10 Best Soft Coral Species for Beginner Reef-Keepers

There’s nothing so enchanting as a saltwater reef aquarium full of thriving corals. But the thought of owning one for themselves often intimidates beginner reef keepers as corals are supposed to be too difficult and expensive to provide for.

However, there are actually a number of corals that are quite forgiving, and even prefer, lax water quality and a bit of disturbance. They are often the first corals to colonize disturbed regions. And many of these species grow so explosively, you might even find it a challenge to keep them under control!

Interested yet? Let’s look at some of the best soft corals for beginners!

What are Soft Corals?

The term “soft coral” covers a very, very large spread of animals that are classified by their lack of a hard, stony skeleton that affixes them to the substrate. “Hard corals” are the ones we often think of when imagining a reef with elegant, branching coral growths.

But many soft corals still have some skeletal components. They don’t have a stony base but they do construct nodules of calcium compounds called “spicules.” Soft corals usually use spicules combined with internal canals of seawater to control their shape.

Since they do still internalize calcium into a “skeleton,” they need dissolved calcium levels to be around the same concentration as any stony coral: 350-450 ppm. They also require magnesium in their water, which helps make calcium bioavailable for them. Magnesium levels should stay at 1200-1350 ppm.

Like their “hard” cousins, soft corals live in partnership with photosynthetic zooxanthellae, which are single celled dinoflagellates that live inside many animals, including sea anemones, sea slugs, and sponges.

These algae-like organisms live inside the very cells of the coral, sharing the sugars it creates via photosynthesis in exchange for carbon dioxide and nutrients harvested from the water column. The coral provides both food and shelter in a classic case of mutual symbiosis!

The degree to which soft corals depend on their zooxanthellae varies quite a lot. Some species, such as Leather and Pulsing Xenia Corals, are entirely dependent on them for survival. These soft corals don’t eat solid food at all and instead require intense light and a steady flow of dissolved organic matter to survive.

Others, such as Mushroom Corals, survive mostly on eating other organisms and extracting nutrients from the water column. They will thrive in low light environments where photosynthesis is made difficult.

10 Best Soft Corals for Beginners

Choosing a soft coral for beginners depends mostly on what sort of lighting environment, maintenance level, and water flow level you can provide for them. Most of the following corals are great for setups containing fish because they thrive where nutrient levels are high!

Finger Leather Coral

Finger leather coral

Finger Leather Coral are inexpensive, easy to care for soft corals that are entirely photosynthetic. This means they rely on their partner zooxanthellae and a trickle of nutrients from the water column to grow as large as they do. Moderate to high flow and intense lighting ensures they will develop into star attractions in no time.

These corals get their name from their rough skin, which feels like leather to the touch. While they are typically tan to brown in color you may come across a rare green specimen. But watch out: these corals are occasionally injected with dyes to make them more appealing, which dramatically shortens their lifespan.

Like their Toadstool cousins (see below), Finger Leather Corals are considered aggressive due to their release of terpene compounds that slow or stop the growth of nearby corals. They also grow very expansive and can simply shade out their neighbors given time. Strategies for managing their noxious chemical releases include activated carbon and frequent water changes.

Otherwise, they are very easy to care for and reproduce asexually continuously. You’ll see your coral drop small buds that grow into clones of the original colony nearby! Thanks to their thick base attaching them securely to rocks, they thrive in environments with fast currents that few other corals can tolerate.

  • Scientific Name: Sinularia notanda
  • Origin: IndoPacific Ocean
  • Light Requirement: High
  • Water Flow: Moderate to High
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Aggressive

Pulsing Xenia Coral

xenia coral

If you’re looking for a soft coral with an active nature, the Pulsing Xenia Coral is hard to beat! Their gently waving “fingers” can make them the star attraction of any soft coral tank. It’s not fully understood just why they do so.

But the leading theory is that the coral is directing a continuous flow of water around itself to ensure it has a constant source of food incoming. An entire wall to wall carpet of grasping Xenia Corals is eerily fascinating to watch, especially with Clownfish darting in and out of the colonies.

