The Giant Red Crypt
The 1952 Shirley Aquatics Giant Red Crypt
Some sort of Cryptocoryne cordata (Sold as "C. grandis")

There is no such plant as Cryptocoryne grandis. If you were to run an Internet search on it you would find it barely exists.

But it existed in 1952 when they were sold through a prominent shop in the town of Shirley, England and quickly became extinct in the hobby for all intents and purposes.

Save for one lone tank, in of all places, Canada and of all places, the town I grew up in as a kid. The plant is really a member of the Cryptocoryne cordata species complex considered by some to be impossible to grow. Not. For at least two reasons. Manure and leaf mould. Read on...

I have written before in these pages of my friend Charlie Drew. To me, growing up in Burlington Ontario, in everyones opinion that mattered he was almost certainly the local master fish breeder. He bred cardinals. He bred emperor tetras. He bred discus, and in the 1960's yet. While Herb Axelrod was running around East Germany in a Trabant taxicab, trying to hook up with Hans Jochaim Richter to talk to the "first" man that bred cardinals he could have saved a whole lot of time and money by getting off the plane in Toronto. But as anyone who knows Charlie can tell you Charlie is like that; understated, modest, extremely humble and soft spoken.

These are small green petshop Crypts on the left. These are giant red Crypts. This tank is 20" tall. Those small things down there are people, not ants.

It was 1974. It had been one year almost to the day between getting my first fishtank and meeting Charlie and it went something like this: my brother asked for and received a tank for his birthday. My father had answered some newspaper ad or something and got a 5 gal steel framed tank and all the goodies you would expect in 1974: a bag of coal (technically carbon I suppose), plastic plants, inside corner box filter with glass wool. All the good stuff that today belongs in some sort of museum of bad aquarium ideas.

I thought it was neat, went to the library and took out all the books about tropical fish, locked myself in my bedroom and came out at the end of the week speaking Latin.

A chance occasion seeing "Aphyosemion calliurum ahli" (which was the incorrect nom du jour for the fish we now call Aphyosemion gardneri) prompted an instant and lifelong infatuation with killifish that led six months later to meeting Charlie Drew, for if you mentioned "killifish" in the aquarium club of that region in that time you were told simply "Charlie breeds them - he breeds everything" that's really what people said - and indeed Charlie was and still is some kind of Rosario la Corte of the neo-arctic - there were not many poeple breeding discus, angels, killies and cardinals in the middle of the 20th century but Charlie was one of them. But he also had an overwhelming interest in plants both aquatic and terrestrial.

Tucked away in the laundry room corner of his basement Charlie kept all sorts of different and odd plants none of which you'd find in your average grocery store display of "assorted mixed tropicals". Orchid cactus, lots of them. Wandering iris. Wandering all over and around like they own the place, to name two.

But nothing was to prepare me for what I saw next. Imagine what it must feel like to finally see a room where people breed lots of killifish; I had expected to see a lot of fishtanks (check) and I'd expected to see lots of species of killifish (nope, 4 or 5) but I had not expected to see a dozen tanks full of gold australe, that's a bit of a mind blower ("they always sell, they're orange" - Charlie was seldom wrong, if these was such a thing as a commodity-always-saleable killifish this is the one - orange australe). I was xpecting 40 tanks with 2 fish in it, not 700 gold lyretails in a half a dozen tanks, but to suppy this pipeline of lyretail killfish production there were 8 or 9 small tanks, abot 10" wide and 4" square in a side containing nothing but two spawning mops and two very large gold australe. No filter was in the peaty brown clear water.

Nor had I expected to see a single large tank with only one species of plant. This tank looked pretty beat up if not downright ancient, probably made around the time of the Spartan wars. It was about two feet on a side; a perfect cube. It had a metal frame which was rusting horribly - indeed you could see flakes of rust sitting on top of the #2 silica sand gravel which may as well have been black. It was DARK in that tank. It was full of stems. Weird.

