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The Aquatic Gardner - January 2004


Every month some guy that looks like Jerry Garcia (complete with tie-dye t-shirt, somewhat of an oddity at TFH world headquarters) doles out the theme for the month and I have to write a column that somehow fits in. Last months "back to basics" was not that tough, the month before's "tankbusters" was a little tougher. This months marine theme presents a bit of a challenge.

Sure these are plants in some marine tanks - algae - that's right, virtually all marine plants are algae - but I know nothing about them. While I've been convinced over the years some writers produce articles they know nothing about I refuse to be one of them. So armed with editorial special dispensation I get to pick as a topic my favorite plants - the Aroids of the genus Cryptocoryne.

The Aroids are a large family and oddly enough also contain my favorite terrestrial plants, the Hostas. I always liked Hostas because they remind me of certain crypts; it wasn't until years later I found out they're not that dissimilar, and while hostas like moist soil they do spectacularly badly when submersed. As they in infomercials "don't try this at home".

Crypts, however, are perfect aquarium plants and somewhere in the past decade they surpassed Aopnogetons as my favorite plants. This is probably around the time I stopped killing every one I'd ever had and have actually managed to keep them alive for years on end. I think I understand the dreaded "melt" and can to some extent abate it. I have tanks now that I'd only seen in other peoples houses or stores where one species of Crypt has taken over a tank completely. In my own small way I have mastered the genus Cryptocoryne! It only took 20 years of trying.

Before I let you in on this little secret that isn't really a secret, let's have a look at what they are and where they're from.

Crypts can be found only from India to Papua New Guinea. There are none in the new world (well there are supposed to be none in the new world, but they have become established as weeds in places like Florida and Texas. This is not a good thing), none in Europe, Africa or Australia. They are also conspicuously absent from both North and South poles. If you see a photo of a penguin eating a crypt, rest assured it's a doctored picture

There are many species of Crypts, probably more so than any other plant genus kept by aquarists with the possible exception of genus Potamogeton, yet few Potamogetons are kept in aquaria, while dozens of species of Crypts are maintained in the hobby. At least we think they're species... more on this next month.

They are also an amazingly diverse genus; whereas one could argue that "a sword is a sword" and that most Echinodorus all look fairly similar, a charge that could also be levied against Aponogeton and perhaps, in truth, every other genus of aquatic plants, the only thing crypts seem to have in common with each other are a creeping rhizome, a leaf at the end of a stalk and a flowering spathe. Their external appearance varies widely from hosta like plants with a wide heart shaped leaf to plants that look like eelgrass or sag ot val - long thin leaves. Most are green, but various shades of green from light to olive, to brown to purple to red(dish). You could probably stock a tank with various species of crypt and to the untrained eye they might, no doubt, look like many species of plants from all over the world representing many different pant genera - but no.

Also, not only does the genus have tremendous diversity but so do individual species. It is perhaps not even possible to enumerate all the different and various forms of certain species. C wendtii comes to mind.

The earliest recorded aquarium plantings of crypts are from Europe in the 1910s while the first crypt to be described was in 1779 as Arum spirale by Retzius. It was not however, until the 1960's when Crypts began showing up in any numbers as wild imports and their popularity really took off and they could be considered commonplace. While they certainly were kept before this they tended to be very uncommon and were the realm of specialists. A coupe of years ago Col. J.J. Scheel's grandson sent me photos of the good Colonel, one of them was a shot of him standing in front of what looks like a 65 gallon tank with a wild jungle of what might be Crypt. griffithi - this was in the 1950s.

I'd love to be able to say Crypts are thriving well in the wild, but other than cockroaches and mosquitoes I'm not sure you can say that about any species. The problem is the usual one: habitat destruction. If you were to go to the collection points of Crypts from 100 years ago you might in all likelihood find a golf course, highway, oil palm plantation or heaven knows what else.