Aquarists often have differing experiences with Xenia Corals as they thrive in the dirtier conditions of beginner tanks but wither in the ultrapure waters of advanced reef systems.

They are entirely photosynthetic but grow very quickly. Xenia Corals need healthy levels of dissolved organic matter to sustain their growth. And in dirty tanks they can entirely take over the available real estate. One Pulsing Xenia colony can cover every wall in a smaller tank in just one year!

So be prepared to prune this coral back (or keep nutrient levels tightly controlled) if you don’t want it taking over. Pulsing Xenia’s growth rate makes it aggressive as it can easily overwhelm slower growing corals.

They are also suspected of being capable of releasing growth slowing compounds that keep other corals from effectively competing but this is poorly understood. Lastly, some species are capable of producing palytoxin, a highly effective poison that necessitates wearing gloves when working with them (see below).

  • Scientific Name: Xenia sp.
  • Origin: Red Sea & IndoPacific Ocean
  • Light Requirement: High
  • Water Flow: Moderate to High
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Aggressive

Mushroom Coral

mushroom coral

This is a large group of animals that also go by the names Mushroom Anemones, Disc Anemones, and a host of other titles. Since they belong to the order Corallimorpharia, you may also see them called Corallimorphs. But the entire group is very undemanding and easy to care for.

Mushroom Corals are often the first species to colonize after a disaster levels a region. Their tolerance for disturbance and fluctuating water parameters makes them ideal beginner’s corals as a result.

Some of the more colorful species from shallow waters do prefer more intense lighting. But overall these corals like low and even indirect lighting. Except for the Ricordea sp. Mushroom Corals prefer very low current as well.

Generally, Mushroom Corals are quite flexible when it comes to feeding. They all feed to some degree, which boosts their growth rate. Dissolved organic matter and even plankton and brine shrimp are eagerly eaten by them. But they can also live solely from their zooxanthellae.

Mushroom Corals are also tolerant of swings in calcium, magnesium, and other essential elements that beginners may struggle to get right for a time. They don’t even have sclerites, hard calcium bodies that act as structural supports in other soft coral species.

They are also a very mobile species of soft coral. Often if the lighting is not to their liking, the Mushroom Coral will simply move itself to a better location. But watch carefully as they may leave a small bud behind that will then grow into a new colony!

  • Scientific Name: Corallimorpharia order
  • Origin: Worldwide
  • Light Requirement: Low to Moderate
  • Water Flow: Low 
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Green Hairy Mushroom Coral

green hairy mushroom coral

Green Hairy Mushroom Corals deserve special mention as one of the most appealing Corallimorphs. They are brightly colored, with flesh and tentacle tips that fluoresce blue, green, or pink under the right lighting.

Like other Mushroom Corals they are quite mobile and will find the right lighting environment for themselves. Typically they prefer moderate light but they will make adjustments as needed! They are also eager feeders on phytoplankton and even brine shrimp. But can also survive solely on photosynthesis, which places a check on their growth.

Green Hairy Mushroom Corals will drop clones every so often, each of which can reach its full size in just two months. This makes them semi-aggressive in growth habit as their mucus can cause irritation to nearby corals. Still, they are easy to control otherwise and won’t overwhelm other coral species.

  • Scientific Name: Rhodactis indosinensis
  • Origin: IndoPacific Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate
  • Water Flow: Moderate 
  • Growth Rate: Moderate
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive

Green Star Polyp

green star polyps

The Green Star Polyp is about as beginner-friendly as soft corals can possibly be. Sometimes too beginner-friendly as in the right conditions, they can completely overgrow an aquarium!

They are grown for their attractive, grass-like growth habit and their willingness to colonize open expanses of sand. You can feed this species if you want them to colonize even faster. But moderate lighting and trace organics from fish and other animals is usually sufficient for good growth.

