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Aquarium Plants Turning White: All Reasons & Solutions

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Seeing your aquarium plants turn white might be alarming, but it’s actually a relatively common problem. I experienced this myself recently and found out that there are a few reasons why this can happen. After extensive research, I also learned how to solve the problem.

Aquarium plants usually turn white when there isn’t enough light or when the water doesn’t hold enough carbon dioxide. That will prevent the plants from performing photosynthesis, and therefore, they will lose color. Also, white colors could be secondary to unstable pH and nutrient deficiencies.

As we proceed, I will take you step-by-step through my troubleshooting process to solve this problem. That includes using some commercial products, fertilizers in particular. Then, I will show you how to identify dying aquarium plants, indicating you should quickly take action.

Why Are My Aquarium Plants Turning White?

Plants require just as much care and attention as your fish. And if you don’t care for them appropriately, they will die. The discoloration is just one sign among many you may notice.

If your plants are becoming white or transparent, you can blame the issue on one or more of the following factors:

1. Your Plants Don’t Get Enough Light

Lighting matters because plants use it for photosynthesis. Without proper lighting, the plants cannot absorb the CO2 fish generate. You don’t want to expose your tank to intense lighting, either.

Excess light enhances the rate at which algae grows, and algae infestation can chock your plants.[1] For the most part, low-level lighting is the best choice because it forces the plants in the aquarium to grow at a slower rate.[2]

Intense light does the opposite. It increases the rate of growth, a phenomenon that can cause the plants to crowd the aquarium. However, you have to avoid extremes.

If the lighting is too low, the health of your plants will suffer. And over time, they will lose their green color. But intense lighting is just as bad. You have to find a happy medium.

2. The Water Acidity Is Unstable

Many beginners know that plants impact the pH in the water. This is because carbon dioxide affects the pH; it lowers the pH, making the water more acidic. On the other hand, oxygen doesn’t affect the pH.

Because plants absorb the carbon dioxide that fish generate, they inadvertently raise the pH by reducing the volume of carbon dioxide in the water. Professionals encourage beginners to keep this in mind whenever they add plants to the tank.

But it doesn’t occur to them to highlight the effect pH can have on plants. Like fish, different plants have different pH requirements. The Amazon sword plant is a prominent example.

It thrives in acidic water, whereas Egeria needs alkaline water. A tank with unstable pH will harm the plants, causing their leaves to turn white or transparent.

3. Your Plants Don’t Absorb Enough CO2

Plants require carbon dioxide to thrive. This isn’t a problem for plants outside the water because they can extract as much CO2 as they need from the air. Carbon dioxide is always available.

Unfortunately, aquatic plants are not quite as lucky. They have a limited amount of CO2.[3] Without sufficient CO2, their health will suffer, causing discoloration. The problem with varying CO2 levels is that they cause instabilities in the pH, making the situation even worse for your plants.

4. The Plants Aren’t Getting Nutrients

If every other aspect of your tank is correct (CO2, Lighting, pH), you should look at the micronutrients. These minerals are essential to the health of aquatic plants.

A deficiency in any area can have disastrous consequences for your plants. For instance:[4]

  • Iron – In the absence of iron, the leaves of a plant will grow pale green or white.
  • Calcium – Calcium deficiencies occur in tanks with soft water. Here, discoloration is not the only symptom. The leaves of a plant in a calcium-deficient tank will become twisted or stunted. Additionally, the tips will start to wither.
  • Nitrogen – Plants in a nitrogen-deficient tank will become yellow or transparent (or both). The change will start at the tips before spreading to the rest of the plant. Older leaves will eventually fall off. You are more likely to see nitrogen deficiencies in aquariums with little or no aquatic creatures.
  • Phosphorous – If you use phosphate-absorbing pads to fight algae, those pads can cause phosphorous deficiencies. Plants in phosphorous-deficient tanks are more yellow than white. They also have soggy brown patches. Some plants may become darker instead of losing their color.
  • Potassium – You don’t have to test the water to determine whether or not you have a potassium deficiency. The leaves will develop small holes, especially around the tips and edges.
  • Manganese – Species like Anubias Pinto have leaves with light patches. But if your research has revealed that the plants in your aquarium are not supposed to develop yellow/white patches, you have a manganese deficiency.
  • Magnesium – plants with a magnesium deficiency will turn a lighter color. Some of them will become white or transparent. They tend to maintain their dark veins. If the leaves are older, the edges will droop.

How Do I Keep My Aquarium Plants Green?

The factors highlighted above are a nuisance. Fortunately, there are several ways to counteract them:

1. Elevate The Carbon Dioxide Levels

If your tank doesn’t have enough carbon dioxide, the solutions you will deploy will depend on the cause of the CO2 deficiency. Keep the following in mind:

  • Checking The CO2 Levels

You can’t blame the discoloration on a CO2 deficiency without measuring the volume of carbon dioxide in the aquarium. Without taking the proper measurements, you ran the risk of overwhelming the tank with carbon dioxide.

High levels of CO2 are dangerous to fish. You can measure CO2 levels using the indicator method. This is where a glass bubble with Bromothymol blue is submerged in the tank.[5]

To do that, I usually use the NilocG Aquatics Co2 Drop Checker (link to Amazon). All you have to do is fill the drop checker with the indicator solution. Then, place it in your aquarium. Here is an excellent video that shows how to do that properly:

  • Picking The Right Time For Measuring

During the day, plants absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. But at night, in the dark, they absorb oxygen and generate CO2. If you have carbon dioxide injection systems, you should turn them off at night.

