Dwarf Baby Tears, or Hemianthus callitrichoides, is a jaw-dropping carpet plant with delicate leaves and stems. It’s also one of the hardest carpet plants to grow, and more than one aquarist has just given up on it. Fortunately, if you follow a few basic rules you’ll have a much better chance for success.
Ready for a challenge? Then get ready to dig into the wonderful world of Dwarf Baby Tears care, and learn how to make your plants into a thick, welcoming carpet!
Dwarf Baby Tears Fast Facts
Common Name: Dwarf Baby Tears
Other Common Names: HC, Cuba
Scientific Name: Hemianthus callitrichoides
Plant Type: Carpet
Natural Habitat: Shallow streams in the West Indies, particularly Cuba
Care Level: Intermediate-Advanced
What is Dwarf Baby Tears?
Dwarf Baby Tears, commonly referred to as HC, is a tiny, creeping plant that’s found in the West Indies. It was originally found about half a meter deep among rocks in a stream, making it a shallow water plant.
Dwarf Baby Tears is among the smallest aquarium plants available and is commonly found in high-end nature aquariums. When the aquarium is properly done it creates tight bundles of stemmed carpet, with thousands of millimeter-sized leaves creating a verdant carpet.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: you’re not going to make HC thrive in a low-tech aquarium. You’ll end up with a sparse scattering of stems. There are better options to carpet a tank without CO2 and high lighting.
Dwarf Baby Tears are notoriously touchy. They can be hard to kill, but thriving is what we aim for and that’s much harder than most plants.
One of the best qualities of Dwarf Baby Tears is the ability to “pearl.” When conditions are correct for the plant to thrive it will form small bubbles of oxygen that get trapped in the mat and released occasionally. It adds a truly dynamic quality to the carpet that few other plants can match.
What Kind of Aquaria is Dwarf Baby Tears Right For?
High-tech nature tanks that need a carpet. While HC is commonly used in planted aquaria, these tanks tend to have some similar features.
HC isn’t suitable for tanks with heavy plant grazers. A few stems getting eaten is fine, but something like a goldfish will destroy an established carpet in days. Oddballs that move through the substrate, such as peacock eels, are also right out.
In general, you’ll want the following qualities in a tank that’s destined for an HC takeover:
- High Lighting- 2W per gallon (100 lumens per gallon) is the minimum. Run higher lighting whenever possible, 3-4W per gallon will do much better.
- CO2 Injection- HC needs CO2 to survive, without it the plant will fail to thrive. You can use Seachem Excel instead but an actual CO2 setup is preferable.
- Nutritious Fine Substrate- You’ll need a sand-like substrate to allow the plant to spread. Gravel-like substrates will limit the ability of the plant to grow. The substrate should also have plenty of nutrients. Root tabs will be essential after the first six months.
- Shallow- This plant doesn’t do well in tall tanks. You’ll have to up the lights even more to achieve good growth. Using a shallow tank(under 24” in depth) is ideal, and won’t force you to find another solution.
In other words: Dwarf Baby Tears need high light to thrive and CO2 to spread. If you can achieve that balance and keep your micronutrients in order then you’ll be good to go.
As far as aquascape design goes, HC is most suited for Japanese-style nature aquariums. Popularized by Takashi Amano, these tanks are designed to create an underwater landscape.
The important part to note for those who don’t want to go down that road is that these tanks have two features that make them a great habitat for Dwarf Baby Tears:
- Clear Top- These tanks don’t use floating plants or allow stems to grow across the top since it would defeat the overall effect. That means light hits the carpet without any obstruction.
- Defined Hardscape- While Dwarf Baby Tears do great in the substrate, they also spread well on rocks and driftwood. A well-defined hardscape can allow the HC to get a better foothold, especially if you’re not in the habit of re-arranging your tank.
With that in mind, let’s get into the details.
Dwarf Baby Tears have a reputation for being difficult, especially for the beginning aquarist. I don’t recommend using this plant for a complete newbie, but if you do your research and get the right equipment you can pull it off.
In most tanks, you can center your aquatic care around your HC. The conditions which work best for HC work for the majority of aquarium plants. It’s a win-win.
Lights and CO2 should be your focus, along with the normal filters and heaters.
These are where many people fail with this plant. “Good enough” isn’t the way to go, you should invest in some serious lights and CO2.
You’ll need at least 2W per gallon of lighting. That works out to roughly 100 lumens per gallon with modern LED lighting, but more is better in this case. Strong lights make for healthy HC.
That said, you also need to get some extra CO2 in the water. Excel, or any other CO2 booster, works well but you’ll need to find the right dose.
Pressurized CO2 with tight controls is your best bet. Pressurized systems are rather expensive, however, and require a lot of extra know-how to use properly. If that sounds like too much of a pain you can always use a yeast reactor.
There are a lot of mixtures used to create CO2 but the most basic is just yeast, sugar, and water. If you’re a homebrewer you can even utilize that CO2 to kill two hobby birds with one stone.