Anybody old enough to have watched Happy days and thought the fonz was a kid will probably remember Robert Gasser; he was one of the the most prolific and serious of Crypt collectors in the day, that day being in the nineteen sixties. Bob passed away a few years ago but still commands tremendous admiration bordering on awe. His lists of Crypts he sold from his Florida nursery was unrivaled and an old copy with Bob's interesting sidebar notes can be found at http://www.xs4all.nl/~crypts/Cryptocoryne/Botanical/Persons/Gasser/Gasser.html One could argue that Bob in Florida and Shirley's Aquatics on the UK were the major forces behind the increasing popularity and availability of Crypts some 30 years sgo. (although this is undoubtedly a non-European perspective). I know of one aquarist (I'm not giving out any names but his initials are Charlie Drew) who to this day maintains a culture of Cryptocorynes obtained from Shirly Aquatics in the sixties. (Postscript, 2010: 1950 not "the sixties" - rjs)

Crypts can be grown submersed or emersed, in most cases. A few don't do well emersed while a roughly equal small number don't do well submersed. But, any species you find in a local store is almost certainly fine for aquarium use; the picky ones are quite rare in the hobby and are best left to the serious student of the plant; they are hard to find.

There are quite a few schools of thought on the proper keeping of crypts. It's not open to debate that some like soft water, while some like, no, must have fairly hard calcareous water... did I mention they're a diverse group... while others tolerate even thrive in brackish water! No mater what comes out of your tap, there's probably a crypt for you.

It is sadly beyond the scope of the 10K characters I'm alloted here to cover all the various substrate types people successfully grow crypts in, frankly almost anything will work and as long as they're not too hot or too cool they'll be fine.

It's often stated in aquarium literature that Crypts are low light plants. While this is true, this does not, however, mean crypts prefer low light. They tolerate it well but the better the light the better they will do - do a point - direct outdoor sunlight is almost certainly too bright if unfiltered.

Earlier on I alluded to a "secret" for growing crypts, one that, frankly, eluded me for 20 years. The secret? Ignore them. When you hear the phrase "killed by kindness" Crypts should almost immediately spring to mind.

The other little "secret" is much more controversial and bounces around between being an old wives tale and an accepted almost-fact: crypts grow better by themselves.

Crypt hate being disturbed. while other plants thing nothing of being trimmed or moved and get over it quite quickly, Crypts seem to hate any change at all. If the temperature, chemical makeup, amount of light or really anything changes suddenly Crypts are unhappy. Seriously unhappy, suicidally so. And there's really nothing worse than an unhappy Crypt, for they literally melt right before your very eyes. This is the famous "Crypt meltdown"

It begins innocently enough as a transparency at the tips of the leaves, as if they just dissolve. Within days or sometimes even hours, the plants - and I mean all crypts in the tank turn into a gelatinous goo, they honestly and quite literally melt. In older literature this was sometimes regarded as a disease and it's no wonder no cure was ever found, it's simply an environmental response. Haven't changed your water in a while? Your Crypts will let you know - very suddenly and out of seemingly nowhere - *poof* they're gone. Filtration fail while you're away for the weekend and there's thermal stratification in your tank? You'll come home to a bunch of stalks sticking up without a trace of any leaves - it's as if they dissolved. They did. The seem to undergo a very very rapid necrosis: it happens more quickly if a healthy leaf comes in physical contact with a necrotic leaf, but if a single crypt is melting in a tank, chances are very high all crypts in the tank will shed their leaves in response. Why? Now that's a good question. One possible explanation, and this is just my personal theory, is that because the plants are almost as big under the gravel as they are above it - they throw prodigious runners in the form of creeping rhizomes - the leaves are considered expendable. Quite simply, the plant can do without them. The rhizome is everything, the leaves are just a means to fuel the rhizome. You may be able to take a leaf from an African violet or geranium and root it and get a new plant but not so with crypts. But, take even a tiny piece of the rhizome, float it in a tank and you can grow a new plant from it. A very tiny plant albeit, and it will take a while to get large as leaf size seems to vary in direct proportion to the rhizome mass, but yes you will get a new plant. So, it would seem to be an evolutionary advantage for a plant to drop it's leaves to preserve the really important bits - the rhizome.

While "the dreaded melt" is an unquestionable disaster - sometimes crypt meltdowns take out other species of plants as well. Tough pants like Anubias are unlikely to be affected whereas plants with thin leaves - Aponogeton and Rotala macranda come to mind - can also suffer if crypts are melting down.

But, this is not all the disaster it appears to be. They do grow back. Within a week they should be sprouting new leaves (assuming the cause for the meltdown has been abated) within a month they should be recognizable as the plant they once were, albeit smaller, and within 6 months the should be back to the size they were before they melted down. Now, given that other plants are affected in some cases, by Crypt melt, how well do they gro back from only roots? Crypts to quite well. Other plants may not do so well. Advantage: Cryptocorynes.

...to be continued next month.

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