Without a doubt, Cryptocorynes (Crypts) are among the most feared plants by the average aquarist. This is due to conceived notions that they always die. Crypts deserve better than that. The varieties available cover a vast array of color, shape and size. They take but a little patience and a little extra work initially than most plants, but the reward is well worth the effort.
Success in keeping Crypts equals tank stability. Stable water conditions, stable lighting and, at first, a less active fish population.
Cryptocorynes are susceptible to a rotting disease aptly named "Crypt disease". This is due mostly to environmental changes and is not certain death to the plants. Prevention and treatment are stabilized conditions.
I have had this disease occur to me many times from plants shipped in by mail. The changes from the shipper, the couple of days in the dark, dry box while being shipped and the re-entry to water in my tanks has given me plenty of practice in keeping or returning these plants from an apparent death. I will describe the methods I use to accomplish a 90% or better success rate in keeping them alive.
As I had mentioned, I ship my plants in. This ain't so tough as you might think. One reason I ship them in is that I have the pick of a better variety than what is usually offered at retail stores. The prices are comparable and I feel fairly confident that I am actually getting what I am asking for.
To continue, when I receive my plants, I have a specific procedure to follow to help me keep them.
First I unbag each set of plants (the dealer I get them from labels every bag for you) and lay them on top of the bag to inspect them for new growth. A plant with new growth, in my experience will generally survive an onslought of Crypt disease. It is usually at this time with all the plants laid out before me that I smile a lot, skip around the room and sing to myself. You will never catch me in a public display like that, but yes, I do act just like a little kid with a new toy.
I start with the plants that I most want to save and float them in their respective tanks. Next, I get out my peat plates (Hagen Inc.) and make 1 inch square pieces. I wedge the Crypt roots and a 1/4 piece of a Tetra Hilena Crypto Fertilizer tablet between two peat pieces. Do not place the peat plate above the plant base. To hold this together, I wrap a rubber band lightly around the pieces so that as the peat plate softens and the band restricts it will not choke the roots of the plant (plant plugs and rock wool will work also). Now bury the peat and roots in your aquarium gravel, but make sure that the base of the plant (where the roots and leaf stalks meet) is right at the gravel line.
Once you have all of the plants in place, patience and stability come into play.
First, leave the light on for a few days. I leave mine on for four or five days before I turn them off and on at regular intervals. I suggest using the Growólux fluorescent tubes. Either the standard or the wide spectrum are good. I prefer the standard myself as they are not as bright and the algae growth rate is slower under it. Both tubes are made by Sylvania and PennóPlax has license to package and distribute them as well.
Second, try to keep the water temperature, pH and hardness steady over short periods of time. I personally do not do water changes as a practice on my tanks. This is not to say that water changes are bad. It just says I'm lazy. I prefer instead to add water as the tank water evaporates. I do this over a period of an entire day with water that I treat to closely match that of the tank. You can cut down on evaporation by covering your tanks obviously. But in my case, I have many tanks to cover and the standard covers are too costly. To accomplish this and not break my budget, I get rolls of sheet plastic from the local discount builders' supply store, cut it to suit and tape it to the top of the tank. This cuts down on evaporation, prevents fish from jumping out and costs are lower. Its also easier than obtaining glass and cutting it for each tank. It isn't pretty but it is effective.
Third and last of the stabilizing effort is to not have too active a fish population. Keep the plant hungry fish away; most notably are Barbs, some Characins, and suckerómouthed catfish, like plecos and algae eaters. Basically, keep out anything that may disturb these plants during initial stages of planting.
Not all Crypts will have a problem but this is one way to help them along. In fact I have a couple of species that have reproduced themselves within days of planting and others that have fully died back and recovered. Crypt disease is a hit or miss situation but it helps to be prepared. If it's going to happen, it will show up during the first week after planting.
You can also plant Crypts without the peat and get equal success by adding Tetra Flora Pride initially and every couple of weeks as Crypts are generally slow growing. Fertilizers of the aquatic kind can help to speed growth. Once the plants have established themselves adding non-plant eating fish should be kosher.
As for plant species: for the beginner I would suggest C. affinis (red), C. willisii, C. petchii, C. wendtiiand C. ciliata.
C. willisii is the smallest and grows much like the smaller Sapittaria, Vallisneria and dwarf Pygmy Chain Swords; a low growing plant that can carpet a foreground area. C. ciliata and C. petchii are the tallest, growing to 16 inches. C. ciliata is a light green and C. petchii is a red to almost pink color. C. affinis is a medium to medium large plant that is green on top and red underneath. C. wendtii is a medium sized plant with colors from dark green to olive to almost purple.
For the more advanced I would suggest C. purpurea, C. sioreusis, C. balansae and my recent personal favorite C. nuri. I will dispatch with their descriptions and let you handle it.
Crypts do not in general require a lot of light. This makes them ideal for poorly lit, deep tanks and also suitable for those who grow surface plants. It reproduces best in low light. As for water chemistry try a pH less than 7.5 and a hardness less than 15 dGH. A temperature range of 70 to 80 F is fine.
To conclude I must say that a lot of what I have written is not necessary to do. Crypt disease is overrated. Just remember the key ó stability.
I get my plants from Delaware Aquatic Imports. This is not to say other shippers and retailers may not be as good. I have tried no others. I've had no reason to do so. It is run by Mike Trzonkowski and his wife and can be found advertised in the national fish magazines. Mike has been a great help to me and has earned this plug, however limited and modest it may be.
References and useful books:
Baensch Aquarium Atlas, Riehl and Baensch, 1982/6 Tetra Press
Complete Guide to Water Plants, Helmut Mehlenburg, E.P Publishing Ltd
Exotic Aquarium Fishes, Dr William T. Innes, TFH publications
Mike Trzonkowski, Delaware Aquatic Imports, Himself
[Editor's Note: Be cautious when getting plants by mail. With some suppliers, plants arrive loaded with unwanted guests like leeches, hydra and dragonfly larvae and must be treated before you put them in your tank. Local retailers are getting the message about plants. More varieties of plants includingCrypts are available. If it's not there ó ask.