It was a somewhat odd display - leaf stems with leaves pretty much floating on the surface. "Nice swords" I said and was told they were not swords at all they were Cryprocorynes. I knew right then that this man was nuts, swords just don't get that big. But swords didn't look like these plants either. Could he be right? Could these things actually be some mutant rare giant Crypt? Nah, couldn't be. There's no such thing in books I had seen and almost certainly not here in my little home town, these kinds of exotics could, I reasoned, only be found in large American cities or at best in Toronto on rare occasion.

Charlie lifted the hood to expose the purple-pink glow of a single 20 watt 24" T12 gro lux fluorescent tube and a sea of leaves covering the surface. There were leaves upon leaves upon leaves. Big ones - no, huge ones, this was supposed to be a Cryptopryne, and Crypts are two to three inches in the shops, sometimes 6 inches, but not twenty four inches tall, no way, not ever.

Now, I had read every book available on aquarium plants in the day (both of them - ha ha, the TFH Stodola book and the TFH Rataj and Horeman book) and neither once had any mention of a giant crypts, not one with dark dark olve leaves with screaming purple undersides. Nope, that would stand out. I'd remember that.

It turns out Charle had bought the plants in the early 1950's from Shirley Aquatics in England. They sold it as "giant red crypt - Crypt grandis" which is all he could remember, and in the years since he had them he'd sold a couple at fish club auctions from time to time (on his words: "Geez, people sometimes pay $20 for these things at the C.A.O.A.C auction) and had now about 30 to 50 very large plants and lots of new plants emerging.

I was used to seeing new things, I was 17 and in 1974. Veritably the stone age as far as fishkeeping went. I saw a saltwater tank maybe once a year - in Toronto, 50 miles from where I lived. Your world was the 7 books the library had, the two local petshops and the local fishclub, which to an enthusiastic teen seemed more like a bunch of old people interested more in smoking and donuts than any hard core fishgeek interests. Lake Nyassa cichlids were known only in pictures; it was a very vanilla world fish-wise.

It came to pass that I would visit Charlie's maybe half a dozen times in the next decade and each time that tank of giant red crypts would still be there and each time I'd still never heard of them or seen them anywhere else, nor did anybody I'd met or talked to know anything about "Crypt. grandis" or "giant red crypts". "Might be C. blassii" was the only substantive comment I'd heard and I knew that was wrong - but probably close, "blassii" just don't get that big. Charlie's plant didn't seem to exist, so, what WAS this freak giant crypts doing at Chrlies place?

For ten years I lived in Los Angeles where I can fainthfully report there as no sights or sounds of any large crypts, red or otherwise. Moving back to Canada, I discover upon checking in with Charlie that he replaced that old tank full of crypts which pretty much made my heart stop. I may not have known what they were but I knew they coudln't be found anywhere else. That tank had been replaced alright, wonder of wonder, mircle of miracles, Charlie was dragged kicking and screaming into the 1990s and had an all glass aquarium. That's right, the rusted out hulk of the old metal framed tank was still round the side of the house with the rest of the trash waiting to be picked up. There was not much left of it! Charlie offered it too me and for sentimental reasons I gave some serious thought to taking it home where it would undoubtely delight my wife (not) and if not for the fact it would not under any conditions fit anywhere in my car... well, you know, that old tank is now dead, Jim.

Charlie had had the same tank remade in glass. 24" on a side, one giant cube with brand new gravel and about 15 giant red crypts. He'd given some away and now it semed to me the species hang by a thread in new gravel in a tank with cloudy water. I had visions of the things metlting down. I had visions of there being no more Cyrptocoryne what-ever.

But, they were fine, and still are to this day. There are four square feet on Burlington that seem to forever hold a stand of giant red crypots. And in fact they've all but taken over his set-in-the-wall 100 gallon show tank.

But what ARE they?

