Wisteria Vs. Water Sprite: What’s The Difference?

Wisteria and Water Sprite are very similar in some ways, and it’s easy for a novice to get them confused. These plants are only superficially similar, however, and they have some enormous differences. This often makes one or the other a better choice for a given tank and aquascape.

Ready to learn what you need to know about wisteria versus water sprite? Read on, and find out which is best for your purpose!

Wisteria Vs. Water Sprite

What is Wisteria?

Wisteria is a simple, rooted stem plant with medium-sized, variegated leaves. It grows in individual stems, and it’s often propagated in bunches on the bottom of the aquarium. It’s usually called Water Wisteria to distinguish it from the common woody vine that fits under the Wisteria genus.

Instead, Water Wisteria is classified as Hygrophilia difformis. There’s no relation to terrestrial Wisteria.

It’s a low-maintenance plant that’s at home in most aquaria. It can be planted, floated, and it’s sometimes even used as a “carpet” by creative aquascapers. It doesn’t require much light or CO2 injection, so it’s suitable greenery for newbies.

The plant is naturally found across the Indian subcontinent, from India to Nepal and Bhutan. It’s non-native, but thanks to loose handling of aquarium specimens it has a sizable presence in US waterways.

Water Wisteria takes on a different form when it’s allowed to grow emersed. Upon emerging from the water the leaves change their structure and it begins to grow flowers.

Wisteria is one of the most common aquarium plants for sale. Its ease of growth and fine leaves make a great visual impact, without requiring the owner to have a green thumb. It grows so quickly that it can become overwhelming in high-tech tanks, so it needs to be controlled when planted.

What is Water Sprite?

Water Sprite, on the other hand, is a rhizome plant. While its growth appears to be in stems, the truth is that there is a thick portion of root under the substrate that allows the plant to stay rooted and store nutrients.

Water Sprite is technically a fern, and its common names include Indian Fern and Water Fern. Taxonomically, it’s classified as Ceratopteris thalictroides. It has an extremely wide range, including being introduced into various states in the US. It’s also classified as non-native or invasive depending on the state.

Water Sprite has controllable growth for the most part but still grows more quickly than most rhizome plants. They’re easily planted: just stick them in the ground but don’t cover the rhizome of the plant.

Since this plant is a fern, it doesn’t produce flowers. Instead, it slowly releases small plantlets that break off the mother plant as time goes on. These will eventually find somewhere to root themselves and continue the cycle.

Water Sprite can be grown both floating and rooted in the substrate, with the latter being preferred.

The plant has fine, lace-like leaves that look similar to a carrot top. These leaves remain much the same whether the plant is floating or rooted, but they tend to extend horizontally when the plant is floated.

Water Sprite is another plant well-suited for beginners. It grows well in high-tech tanks, without causing the issues of extremely fast-growing plants like Elodea densa or Ceratophyllum demersum.

What Are the Similarities?

The plants are very similar at first glance, especially when you’re comparing rooted forms.

The two biggest similarities, at least visually, are:

  • Leaves- The leaves of both plants are very bushy and elongated. These similar leaves are only present in the submerged form of Water Wisteria, the leaves that grow when it is emersed are very different.
  • Stems- If you’re not paying close attention, both of these plants appear to grow from individual stems.

In addition, these plants are often sold alongside each other in pet stores. Both are suitable for beginner tanks, being hardy and fast-growing overall.

They can also both be grown both planted and floating. 

One other similarity: Both Wisteria and Water Sprite are excellent nutrient dumps. They keep your water clean, or rather they use the nitrates and other chemicals in the water to grow. 

All plants do this to some extent, but faster-growing plants are the best at it.

Both of these plants are readily available at most fish stores and even big-box pet stores. They’re staples in the trade and neither is hard to seek out at the end of the day. Instead, just focus on bringing home vibrant, healthy plants.

That said, as we dig a bit deeper you’ll see how superficial their similarities really are. These are quite different plants, and picking the right one for your tank means knowing what you’re planning on as the end result.

What About the Differences?

While they have a lot of similarities at first glance, the astute reader will notice that most of these are superficial.

These are two very different plants in the end.

The easiest way to tell them apart is a look at the leaf structure. While they’re very similar when submerged, you’ll find them easy to tell apart. Wisteria tends to have longer, thicker leaves than Water Sprite and thicker central stems.

Water Sprite, on the other hand, is a very fine-leaved plant. Carrot Tops or Hemlock is the best comparison. The stems that hold the leaves tend to be shorter, but the plant will be quite bushy since there are many more of them.

They also have totally different growth forms.

Hygrophilia difformis is a standard stem plant. Each individual stem grows on it’s own, rather than being attached to others, even if you choose to “top” the plants and split their growth.

Meanwhile, Water Sprite grows from a central rhizome. You can see it in the thicker central “root” of the plant, and the stems grow from the crown of this rhizome as a single plant. That means a half-dozen or more stems can be coming from the same plant when dealing with Water Sprite.

The differing growth patterns of this plant also lead to some differences in how it can be used. Wisteria can be used as a carpet with careful planning, but Water Sprite doesn’t lend itself to this use.

Both form impressive floating mats, but Wisteria changes form at the surface. It grows thicker stems, different leaves, and small flowers when allowed to become emersed. It’s tall enough that it works well in small-to-medium vivariums if you want to show off the change.

On the other hand, Water Sprite looks the same no matter how it’s planted.

The key differences for identification are as follows:

  • Leaves- Small, lace-like leaves coming off the central stem are the hallmark of Water Sprite. Wisteria not only has thicker leaves, the plant also changes form when it’s growing at or above the surface of the water.
  • Growth Pattern- Take a look at the base of the plant. Individual stems mean you’re looking at Wisteria. Multiple stems coming from growth nodes on the same root indicate water sprite.

