The riparium is a special type of ‘arium’ with its own unique flavor.
Using a combination of aquatic (and terrestrial) elements, a riparium looks to create a stunning shoreline effect. Perfect for scenes of idyllic riverbanks, babbling creeks, or moody mangroves.
These environments open up a range of creative options for hydrophilic plants and semi-aquatic projects.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started on your own DIY riparium. From natural biotope and plant inspiration to the unique construction techniques involved.
So, if you can’t beach ’em – join ’em!
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What is a Riparium?
A riparium is a planted tank that looks to recreate a natural riparian zone.
Derived from the Latin word ripa, meaning “river,” these are the buffer areas like riverbanks and wetlands.
Naturally, creating a river scene is going to involve some water-loving plants. But in the case of a riparium, a very specific kind of plant takes center stage – marginal plants.
Plants that can grow in the transitionary phases of the water, from fully to partially submerged.
In fact, we can grow these plants emersed. Meaning they can grow standing in water, with their roots beneath the waterline and their foliage above. This effect is what really achieves the characteristic look of a riparium.
(More on the specifics and examples of these later).
In terms of construction, there are a few main approaches to creating the riparian look.
- 1. Incorporate your taller emersed terrestrial plants through the use of planters. These can come in the form of specialized cups/crates that can be stuck directly to the tank’s back pane of glass. Once the plants grow in, they effectively hide the planters to form a natural-looking scene.
- 2. Have your hardscape form the transition piece instead of your plants. A simpler version of a riparium can have a large hardscape item (rock or branch) piercing the surface, fulfilling the dual role of “emersed object” and “planting solution.” You can plant epiphytes as necessary to achieve the desired look.
- 3. Use an aquatic substrate to create hills or slopes that poke out of the water to create islands. These can create more of a true riverbank look, and you can actually plant in every area of the scape. Though some would argue this is headed more into paludarium territory.
All of these solutions come in both open and closed forms, but I’ve seen far more open tanks. After all, trapping humidity isn’t so important when your plants have direct access to a tank of water.
Riparium vs Paludarium (& Why it Matters)
It’s worth clarifying the difference, as the overlapping definitions of the many “ariums” do get confusing…
In essence, both ripariums and paludariums share a common concept – that of combining terrestrial and aquatic elements into a single design.
Though they differ in a variety of practical and theoretical ways.
- Paludariums can have distinctly separate terrestrial and aquatic areas, incorporating different types of substrates and plants. Whereas a riparium tends to lean toward being purely semi-aquatic, using entirely marginal plants either growing emersed or fully submerged.
- Ripariums are focused entirely on riparian biotopes (e.g., rivers), whereas paludariums can be any combination of land and water.
All that said, the definition of a riparium vs. a paludarium is still contested. It could be argued that a riparium is a subset of a paludarium and vice-versa.
For me, what matters most is a focus on marginal plants and riverbank aesthetics, so as long as you’re catering your project towards those goals, you’re on the right track.
Choosing Suitable Riparium Plants
So, we’ve already identified that most riparium plants are “marginal plants.”
Let’s dive a little deeper into those (and where you’d find them).
First up, houseplants.
You may be surprised how many common tropical houseplants can happily grow emersed in a riparium environment. They’re often selected for their size and easygoing nature, so they can quickly and easily fill out a scene.
What plant possibly fits that bill better than a Pothos?
They’re a hardy bunch, and they can quickly adapt to a new aquatic environment. Even the likes of Syngonium and Peace Lillies are often used as the taller emersed background plants.
There are plenty of terrarium plants that can make the transition to high moisture environments too.
In fact, the Pilea genus has a variety of good candidates. Both the Friendship Plant and the Aluminum plant thrive in high moisture environments and can be used to add some foliage flair to your setup. The classic Fittonia is a good fit for ripariums too.
Then, you have the true semi-aquatic species that will be growing submerged beneath the waterline.
There’s a whole aquascaping industry built around the supply and cultivation of these kinds of aquarium plants, so there really is a lot to choose from. Sometimes even pond plants can work.
Here are some good starting points.
- Microsorum “Java Ferns” and Echinodorus “Amazon Swords” both provide some of the larger, full-leafed aquatic plants to create that density of underwater foliage.
- Cryptocoryne and Anubias offer a wide range of smaller-leafed varieties, from bright little grassy numbers to deep emeralds.
- Textured carpeting plants like the ever popular Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’ (Dwarf Baby Tears) can – and will – rapidly grow all over a riparium environment.
- Finally, we have moss to pull the whole thing together. Java Moss and Christmas Moss can both happily grow submerged, emersed, and everywhere between. Not to mention the moss bears the riparium name! Leptodictyum riparium. Which, incidentally, is an excellent fit too.
Riparium Supplies – What Do You Need?
Riparium tanks are most often repurposed aquarium tanks, so they can take almost any shape or size.
They’re often considered “low tech” in that people tend to rely on the plants to do most of the filtering, and because said plants are growing emersed, they don’t need CO2 pumping into the water. So you don’t always need space for extra equipment.
I’ve seen everything from tiny nano ripariums all the way up to giant tanks (that are practically furniture).
These days, there’s definitely a trend of shallower tanks too. They allow the space for taller plants to grow beyond to rim, completing the look.
👉 Something like this NCYPGarden Tank could be a perfect starting point.
Alternatively, many suitable terrarium containers can work too. A super low-tech version can still work in a large vase or similar.
You’ve got a few options for riparium substrates, depending on which approach you take to your project.
- Use an aquarium substrate throughout the entire tank (e.g., Seachem Floruite or Fluval Stratum). That way, you can sculpt the entire landscape and plant throughout it. This would also be my go-to choice for filling any riparium planters too.
- A LECA hydroponic setup could potentially work in planters, too, though it’s more likely to float when submerged, so it has a lot less utility. Probably best used in isolated planter cups at the waterline (i.e., where it can’t escape).
- A sand and gravel base is an easy way to get a naturalistic look at the bottom of your tank. It’s usually not ideal for planting in (as it contains no nutrients), but epiphytes and floating plants are still an option to add some greenery. I’d recommend lava rock gravel as its porosity has some additional benefits for planting.
As in nature, branches and rocks are key to pulling off a true riparian look.
Whether you’re going for driftwood caught downstream in rocky outcrops or a natural transition of river stones – there’s a hardscape selection for you.
Importantly, hardscape can play a dual role here in providing planting opportunities too.
Hardscape can function as the key transition piece. Making up a “land” area as they stick up out of the water (which you can plant epiphytically onto).
Now It’s Your Turn
There you have it, a crash course in the riparium.
Sure they can appear to be complicated at first, but following the right principles, they can be quite simple.
Honestly, by sticking with marginal plants (and especially the hardier of the bunch like Pothos), you really can’t go too wrong.
If you’re looking to incorporate more terrestrial features, why not check out our paludarium guide?