Flowerhorn Fish Keeping: The Ultimate Care, Diet, & Breeding Guide

Flowerhorns are the ultimate “pet” fish due to their extremely interactive nature. They have been specifically bred to respond to the humans around them, and some will even lift their nuchal hump out of the water to be petted!

Flowerhorns are a hybrid fish that are based on one of the earliest man-made hybrid fish: the blood parrot. Since the first flowerhorns, often called luohans, flowerhorns have been hybridized with dozens of other cichlids. Their genetic history is unknown and varies greatly with each strain.

This complete guide will cover everything you need to know about keeping, caring for, and breeding Flowerhorn fish. You cannot complete your fish keeping career without one of these inquisitive fish!

flowerhorn cichlid
Lerdsuwa CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

About Flowerhorn Cichlids

  • Scientific Name: Unknown- Hybrid
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Care Level: Intermediate
  • Origin: Variable
  • Common Names: Flower horn cichlid, Flowerhorn

Temperament

Flowerhorns are extremely aggressive towards most tank mates, but some tankmates can coexist with flowerhorns. Flowerhorns tend to be aggressive towards anything entering their “territory” but still act like puppy dogs to their owners.

Invasive Species

Flowerhorns are not a naturally occurring species and have no natural habitat, but several have been released into the wild and are now classified as an invasive species.

They can be found around most warm Eastern Asian areas but have a less destructive impact than most other invasive species since most Flowerhorns are infertile.

Flowerhorn Lifespan

Short bodied flowerhorns often only live for 4-5 years, while longer bodied ones live 8-12 years on average.

Recently, the expected lifespan has been lowered with the incoming generations, as the newcomers are more inbred than ever.

Do not despair! This only applies to a few strains in different areas of the world and is simply something to be aware of. Most strains are still strong and are not suffering from health concerns just yet.

Flowerhorn Size

The size of your flowerhorn will vary greatly depending on the strain. King Kamfas, for example, reach sizes around 12-16 inches, while Thai silk often stay around 8-12 inches. Short bodied flowerhorns will be a few inches shorter than their long-bodied counterparts.


flowerhorn care
KoS [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Flowerhorn Fish Care

Even though different flowerhorns, even ones of the same strain, have diverse genetic backgrounds, this care guide can be applied to all of them.

Requirements

Flowerhorns are considered an intermediate fish due to their aggressive nature, massive size, waste production, and diet requirements.

  • Tank Size: Flowerhorns should have a tank size of 125 gallons or 150-175 gallons if you plan on housing a male and female pair. It is popular to grow them out in smaller tanks and graduate them to larger ones as they grow, but unless you have plans for the smaller tanks, it could be considered a waste of money. Smaller tanks technically have enough gallons for them to swim around in and dilute their waste, but they are often not wide enough to allow a flowerhorn to turn around. Some of the smaller strains can be kept in a 75 or 90 gallon, but all fish appreciate more space.
  • Flow: Flowerhorns are strong fish and can tolerate moderate to high flow, but it is possible to have too much flow. If your flowerhorn is being blown all over the tank, the flow is too strong. Many flowerhorn keepers install additional powerheads along the bottom of the tank to push the waste towards the filter.
  • Substrate: Most large fish that are kept with a gravel substrate run the risk of swallowing it with their food. The gravel can then become impacted in the fish’s intestines, preventing it from passing any waste and creating a serious health risk. Large pieces of tile, bare bottom, or sand substrates are popular choices for Flowerhorn Cichlids.

flowerhorn

Water Parameters

Flowerhorns come from a huge mix of cichlids, most with different water requirements, which is why the fish never bred in the wild. Flowerhorns prefer soft to moderately hard water, but stability is more important than “perfect” water parameters.

These are basic guidelines for Flowerhorn water parameters:

  • pH: 6.0-8.0
  • Temperature: 80-85°F
  • Alkalinity: 6°-20° dGH

Flowerhorns are sensitive to ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates, more so than other fish. Any measurable amount of ammonia or nitrite is actively causing damage to your fish, so cycling the tank beforehand is necessary.

Ammonia and nitrite only appear at the beginning of the cycle, while nitrates are the end stage of the cycle.

Nitrates tend to sneak up on people, especially those who keep fish that produce a lot of waste, like flowerhorns. Water changes remove nitrates, so even if your water looks perfectly clean, don’t skip those bi-weekly water changes; you can’t see toxins like nitrates.

It is extremely important to test your water, and the API freshwater master test kit is the most accurate test kit on the market, and cheapest per test.

Flowerhorn Diet

Flowerhorns are far from picky when it comes to eating, but they require a protein rich and strongly varied diet. Live foods are not necessary, as they will eat frozen and dried foods with no problems.

