

Gravel substrates are also easier to clean due to the larger particle size. Gravel is unlikely to cause dead zones in the aquarium because it doesn’t get compacted the same way sand does. The large grain size and the space between them contribute to proper aeration. The main issue with gravel is that the large grain size can prevent some cichlids from digging holes.

It’s harder for fish to burrow in such substrate. If you keep smaller cichlids, this can constitute a problem for breeding. Cichlids need to dig nests to protect their eggs. Overall, gravel is a satisfactory option, but not as good as sand. It makes cleanup easier but isn’t suitable for small cichlid species.

Rocks for African Cichlids

I’d say rocks aren’t ideal, but mandatory in a cichlid tank. In their natural habitat, African cichlids prefer sandy areas with plenty of large rocks. They need rocks for hiding, resting, and protecting their eggs. The same applies to cichlids kept in an aquarium!

And luckily, the possibilities are endless. You can choose between lots of types of rocks. You can really get creative with all the different sizes, shapes, textures, and colors. Porous rocks, smooth, irregular, everything goes. Colors like grey or white look great against all substrates.

You can also find tan, brown, and reddish rocks to add to the aquarium. The rocks can even double as a natural means of raising the water pH. Rocks like tufa, limestone, dolomite, or coral skeletons slowly leach minerals into the water, contributing to increased hardness and alkalinity. Artificial materials are great too.

Use the rocks as boulders for a focal point, or arrange them to create caves and other hiding places. However, make sure your rocks stay stable. You don’t want the fish to accidentally push them over and get hurt.

Plants for African Cichlids

Plants not only add to the beauty of the aquarium, but they even bring added benefits like water filtration! And there are lots of beautiful species to choose from. Sadly, not all are suitable for African cichlids. These fish are known to graze on plant matter. They nibble on leaves constantly and might end up killing the plant before it has a chance to grow.

For this reason, slow-growing plants are not the best. You should also avoid plants with shallow and fragile roots. African cichlids are avid diggers. They like going through the substrate and they can easily uproot a weakly fixed plant. But don’t worry, there are still many interesting-looking plants you can add to your cichlid tank. Here are some of the best options:

– Java Fern

The java fern is a hardy plant that can handle the extreme water requirements of cichlids. This plant is very easy to maintain and also develops a strong and intricate root system. It’s unlikely that cichlids will uproot this plant.

Cichlids are also particularly attracted to this plant species. While java fern grows slowly, the fish won’t nibble on it as much as on other plants. Also, the java fern doesn’t need a lot of trimming. It grows wide, rather than tall.

– Java Moss

This is another hardy plant that can handle high pH water. It grows and spreads quickly, so it needs frequent trimming. However, in matters of looks, this little plant is unparalleled.

If you’re looking for a rich green plant that can easily be manipulated and attached to other tank decorations, this is the plant for you. This tiny plant might look fragile, but it develops a surprisingly deep root system. Another big plus is that African cichlids don’t like snacking on this plant that much.

– Anubias

This plant is a bit tricky to work with in the beginning. It can die quickly if it gets submerged too deeply in the substrate.

Other than that, Anubias is a very hardy and low-maintenance species. Like other plants on the list, this species grows deep, strongly anchored roots.

Its petioles grow quite long, making the leaves easy to attach to various surfaces. This makes for beautiful arrangements that resemble ivy growing on trees in the wild. This species is also not a favorite of mbunas, so they won’t snack on it much.

– Vallisneria Spiralis

This plant is more like a very tall grass. It makes a good hiding place for fish. It also has a soft, relaxing movement when the fish swim through it.

It really transforms the entire look of the aquarium. Just know that this plant grows very quickly and needs constant trimming.

Other than that, it’s a very low-maintenance choice. Being a hardy species, it adapts well to the alkaline water in a cichlid tank. Like all other plants on the list, this species develops deep roots. This plant is well anchored and unlikely to be uprooted by the fish.

– Hornwort

Hornwort is a very versatile and low-maintenance plant. For starters, you don’t even have to plant it, if you don’t want to!

This species can do well both anchored and just floating around in the water. This floating plant is also extremely hardy and can thrive in most aquarium conditions, including an alkaline environment.

You won’t have to worry about your cichlids uprooting and killing the plant. This species also doesn’t make the ideal snack for fish due to its off-putting taste. You can arrange this plant in many different ways. Its light and wispy look also adds a unique touch to any aquarium.

Caves for African Cichlids

Caves are a great addition to most fish aquariums. But for African cichlids, they’re probably the main decorative piece to consider. You see, in the wild, cichlids like hanging around rocky areas with small caves. There, they have many spaces where they can hide and lay eggs.

They’ll also exhibit the same behavior in captivity. I recommend adding at least one cave for every single cichlid you keep. Remember, these fish are highly territorial. Each of them will want to claim a safe hiding spot as its own. Luckily, there are so many options to choose from!  You can get ornamental resin caves, like ships, towers, hobbit houses, even “animal” bones.

There are also more subtle and natural options like rock slates, hollow logs, carved natural rocks, tufa, and so on. The possibilities are endless. You can create any type of look you want. Some aquarists even get into DIY and create their own caves using clay flowerpots. Whatever you choose, cichlids aren’t picky. They’ll love any cave they can call their own.

Drift Wood for African Cichlids

Driftwood is another way to improve the appearance of your aquarium and create a natural look. Driftwood looks great against dark-colored substrates or next to aquarium plants. It can also be displayed in various ways, horizontally, vertically, placed against rocks. You can also attach plants to it.

Some of the most popular types include bonsai, saba, and cholla driftwood. You can create an exotic look with a specially handcrafted bonsai. Alternatively, you can use saba driftwood for a more rough and wild appearance. This type of driftwood looks like an old tree stump with large roots.

Cholla driftwood is the most intricate of the three. It makes an interesting piece thanks to its hollow appearance and multiple holes. And of course, these are just some of the options you have. There are plenty of driftwood products you can buy, each with a different size, color, and texture.

Just a heads-up before adding driftwood to the aquarium though. You’ll have to pre-soak the wood for a long time. You shouldn’t add it straight into the aquarium. That’s because most driftwood will float to the surface if not properly soaked.

But even more importantly, adding dried driftwood to water will result in an unsightly water color change. Driftwood contains tannic acid. When it leaches into the water, it can create a strange color, ranging from pale yellow to dark brown. On the flip side, driftwood can increase the water pH and maintain alkalinity, which is desirable for a cichlid tank.


There are many elements you can combine to give your aquarium a striking appearance. From the substrate to plants, from rocks to caves and driftwood, there’s a world of choices. You can find most of these decorative pieces in various natural colors, textures, and sizes. Most of these elements also double as water quality enhancers.

A high-quality substrate, natural rocks, and driftwood not only look great but also help maintain good water chemistry. Mineral-rich sand, gravel, and rocks raise the water’s hardness and pH. Driftwood also maintains water alkalinity, making the aquarium a hospitable place for African cichlids.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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