The important thing is to provide these basic building blocks. You’ll know you’ve got it right when your HC begins to pearl. If you can achieve that, you’re truly getting into advanced aquarium-keeping territory.
Most aquatic plants adapt well to a wide variety of conditions. Dwarf Baby Tears can be stubborn if you get too far out of parameters, unfortunately.
You need warm, soft, slightly acidic water for the best results. The parameters needed are easily achievable if you’re using RO water to fill the tank:
- Temperature: 70-78°F (21-25°C)
- pH: 5.0-7.0
- kH: 0-10
Every little bit helps to keep up growth and leaf density, so aim for those parameters. Dwarf Baby Tears are most sensitive to temperature, but growing them in very hard water can also be difficult.
Floating Dwarf Baby Tears
Not everyone uses HC as a carpet. The plant can also be left floating, but a mat is usually a better idea than just letting the mass colonize.
A plastic grid is ideal for letting the plant float, it will colonize the entire grid and keep the mass stable.
Floating Dwarf Baby Tears will usually grow thicker than those used as a carpet. The high leaf density makes it an attractive floating plant, and it’s the best way to use it if you prefer to have overgrown tanks.
The plant provides good cover for fry and baby shrimp when floated, making it useful if your breeding tanks are well-established.
Planting HC is simple, but if you do it properly it’s also very time-consuming.
You’ll want to plant small clumps around ½” apart in the space where you want it to grow. The leaves need to emerge over the substrate, but you also need to push the plant deep enough that it will stay anchored.
In short: planting Dwarf Baby Tears from a culture to spread is time-consuming, delicate work.
If you find aquascaping relaxing, this won’t be a problem. When spread in this manner HC can create a full, thick carpet in a short period as the plants intertwine.
You can also just stick the whole culture in one spot and let it grow. It’s not a bad idea, but it will take longer to fill in.
Careful planning is essential, and you should make sure the plant stays put daily until it’s well-established. Floaters will happen, just replant them as you find them.
If you’re having trouble keeping the plantlets down in the substrate, you may want to try planting them over a bit of plastic grid. The plants can “grip” the grid.
You may be able to find HC grown on a plastic grid. These are great for those having trouble keeping plants down. You can just use a pair of scissors to cut the grid into smaller pieces and slide the bits under the substrate for your initial propagation.
Attaching to Hardscape Elements
Since HC takes its nutrients from the water column, we can also stick it to driftwood or stones. It grows well on both, and careful pruning around these elements is common in high-end nature aquariums.
I’ve found HC takes a little more time than Java Moss to actually attach itself to hardscape elements. It’s still much faster than slow-growing rhizome plants like Java Fern or Anubias sp.
You can use several methods to attach the plant. I’d use one of the following:
- Superglue- Glue the cutting to the stone or bit of driftwood. Standard cyanoacrylate superglue works, but use aquarium glue if you’re unsure of the brands. This method is simple and works best for attaching the plant to stones.
- Cotton String- On driftwood, a piece of string can be wrapped around the plant to affix it. I prefer to use black or dark green string, as it’s less obtrusive until the plant covers it. Just wrap it around the cutting multiple times and tie it off with a double knot, the string will rot eventually but not before the plant is attached.
- Fishing Line- Fishing lines can be used like strings but removed once the plant is established. The fishing line won’t rot, so you may want to cut it and remove it once the plant is fully established.
HC will spread across these surfaces as far as you let it. This can be used to magnificent effect by aquascapers, or you can just let it carpet everything and create a meadow in your aquarium.
Always attach the cutting to the side of the rock or wood that’s exposed to light.
Trimming Dwarf Baby Tears is simple: just cut it to the desired height.
If you have the patience, you can carefully trim above the growth node to create a thicker stem. It’s often unnecessary once HC is well-established, given a high-tech aquarium the plant thrives.
The plant can grow up to 6” vertically, but most keep it trimmed at around an inch. You can go closer as well depending on the effect you want to achieve.
Just trim it to the desired height and maintain the carpet afterward.
Dwarf Baby Tears grow within the substrate or hardscape elements by sending out runners. This makes the plant easy to propagate and spread across a tank, even if you only purchase a small amount initially.
Propagation is as simple as snipping the connection on one of these runners and moving the plant. You may not need to propagate the plant depending on how you initially planted it, but you can easily take cuttings for other tanks.
In the right conditions, you may need to stop propagation. Make sure you use a net during trimming, as HC will grow anywhere it lands.
Dwarf Baby Tears are prone to problems, but the majority of them fall into just a couple of categories.
If your plant is growing sparsely and slowly, you need more lighting or CO2. If you’re running high light without some form of CO2 addition, you’re asking for slowed and stunted growth.
If the plant begins to yellow, you need to dose fertilizer. In a tank suited to fast HC growth, you’ll need to fertilize regularly. You can diagnose the exact nutrient that’s deficient and use specialized fertilizers… or you can just use a broad spectrum fertilizer.
Just remember that no amount of fertilizer or water column tweaking is going to help HC grow in a low-light environment without CO2. High lighting and carbon dioxide are the key to making this plant thrive.