Flowerhorns need a staple pellet to provide micronutrients and vitamins as well as additions like sun dried crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, anchovies, and frozen shrimp.

Worms, such as white worms, blackworms, earthworms and nightcrawlers can also be fed to Flowerhorns.

Since overfeeding can lead to excess ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, it is important to feed several smaller meals per day.

Flowerhorns are typically fed three times a day and the amount that needs to be fed varies on the type of food being fed and the Flowerhorn variety. Feeding what the fish can eat in 20-40 seconds is typically a good rule for Flowerhorns.


flowerhorn species
Inkpassion [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Types of Flowerhorns

All Flowerhorns require the same care and water parameters as listed above even though they are each made up of different percentages of cichlid species and different species all together.

The types of flowerhorns are often considered morphs, or color patterns, rather than separate species. There are hundreds of different flowerhorn strains and grades, but we will cover the more popular ones here.

Kamfa Flowerhorn

These Flowerhorns are known for their massive nuchal humps, also called a kok, and their strikingly varied patterning. They typically have a deep red based body with light blue to white patterning across their body and fins with white or yellow eyes.

They also have a row of patterning called “flowers”, which are black and run down their middle body. Higher-grade ones will also have flowers on their nuchal hump. These are some of the most widely available and sought after Flowerhorns.

Zhen Zhu

The Zhen Zhu Flowerhorn is best known for its near perfect “flowerline”, or line of flowering pattern along its body, also called pearling. These are not as popular as the classic Kamfa and tend to be rounder with red eyes and more yellow/tan in color.

Their great iridescent flowering pattern makes them useful to breeders, and they are often bred into other strains to produce higher quality flowering patterns in different Flowerhorn strains.

This is part of the reason that Flowerhorns have muddled genetic history; not only are they bred to other cichlids, but also cross bred among hundreds of flowerhorn varieties, making genetics impossible to track.

Thai Silk

Thai Silk Flowerhorns are also known as Titanium Flowerhorns due to their metallic scales covering their whole body. These are typically a light blue in color but can also appear in gold or white metallic morphs.

They have a longer, more square body shape like a Kamfa, but their eyes can be white, yellow, and red. This strain is speculated to have several Texas cichlids within it.

Golden Base Fader

These Flowerhorn are comparable to the marble-gene found in bettas, which is a gene that triggers random color changes throughout a betta’s body.

The Golden Bases are referred to as Faders because the juveniles start out with gold and red coloration, but as they mature, they turn black and finally back to a stronger gold and red coloration.

Higher grades are only achievable after they have faded and gained a greater coloration. Faders also support impressive nuchal humps and typically have red eyes, though other eye colors can appear.

These can lack the black line down the middle of the body and still be considered high grade.

Gold Monkey

These Flowerhorns are considered lucky and are one of the very few luohan-based Flowerhorns left in existence. They come in a large range of colors, most are similar to the Golden Based in colors, though they can have blue and gold pearling over a red or gold body.

These tend to have the black line of flowers down the middle of their bodies and commonly have red eyes that protrude more than those of the Kamfa.

Since they are one of the last luohan Flowerhorns, they are extremely rare and command one of the highest price tags of any specialized Flowerhorn strain.

Red Ingot Flowerhorn/ King Kong Parrot

Depending on the body shape of this fish, they are typically labeled as either Flowerhorns or specialized Blood Parrots.

Flowerhorns are based off the Blood Parrot fish, but after almost 30 years of blending the Flowerhorns with dozens cichlid species, they are far from the beginning luohans.

These fish are considered one of the early stages of Flowerhorns when Blood Parrots and Red cichlids had a dominant genetic influence over the Flowerhorn.

If they are labeled as a King Kong Parrot cichlid, they tend to have shorter bodies and lack a kok, but still have strong red coloring and are considered “better” than the normal Blood Parrot.

The Flowerhorn version can have very large nuchal humps, like many modern day Flowerhorns, but their body size and shape can vary greatly. They tend to have the same deep red coloring as their Blood Parrot counterparts.

Types of Nuchal Humps (Koks)

When referring to different types of nuchal humps, they are most commonly referred to as koks.

  • Water Kok: These nuchal humps are the largest out there and are a desired trait. They are composed of a gel-like substance under the skin and are soft and squishy to the touch. They are also transparent under LED lighting.
  • Hard Kok: These are mostly comprised of a dense layer of fat and tend to stay very small and are only slightly noticeable. These are hard to the touch and are not translucent in the slightest.
  • Medium Kok: These are often not referred to and do not have a specific name. This type of nuchal hump is a mix of the two previous nuchal humps. They are at fist squishy to the touch, but after slight pressure is applied, one can tell that they are hard underneath. They are made of a dense layer of fat covered in fluids and gel-like substances. In addition, they tend to be more impressive than the Hard Kok, but much less impressive than the Water Kok.

flowerhorn

Flowerhorn Tank Mates

Due to their aggressive nature and large size, it is recommended to house Flowerhorns alone. However, it is possible to house them with tank mates, but they must be closely watched for the first several weeks to ensure compatibility.

