Eight great soft corals for new reefkeepers

by Owen James

The pulsing polyps of the Xenia coral are a talking point

The pulsing polyps of the Xenia coral will be a talking point in your tank

(Image by: Cybersam)

We’ve come a long way in reefkeeping in the past 20 years. Hitherto impossible-to-keep invertebrates are routinely propagated. There are now several proven ways to run a reef aquarium, and tens of thousands successful reef tanks are installed across the world.

Does this progress mean a new reef aquarist should just buy whatever coral takes their fancy? No. Reef tanks take a while to mature and so do reefers. We all have to go through the learning phase in which monitoring and responding to changes in our reef tank become second nature. Until then, it’s better to stick with easier-to-keep corals.

The corals discussed below will fare better in a newer aquarium than more delicate corals, too.

There are some corals still regularly offered for sale that give even expert reefers problems (particularly non-photosynthetic soft corals, but also certain large polyp species). Avoid those and you’ll avoid seeing a beautiful creature die in your tank.

Here’s our pick of the best first corals, with some notes on their care.

1. Mushroom corals (Discosoma)

The ideal starter coral. Mushroom corals lie flat on the live rock in colonies ranging from one to hundreds of individuals. They come in all colors, can also be striped or spotted, and grow to about two-inches across. In the aquarium they prefer indirect light and very little water motion – the best place for them is towards the bottom and sides of a typical reef aquarium. They are much more tolerant of nutrient-rich water than other corals, and are at their best in very natural systems.

2. Leather corals (Sarcophyton)

These corals, which can grow up to two-foot across, are much taken for granted. Their undulating bodies sprout delicate polyps, and they make a great focal point for almost all aquariums. Even the brown forms are beautiful. (The bright yellow specimens are stunning, though harder to care for). Leather corals do well with normal reef lighting (the bottom of the tank is fine) and low currents, preferably with an occasional surge to clear their polyps of the film they shed. They are very easy to propagate. Just brush over to retract their polyps, snip off a corner with sharp scissors, and you’ve a new colony. (See this article on fragging leather corals for more details).

3. Zoanthids or button polyps (Zoanthus)

These easy-to-keep corals like a lot of light, but will survive on a moderate regime if required. Strong currents aren’t vital, but a nice pulse from a wavemaker helps keep them free of detritus. In good conditions Zoanthids will propogate naturally from the colony base. They grow particularly fast if fed small meaty foods once a week.

4. Yellow polyps (Parazoanthus)

These are very easy to care for, and make a great addition to new soft coral-only tanks where they will spread rapidly. They ideally like strong light and moderate currents, and feed readily on frozen food such as brine shrimp and special foods like cyclopeeze. According to The Reef Aquarium Volume 2 you should not place them next to mushroom corals, although I’ve never noticed problems. They will sting hard corals however, so keep them on separate rocks and beware of them spreading.

“If Kenya tree corals were difficult to keep, they’d be a hit on Reef Central”

5. Kenya tree, ‘Nephthya’ (Capnella)

If these soft corals were difficult to keep there would be thousands of threads devoted to them on Reef Central. In reality, these delicately branched fairy tale corals will grow like weeds in good conditions. They like bright, preferably indirect light and a gentle current; halfway up the sides of a well-lit reef tank is ideal. Keep one in good condition and you’ll soon find babies springing up around it. Be aware of the new corals growing and swelling to overshadow other species such as mushroom corals beneath it.

6. Anthelia, or waving hand polyps (Anthelia)

Easier-to-keep than the similar looking Xenia species (which is not hard, but is a bit more hit-and-miss), the graceful Anthelia coral likes bright light and strong preferably pulsed water motion that really gets its polyps waving. They will spread rapidly across the rocks and glass in your aquarium. Be sure to add regular trace elements and/or conduct regular water changes, as colonies can crash if important elements are depleted from the water. You’ll probably end up trading, giving away or even trashing your excess Anthelia polyps, unless you want to keep a tank full of it.

7. Ricordea (Ricordea Florida)

Ricordia species are related to mushroom corals. They’re not as tough but they’re even more attractive, looking almost like small flat anemones and coming in all kinds of flourescent colors. Ricordea need more light than mushroom corals, but not too much – about halfway up the tank is be ideal. (If your ricordea starts to fade, try moving it.) Ricordea also benefit from being fed with mysis or other frozen foods. Propagation can be sped up by cutting them in half with a razor. Beware of the species Ricordea Yuma, which is more difficult to maintain.

“Regular additions of iodine are vital when keeping Xenia corals”

8. Xenia (Xenia)

Experienced marine aquarists have a love/hate relationship with Xenia. We can all remember when we first added it to our tank and watched transfixed as its delicate polyps opened and closed before our eyes like little fists grasping the water. At some point amazement gives way to dismay, either because the coral has overrun the tank, or because it has crashed to a mush. To keep it in good condition, Xenia likes bright light and pulsing clean water. Thinning out thick colonies may stop it crashing, and regular additions of iodine are vital. As for it spreading, your best bet is to install it on a rock and scrape off and suck up any offshoots that threaten to move onto the rest of your reef. Xenia spreads so readily in good conditions it can often be got for free from fellow reefers.

Read the Ultimate Secrets To Saltwater Fish And Invertebrates.

Get our latest articles direct by email. Type in your address and submit:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

jeffry r. johnston 12.05.08 at 6:10 pm

Blogroll link fixed. Your updates display properly now in our blogroll. :-D

stonyreef 12.05.08 at 9:11 pm

Nice summary, though a personal opinion that #6 & #8 are great until the nearly inevitable decision to add stony corals arrives… :( )

I’m hacking back xenia (which I do want to keep, just in a controlled manner), as well as attempting to decimate GSP & Anthelia sp that has grown over branches of some Acropora … I believe it may be invincible… curse that free fragment.

Owen James 12.06.08 at 9:56 pm

@jeffry — Thanks very much, it’s appreciated! Will watch your content and leap at an opportunity to return the linking favour as soon as :)

@stonyreef -Thanks for dropping by. Yep, agree they’re definitely an iffy proposition in a SPS tank. Have you ever tried to deal with those tiny brown polyps (much smaller than green stars, they look almost like organ pipe coral from a distance). You need a flamethrower for those! :) (Nice site btw!)

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Previous post: If you can’t go diving, visit The Right Blue instead

Next post: Should fraggers who colour corals with photoshop be named and shamed?