How to Use Dwarf Baby Tears in Aquascaping
Dwarf Baby Tears is one of the most desired carpet plants, and it can take some time to get the hang of growing them. However, there are a few different ways to grow them that are suitable for different aquaria.
Carpeting is the most common use of HC, and the one we’ve focused on so far. Carpet plants are always difficult, but the small size and high requirements for the plant make it one of the harder ones.
I recommend splitting your initial culture into quarter-sized clumps and planting those, rather than using individual plantlets. The latter can be done, but the plants are prone to floating off or dying. Clumps work better.
You’ll want to plant these clumps an inch or so apart, they’ll quickly grow in to fill the rest of the area. The plant may also crawl up the hardscape as a carpet, and you can allow it or trim it as needed.
Carpeted HC requires a high-tech tank, there is no workaround. I’ve seen a dozen methods tried over the years and none were successful. For a similar plant you can look into Monte Carlo (Micranthemum tweediei), which doesn’t have the same steep requirements.
Carpeting is mostly a matter of patience. Let the plant fill in by itself, re-arranging things will just make it take longer overall.
Stepping away from the usual uses of HC, you can also make a floating “island” by floating the plant. You’ll want to use a mat to hold the plant together, and if you’re going down this route it’s often best to just buy the plant already established on a mat.
Within a few weeks, the grid holding the mat together will be covered. The grid helps you keep everything together so you can remove the plant and trim it when needed.
In the right tank, Dwarf Baby Tears will spread rapidly. Just floating the plant often leads to HC growing in areas you may not want it to grow as the floating mass breaks up. Use a mat if you’re floating the plant for the best effect.
These mats can be a surprisingly attractive feature and are the best way to grow the plant in tanks without ultra-high lighting.
Oddly, HC is very easy to grow outside of water. A bit of sun and high humidity will make the plant thrive, and it can stretch onto dry land if placed in a vivarium.
My favorite method of propagating HC for large aquariums is to simply grow it in a food container or seed tray. A bit of soil, frequent misting, and a lot of sunlight make the plant grow rapidly.
These terrestrial bits of HC can then be transferred into your aquarium. It’s a much cheaper way to seed large aquariums, and good to know if you keep multiple smaller aquariums. It’s an attractive plant on its own and it adapts well as long as it has sunlight and moisture.
The plant requires soil to grow emersed. Make sure it has a clear route to grow if you’re planning on allowing it to grow out of the water in a vivarium.
Use in Iwagumi Aquaria
Iwagumi or nature aquarium aquascaping is its own subject and one which takes a lot of time to understand. The idea is to create a landscape using rocks, wood, and plants. These tanks usually have minimal fauna as well.
If you’re interested in this style of tank, I recommend reading Nature Aquarium World by famed aquascaper Takashi Amano. He’s the original founder of the style, and his incredible work opened a lot of doors for the rest of us.
The best way to understand the dramatic impact of these tanks is to see what they look like on the high end of things. The AGA aquascaping contest features some of the best in the world, and it’s always worth a look at the winners.
You’ll also notice that the majority of those tanks contain HC. It’s a perfect plant for this style, and it’s inspiring to see how the best in the world utilize this plant time and time again.
Alternatives to Dwarf Baby Tears
Dwarf Baby Tears aren’t the right plant for everyone. While beautiful, they require high-end equipment and a good bit of knowledge to be successful.
It’s just not always possible for the amateur aquarist.
And there’s no shame in that. If you aren’t ready for high-lighting, CO2, and careful fertilizer dosing then you may want to consider another plant.
For a similar effect, you can look into growing Monte Carlo. It’s a very similar plant, but the lighting requirements are more modest. It may not be as suitable for certain visual effects due to the larger leaves, but it’s also one of the easiest carpet plants to grow.
Monte Carlo still requires decent lighting, and it may not be suitable for tanks with only weak lights.
Dwarf Sagittaria is my favorite carpeting plant for low-light aquariums. Kept trimmed to under 1 inch it forms a tight carpet with runners, even in low lighting. You can also allow it to grow taller for a jungle effect.
Micro Swords are similar to Dwarf Sagittaria but don’t take as well to trimming in my experience.
Java Moss, when used properly, can actually form a nice carpet. The problem is that Java Moss, once established, is borderline invasive. You can manage it, but it will be a lot of work and you’ll want to trim with a net in one hand to catch the removed plant mass.
Christmas Moss is another option that works well. It still requires high lighting and CO2, but it grows faster and is generally easier to deal with than HC.
Dwarf Baby Tears may not be the correct carpet for all tanks. Consider alternatives if you’re using low to moderate lighting or don’t want to make a CO2 system.
Dwarf Baby Tears care can be hard for the beginner, but once you get the hang of it you’ll find it’s one of the most rewarding plants to care for. While it can be hard to establish HC, once you have the plant growing… well, the sky is the limit. If you can make HC thrive then you can grow almost anything.
Are you up to the challenge?