This species is rated as “aggressive” not because of its stings or toxins but it’s fast colonization rate. Green Star Polyp colonies can spread at around an inch per month in good conditions. They are best kept with aggressive corals like Torch and Acan Lords, which will keep them at bay with their vicious stings. Otherwise, you’ll have to cut back your Green Star Polyps constantly.

GSP can even be used to create a living wall, covering the sides and rear of your aquarium to keep coralline algae, aiptasia, and other unsightly growths from forming! They make stunning hosts for Clownfish as their vibrant green growth is a beautiful contrast to the orange and white striping of your fish.

While they prefer moderate to high lighting they are also excellent corals for the low light aquarium. They won’t grow very fast in these conditions, which may be your preference. Feeding your GSP occasionally in dim conditions will help keep it healthy and thriving, though.

Green Star Polyps are ideal corals for first time fragging attempts as well. They have a rubbery mat called a stolon that they grow out of. This mat can be easily cut and glued to a fragging disk or bit of rubble in mere minutes to start a new colony. 

  • Scientific Name: Pachyclavularia sp.
  • Origin: IndoPacific Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate to High
  • Water Flow: Moderate 
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Aggressive

Green Button Polyp

green button polyps

Protopalythoa corals are similar to their cousins in the Palythoa genus (see Moon Polyp below). However they have a long stalk that the central disk grows on and long, sinuous tentacles for grabbing nearby prey. They also grow singly (though often bunched in groups) and not connected by a fibrous mat like Moon Polyps are.

Button Polyps have similar care requirements to Moon Polyps. They prefer medium lighting and moderate to strong current, which helps them gather floating food. In nature they are found in the intertidal zone, where currents are strong and there is a constant source of food washing past.

Green Button Polyps are peaceful and are not likely to overrun their neighbors but still asexually clone themselves on occasion. So you should ensure they aren’t too close to peaceful coral species.

Occasionally, you may see them close up for a few days on end. If so, wait the process out as they are likely about to shed their mucus coating. Green Button Polyps do this to prevent algae, bacteria, and viruses from colonizing their skin and mucus. But remove this shed mucus ASAP as it can be irritating to any other corals it comes into contact with.

One thing to watch out for is that Button Polyps are quite poisonous! They contain a chemical, palytoxin, which can hospitalize or even kill in certain conditions. Poisonings are rare and generally happen if people try to boil rocks with the corals or have some kind of open wound. But be aware that they can be dangerous and warrant wearing gloves when working with them.

  • Scientific Name: Protopalythoa sp.
  • Origin: Pacific Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate to High
  • Water Flow: Moderate to Strong
  • Growth Rate: Slow to Moderate
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Kenya Tree Coral

kenya tree coral

A few more common names for this readily found soft coral include Cauliflower Coral and African Tree Coral. As expected, they come from the coast of Eastern Africa; Kenya and the surrounding region.

Kenya Tree Coral are an excellent soft coral for aquariums that don’t have strong, specialized coral lighting. Since they come from very nutrient-rich environments Kenya Tree Corals are eager eaters and don’t depend on photosynthesis as much. 

They thrive in the presence of high concentrations of dissolved organics and detritus, making them excellent soft corals for beginners that don’t maintain their water quality as pure as more difficult corals demand.

That said, Kenya Tree Corals are extremely aggressive to the point of being invasive growers. Once your colony establishes itself it may grow to the point of covering every available patch of real estate. They drop polyps that will float off and grow new colonies, sting nearby corals, and even release growth inhibiting toxins that prevent other corals from competing effectively! 

Make sure you’re ready to regularly prune this species or keep it isolated in a refugium. Kenya Tree Coral, Green Star Polyp, and Pulsing Xenia are excellent nutrient sponges for refugium habitats. Or you can let it grow wild if you really, really love the look of this coral. Like the others, Clownfish will host this species if there are no anemones around.

  • Scientific Name: Capnella sp.
  • Origin: Indian Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Low to Moderate
  • Water Flow: Moderate to High 
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Aggressive

Toadstool Leather Coral

toadstool coral

Toadstool Corals are a large, iconic species of soft coral for beginners that have a subdued coloration but fascinating appearance. They shape the top of their cap to direct the flow of water in a way that maximizes the surface area. This allows them to efficiently screen incoming water for all available nutrients.