Suitable Tank Mates

  • Sailfin Pleco
  • Common Pleco
  • Tiger Oscar
  • Large Bichirs
  • Other large Cichlids
  • A flowerhorn of the opposite sex
  • Smaller Arowana species (e.g. Silver)

Tank Mates to Avoid

Here are a few species you should not keep with Flowerhorns:

  • Any fish smaller than 10”: Fish over this side with peaceful nature will not survive the aggressive nature of a flowerhorn. It is recommended to only keep them with other large cichlid species that will match their level of aggression.
  • Invertebrates: Flowerhorns will eat any shrimp, snail, or crayfish that is unfortunate enough to make it into their tank. This does mean that you can keep some marmorkrebs and breed them as feeders for your flowerhorns, but there are no good invertebrate tank mates for them.

Reasons to Avoid Tank Mates

Flowerhorns have been specifically bred for their coloration and interaction. Adding tank mates will greatly decrease the interaction between you and the flowerhorn, as will the addition of decorations and toys.

If the Flowerhorn is already spending energy playing with the other fish in the tank, it will not be nearly as interactive with you.

There is always a chance that your Flowerhorn will just be too aggressive to house with other fish. Keep in mind that if the Flowerhorn is constantly chasing off the other fish, the Flowerhorn will become stressed. It views them as intruders in its territory, and its inability to chase them away can stress the Flowerhorn.


flowerhorn cichlids
lienyuan lee [CC BY 3.0]

Setting up a Flowerhorn Tank

Thinking about keeping a Flowerhorn? Here are a few things that you will need to consider:

Equipment

  • Tank: The tank should be 125-gallons if you wish to keep a single Flowerhorn or 150-gallons if you wish to keep other cichlids with your Flowerhorn. This gives them enough room to swim and turn and helps dilute the massive amount of waste they produce.
  • Filtration: Canister Filters are the best option for the large tanks that Flowerhorns command. They will be able to filter the large tanks far more efficiently than smaller filters, such as Hang-on-Back (HOB) or sponge filters. These are the best choice for crystal-clear water.
  • Lighting: Some owners pick specific LED lighting with adjustable colors in order to show their Flowerhorn’s best colors. Flowerhorns are not demanding when it comes to lighting, and any aquarium light can be considered.
  • Heater: A heater is essential to keeping Flowerhorns, as they need a temperature of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not achievable without a heater. We recommend the Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm – they are durable and incredibly consistant!

Effect of Decorations

Most Flowerhorns are kept in bare tanks with no decorations for one reason: interaction. If they have other sources of entertainment, including tank mates, they will be less interactive with you.

If you are fine with a less interactive Flowerhorn, go wild with aquascaping!

Flowerhorns, like most cichlids, tend to destroy plants, but it is possible to try hardier plants that can be super-glued to rocks around the tank, such as anubias species and java ferns.

Large rocks and driftwood are common hardscapes found in Flowerhorn tanks. They provide some forms of hiding areas and playgrounds for the Flowerhorn and allow you to have some form of aquascaping control over the tank.

Cycling

Flowerhorns are extremely sensitive to ammonia and nitrite, so it is essential to completely cycle your aquarium before introducing any fish.

Even though you must wait to add fish, there is no need to wait to add plants or the hardscape. This is your time to set up the aquascape exactly to your liking before adding fish.

Plants also help absorb nitrogen compounds such as ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, and can carry in small colonies of bacteria that convert these harmful compounds to less harmful ones.

This speeds up the cycling process, sine the bacterial colonies are already established, and the only thing left to do is to build up their numbers.

This essential cycling time not only allows you to set up your perfect hardscape, but it also allows you to research everything you need to know about your planned pet. Additionally, it allows other types of bacteria and biofilm to establish, which leads to an overall healthier tank.

For more information about cycling your aquarium, check out our complete, easy to understand fishless cycle guide.


flowerhorn fish care
lienyuan lee [CC BY 3.0]

Breeding Flowerhorns

Many Flowerhorn owners want to try their hand at breeding this magnificent fish. This could either be due to the potential money made from selling high quality Flowerhorns, simple curiosity about their genetic background, or they may simply want to fully experience Flowerhorns.

Limitations

Since Flowerhorns are a hybrid fish, most of them are infertile. The males are far more likely to be infertile than the females but being able to breed a pair of Flowerhorns is going almost impossible.