Which is Best for My Tank?

While quite similar, these plants actually lend themselves to different uses in the aquarium. They’re not quite interchangeable, and a number of different factors will determine which is the best for your tank.

Light, Nutrients, and CO2

Water Wisteria is a strong-growing plant. I’ve thrown cuttings in a mason jar, left them on the back porch to be forgotten, and found a jar chock full of plant growth weeks later. It grows quickly.

Quick growth and hardiness are usually desirable qualities in an aquarium plant. The problem here is that Water Wisteria takes it to the next level. I’ve had it outgrow Elodea densa when placed in tanks with powerful lighting and CO2. That’s an impressive feat since the Elodea was growing ¾” to 1” per day.

Wisteria requires frequent trimming even in low-tech conditions.

Water Sprite is also a fast grower, but it tops out at a few inches a week even with CO2 and high lighting. It’s a better choice for high-tech tanks unless you’re planning a carpet, but a tank with CO2 and good lights has much better options for that sort of growth.

In other words, a high-tech tank is not the best place for Water Wisteria. It simply grows too quickly. That said, the dense growth can be impressive if you’re willing to commit to trimming more than once per week.

In practice, I’ve found that trimming more than once per week falls by the wayside no matter what your intentions are.

Desired Maintenance Level

Having had a few dozen planted tanks over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about maintenance in the long term. 

Anything more than once per week is pushing it, you may stick with it for a few months but the tank is destined to be a jungle. Your mileage may vary, but the rule held across all of my tanks and everyone else I know who kept planted aquaria.

I usually aim for once every two weeks, unless the primary plants are floating. In that case, it’s much easier to pop the hood open and cut some of the mass off.

For that reason, you should carefully consider if you want to stick Wisteria into a tank with good lights and CO2. It can grow more than an inch per day in ideal conditions, which means very frequent trimming.

Water Sprite is a much lower maintenance plant than Wisteria, but it’s not a low maintenace plant. The only thing it grows slow compared to is Wisteria. In a high-tech tank, it’ll still require weekly trimming.

In low-tech tanks, both are fairly undemanding due to slower growth. The plants can become a bit spindly in very low light, however, and going under 1W per gallon (50 lumens per gallon) isn’t ideal.

Specialty Tank Use

Not all tanks are permanent enclosures for their inhabitants.

Water Wisteria is my go-to for hospital tanks. It grows well in a bare-bottom tank and doesn’t drop needles like Hornwort while providing more cover than Anacharis. I’ll admit to not always keeping a hospital tank running, so fast-growing plants are essential to provide shade and cover for sick fish. 

Wisteria can grow in quickly enough that a few 5-6” cuttings are all you need.

I prefer Water Sprite for fry tanks. These are usually planned, and floating water sprite provides a ton of cover in a short period of time. If you have a couple of weeks’ notice, Water Sprite is great.

Both are appropriate for biome tanks in the Southeast Asian region, with Water Sprite having a range that covers most of the tropics on that side of the ocean.

Uses of Water Wisteria in Aquascaping

Water Wisteria is an incredibly versatile plant when it comes to growth.

It can be grown as stems, floating, or as a carpet. It can also be used as a plant in vivariums, where you can observe the change between the aquatic and terrestrial forms with careful planning.

Like most stem plants, you can “top” Water Wisteria by clipping it cleanly just above a growth node. When you do it right, the stems split and can then be caused to branch out exponentially to create thick shrubs underwater.

You can also use it in a similar manner to the “rows” in Dutch-style tanks, with a dense planting of single stems and careful pruning leading to a hedge-like arrangement.

Floating it will begin to grow in its emersed form unless the filter is enough to keep the plant being pulled under the surface.

Perhaps the most creative use of Hygrophilia difformis is as a carpet. You allow the plant to grow along the surface of the tank, where it spreads out horizontally instead of vertically. These horizontal shoots are then placed under the surface of the substrate, with just the leaves poking out and trimmed at a 2”-4” height.

The effect, when done correctly, is similar to Dwarf Sagittaria or Micro-swords: a tall and dense carpet. It’s enhanced by the delicate leaves, and nearly impossible to kill once rooted.

Water Wisteria is among the most versatile plants when it comes to aquascaping, but it grows too quickly for most high-tech tanks.

Use of Water Sprite in Aquascaping

Water Sprite is also a versatile plant, though not as much as Wisteria.

The plant’s growth can be controlled in a similar manner to stem plants, but special attention should be paid to making sure things stay attached to the central rhizome. Cuttings will sprout, but it’s a slower process than simply taking off the plantlets as they grow.

The plantlets slow the spread of the plant somewhat, at least compared to the instant-jungle that is Water Wisteria. You can replant the plantlets as they separate from the mother until the area of aquascape you’re working on is filled in.

It also makes an attractive floating plant, particularly when high wattage lighting and CO2 injection make its growth even denser than normal. You can allow it to float freely and simply trim back the ends of the stems when you’re cutting it back.

It doesn’t make a suitable carpet, unfortunately.

Water Sprite grows more slowly than Wisteria, making it more suited for high-tech tanks. Keep in mind that Water Sprite is only a “slow-grower” when compared to plants like Water Wisteria or Anacharis. It’s still prolific and will require regular pruning.

Water Sprite is at its finest, in my opinion, rooted and carefully formed into small shrubs. That said, it’s still a versatile plant for aquascapes while remaining very newbie-friendly.

Similar Greenery, Big Differences

When you’re comparing these two plants you need to be aware of the differences in use, growth rate, and forms. Both have their place in some aquariums, but they’re not interchangeable plants despite their similar looks.

So, which do you think is better for your setup?