Toadstool Corals are entirely photosynthetic, simplifying their care tremendously. They don’t eat all so don’t bother target feeding with brine shrimp or even phytoplankton. Instead they filter out organic molecules from the water column to feed their zooxanthellae. 

Like all purely photosynthetic soft corals they prefer their water parameters a bit higher in nitrate and other nutrients as a result. This makes Toadstool Leather Corals ideal for aquariums with healthy fish and invertebrate populations.

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They are one of the more aggressive corals due to their continual release of terpene chemicals that slow the growth of other corals, especially SPS corals. This allows them to overwhelm their neighbors via chemical warfare.

If you have other species of coral with Toadstools use activated carbon to filter out the terpene organic molecules. Regular water changes also ensure that your reef aquarium remains unaffected by them.

  • Scientific Name: Sarcophyton glaucum
  • Origin: Indian Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate to High
  • Water Flow: Moderate 
  • Growth Rate: Fast
  • Temperament: Aggressive

Moon Polyp

Moon Polyps (Palythoa sp.) are also known as Button Polyps or Sea Mats. While they are considered soft corals they actually have a firm structural component called a coenenchyme that links all of the coral polyps in the colony. 

This connective tissue incorporates bits of debris and covers the substrate, forming a rubbery mat that may overgrow other corals if they aren’t aggressive enough. When feeling threatened, each polyp can retract entirely into the mat.

Unlike their cousins the Green Button Polyps, Moon Polyps have stubby tentacles and no long stalk. However they grow in a more compact form, making them complementary in appearance. Both Green Star and Moon Polyps are compatible with each other and grow side by side with no aggression.

Most Moon Polyp species love strong water flow and enjoy being fed. Frozen brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and other food sources are greedily eaten. They also prefer moderate to high light. Moon Polyps can survive in low light tanks but won’t spread very far, if at all.

They come in a variety of attractive colors as well, from brown to neon green and pink!

Like Button Polyps, Moon Polyps also contain palytoxin, an extremely poisonous organic compound that’s poorly understood and has no cure. So make sure you take steps not to be accidentally exposed to the inner secretions of these corals like wearing gloves when handling them.

  • Scientific Name: Palythoa sp.
  • Origin: Pacific & Atlantic Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate to High
  • Water Flow: Moderate to Strong
  • Growth Rate: Slow to Moderate
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Palm Tree Polyp

Clavularia

Other common names for this soft coral for beginners include Clove Polyp, and Waving Hand Polyp. It’s easy to see how it got these names; each tentacle has a feathery structure called a pinnule that increases its surface area so it can better pluck floating particles out of the water column.

Palm Tree Polyps will do just fine on a diet of light and dissolved organic matter. You can offer them a suspension of zooplankton if you want to boost their growth rate but they hardly need it. A moderate to strong current is preferred by this species as well, which provides them with both plankton for food and dissolved organic matter.

The temperament of this coral is hard to classify because it interacts oddly with many different species. Also, Palm Tree Polyps are part of an entire genus (Clavularia) so generalizing the group can be challenging.

Overall, they are slow to moderate growers. But in certain conditions they can grow explosively, causing them to smother other corals. Many species are resistant or immune to the stings of other corals as well, giving them an edge on claiming real estate.

Some species also have noxious mucus coating them that can harm other corals that brush up against them. So unless you’re 100% confident you know what species you have it’s best to give them some space from their neighbors.

Many Clavularia are also noxious enough that even coral-nibbling fish like Butterflyfish and Angelfish find them unpleasant to taste. As a result, Palm Tree Polyps are excellent corals to keep alongside fish that aren’t reef safe.

  • Scientific Name: Clavularia sp.
  • Origin: IndoPacific & Atlantic Ocean
  • Light Requirement: Moderate
  • Water Flow: Moderate to Strong
  • Growth Rate: Slow to Moderate
  • Temperament: Peaceful

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