A more popular option is to find a cichlid that is likely to be in your Flowerhorn’s genetic history and breeding your Flowerhorn to that cichlid. You can try and breed for specific patterns, or even attempt a new variety of Flowerhorn!

The Breeding Setup

Flowerhorn breeding should take place in a tank separate from your Flowerhorn’s main tank. Flowerhorns tend to be extremely aggressive during spawning, even towards their partner, and to any other potential tank mate.

Additionally, they must be removed from the tank after a few days and it is easier to remove them to their normal tank(s) than set up new homes for a flowerhorn or two.

The fry tank is often the same as the breeding tank and should be 55-gallons or larger. The size is necessary for the potential 500-2000 fry and to give enough room for the two fish you choose to breed. A larger tank is more likely to diffuse aggression, or at least give the smaller fish room to get away.

The tank should be bare bottom with minimal decoration, or a sand bottom. If you pick the latter, the male should dig a hole in the substrate and move the fry there after they hatch. The tank should be heated between 82 and 85 degrees and several large sponge filters should be present.

Setting up a Fry Tank

Since the breeding tank should also double as the fry tank, more tanks will not have to be set up for around a month, as the fry should not be moved for the first 2-4 weeks. As they grow, they will need new set tanks to provide each one with enough room.

Each should be set up like the initial breeding tank; bare bottom, sponge filtered and heated. There should only be two differences in terms of set up and water quality between the adult and fry tanks.

The adult tank should be filtered with a canister filter while the fry tanks require sponge filters. Also, nitrates should be below 40ppm in the adult tank and below 10ppm in the fry tank. Neither tank should have any trace amounts of ammonia or nitrite.

Determining Gender

Male flowerhorns tend to be more vibrant in color and have large nuchal humps, which most, but not all, females lack. They also have square shaped breeding tubes that are flat at the end and a V-shaped vent.

Female flowerhorns often have a black stripe on their dorsal fin and will either have a very small nuchal hump or lack one altogether. They also have a triangular shaped breeding tube and a U-shaped vent.

Conditioning Your Fish

Most flowerhorns are already fed a protein rich diet, so if the male and female are already kept separately, it is possible to introduce them into the spawning tank without conditioning.

If they are housed together, they should be separated for 1-2 weeks and fed extra food for that time period. The temperature can also be raised by 1-3 degrees Fahrenheit if it does not exceed 85 degrees.

Inducing Spawning

Flowerhorns like to lay eggs on flat, rough surfaces, so flooring tile and terra cotta saucers are commonly used. Multiple options should be placed in the breeding tank, as Flowerhorns base their decision on both flow and surface. They will be seen cleaning the surface they wish to spawn on by pecking at it.

Some prefer to place a clear divider between the male and female in the breeding tank for several hours to several days. The divider should have water flow between them, as this will help hormones pass from one side to the other, which can induce spawning.

The Flowerhorns can also simply be added into the breeding tank and monitored for aggression and spawning. It is important to keep a close eye on them due to their aggressive nature and because of their intricate breeding rituals which are amazing to watch.

Flowerhorns perform dances for their mates and have detailed customs before spawning that seem to happen across several different types, despite the mixed genetics.

Caring for the Eggs

The Flowerhorns should care for the eggs and even move the young around from place to place. The females should be removed after spawning, but the male should be left in to care for the eggs.

After 3-5 days, the fry should be free swimming and the male should be removed. This can vary if you choose to breed a female Flowerhorn with another cichlid species, as the males have varying degrees of paternal care.

Fry Care

Once the fry reach the free-swimming stage, they no longer have their egg sacks to absorb nutrients from.

For the first month or so of their lives, they will be dependent on live food, so get ready before hand, as the amount of cultures needed for 2000 fry is mind-boggling.

For the first one to two weeks, the Flowerhorn fry will be content with baby brine shrimp, but they must be fed 4-10 times daily. As you may imagine, this will quickly pollute the tank, so water changes are a must.

After the first few weeks, the Flowerhorns will have outgrown the brine shrimp and should graduate to large daphnia species, scuds, or small shrimp species.

At this point the larger fry should be separated out to larger grow-out tanks. When raising so many fry, some will get more food than others and grow at a faster rate and there is nothing that can be done about this, meaning more tanks are necessary.

Between the ages of 1-3 months, pellet and flake food can be introduced, as well as worms, such as white worms and blackworms. Frozen foods, such as Mysis shrimp, and dried food like anchovies, crickets, and meal worms can also be introduced.

After around 3-4 months, most of the fry should be around 2-3” and are sellable. Unfortunately, due to Flowerhorns being a hybrid fish, most of the fry end up being culls.

What you do with the culls is up to you but raising lower grade fish and high-grade fish takes the same amount of energy and time. At the very least, culls should not be allowed to breed in order to further the strain.

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