  • Considering CO2 Supplements

You can use commercial products to increase the carbon dioxide levels in the tank. For instance, pressurized CO2 is easy to set up. Though, it is expensive. Cheaper solutions include products like Seachem Flourish Excel Bioavailable Carbon (link to Amazon).

2. Adjusting The Lighting

You have to maintain a regular day/night cycle in the tank. If you have artificial lighting, keep the aquarium away from direct sunlight. Also, avoid incandescent lighting.

Because it cannot penetrate the water effectively, you cannot trust incandescent lighting to light the tank evenly.[6] That is why I suggest sticking with fluorescent and LED lights that have been rated for plant growth.

Avoid extremes, especially where the duration is concerned. You shouldn’t leave the lights on for 24 hours. However, leaving the plants in the dark for long periods is just as dangerous.

3. Using Aquarium Plants Fertilizers

Like all living creatures, aquarium plants require food. They usually get most of their food from the water and soil. But if you want to boost the productivity of your aquarium, you can use fertilizers.

When it comes to fertilizers for planted tanks, I recommend Seachem Flourish Tabs Growth Supplement (link to Amazon). It is a complete solution that will make your plants grow faster and develop healthier colors.

It contains all the nutrients your plants need to thrive, including Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphate, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, and Iron. Being an all-in-one solution, it’s a lot easier than using individual supplements.

4. Dealing With Nutritional Deficiencies

These are the recommended values for a regular planted tank:

  • Iron: 0.10 mg/L
  • Calcium: 15 mg/L
  • Nitrogen: 10-20 mg/L
  • Phosphorus: 0.15–1.0 mg/L
  • Potassium: 5-10 mg/L
  • Manganesium: 10-15 mg/L

If you wish to treat each nutrient separately, you can use these test kits:

The solution to nutritional deficiencies will depend on the nutritional deficiency you have identified:[7]

  • Iron – use iron supplements and fertilizers. Make sure the fertilizers are specifically designed to resolve iron deficiencies. An all-in-one fertilizer doesn’t have enough iron.
  • Calcium – Because soft water can cause iron deficiencies, you can use crushed coral to increase the hardness of the water gradually.
  • Nitrogen – You find nitrogen deficiencies in young tanks whose owners have failed to establish a proper nitrogen cycle. You have to cycle the tank to completion. You should also increase the number of living creatures in the aquarium. The waste they produce will become nitrogen.
  • Phosphorous – you can supplement phosphorous levels in the tank by adding phosphorus-rich fertilizers.[8]
  • Potassium – Buy a potassium-rich fertilizer or supplement.
  • Manganese – Add a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
  • Magnesium – Because most fertilizers use magnesium, you can raise magnesium levels by making regular use of fertilizers. But don’t expect to see results right away. It can take two or more weeks for your plants to recover. Observe the consequences of your actions and change the fertilization schedule accordingly.[9]

How Do You Tell If Your Aquarium Plants Are Dying?

Dying aquarium plants typically start developing deformities, such as twisted-brittle leaves and thin stems. You may also notice color changes, with yellow, brown, and white in particular. Also, some dying aquarium plants will grow more slowly, while others will stop growing altogether.

Plants cannot talk. But if they are dying, these are just a few of the signs you can expect to observe:

1. Color Changes

When a plant is dying, the leaves will change color, turning yellow, white, brown, and more. The exact color you can expect to observe will depend on the species of plant and the factors responsible for the alteration.

2. Discoloration

A dying plant may lose its color altogether. In some situations, the leaves will only become transparent at the tips and edges.

3. Deformities

Dying plants can develop deformities, especially the leaves. The leaves can become twisted if the plant has a calcium deficiency.[10] You may also notice that a previously thick plant has become thin at the stem.

That is a sign of trouble. Plants that struggle with insufficient lighting are weak and spindly.[11] If the poor conditions in the tank persist, the plants will die.

4. Slow Growth

Dying plants can become stunted. Their growth may slow down drastically enough for you to notice. People hate it when their plants grow too quickly. They do not realize that plants can grow too slowly as well.

Some plants will slow down in their growth because of a nutrient deficiency. Others will stop growing altogether. This happens in tanks with extreme parameters like pH and temperature.

Some plants can recover once you eliminate the factors responsible for stunted growth. For instance, if you fix or replace a malfunctioning heater. Others will die regardless of what you do.

5. Brittle Leaves

With some plants, the leaves won’t stop at simply turning yellow or brown. They will also become incredibly brittle, so much so that they fall apart whenever you touch them. Tiny leaves are just as suspicious as brittle leaves. They prove that the plant is not healthy.

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Aquarium plants usually turn white because of problems with the environment, including low light and nutrient deficiencies. If you can fix the underlying factors, the plants will grow back to their natural colors in no time. But if you cannot fix the problems, they may eventually die.

Start by checking for obvious signs. Check for color changes and discolored leaves. If you see these signs, take action immediately. As a first step, I would suggest getting a decent fertilizer to enrich the water with nutrients.