There were no search engines in 1994. Not that worked anyway, Altavista was a ways off and google would not come until years later. Remember gopher? Probably not. It was the search engine moral equivalent of coal for aquarium filters. There also didn't seem to be anybody else on the net who was real serious about crypts. Four years later, after the explosion of the dial up intenet for $30/mo it was a different landscape. One day I receivd an email from some fella in Holland called Jan Bersteimeijr. Jan seemed to be the Internet liason to the European Cryptocoryne mafia - and while Jan is not an aquarist his interest in Crypts transcends the differneces between submersed (aquaria) and emersed (aroid fancier) hobbyists and scientists. The "aroid guys", mostly in Europe all grow their Crypts emersed in tanks, palludariums and herbariums but Jan has such enthusisasm and passion for Crypts that no matter what he context, "he's da man". Jan's "Crypts pages" website while not meant specificially for aquarists, is and has always been the resource for these plants - and the aquaria side of the hobby is not ignored. I'd talked to Jan over the years and one day mentioned Chalrie's giant red Crypt.

So I as a bit taken aback when in 2005 when having once again brought up the subject of Charlie's giant red crypts, that Jan told me he'd located a Shirley aquatics catalog from the 1960s that mentioned "C. grandis", however the location was listed merely as "Borneo". Ridley described the plant from near Matang in Sarawak (the former British Borneo) and if this plant is what Shirley aquatics sold then the plant would today be C. cordata grabowski.

But Jan points out that in Kalimantan and in Narathiwat in Thailand there are also very large forms of cordata.

Whatever it is it's a very rare plant. But all of a sudden it's not so mysterious - it has a name now. Or maybe it does.

With plants of the genus Cryptocoryne nothing in certain until they flower as the leaves can display great differences depending on their environment and Charlie had never ever seen a flowering spathe in any of his plants. So we can't compare them properly and C. cordata grabowski is little more than a guess right now - a tentative identification.

While some crypt are always available (C. wendtii for example) and while some are sometimes availabe (C. balansae for example) some are available very infrequently (C. usteriana, C. aponogetifolia for example). But, some are just not around and while it's not fair to say they do not exist in the hobby it is true that they exist in very small numbers in only a few peoples tanks or palludariums and usually only can be found in care of people who have collected them from the wild. They command very high prices. $150 for a small plant is not uncommon. So if you ever bought a "Giant red Crypt" from a C.A.O.A.C. auction for the $20 or $25 they usually command there you have no idea what a barging you got.

So, is the mystery of the Giant red crypt solved? Maybe. Probably. Who knows? There are a few large forms of cordata known and while it's likely to be graboswki, to be certain a photograph or a dried flower must be examined and as of yet no photographs exist of the flowers of this plant. But, take heart, Charlie now has a digital camera.

End pt 1

Begin pt 2

C. cordata grabowski history, habitat and care.

To understand how there can be so much confusion consider where the plant is from - Borneo. Nothing evokes images of steamy swampy, dangerous jungle animals and certain danger. At least that's how I remember the wilds of Borneo as described, in my youth. I'm sure I wouldn't feel that way if I was eating in the Starbucks there today.

The type specimen of this species was collected by grabowski in 1881, Engler described it and named it after him in 1898 as C. grabowski. Ridley named the same plant C. grandis in 1905 and for 50 years that name stuck - this was the name Shirley aquatics used, and fairly correctly so for that time.

By the time Jacobsen revised the genus, it had become apparent that that C. cordata was a "species complex", that is, there's lots of these things and while it's obvious they are all the same species there are all sorts of variations. Thus Ridley's plant was determined to be one of the C. cordata complex, subspecies grabowski. Is this Charlie's giant red crypt? Probably. Maybe. Perhaps. For now at least, for there are all sorts of plants in the cordata complex from various parts of Borneo. We to this day do now know how many species and new forms and species are to be found in that largely undiscovered region.

But! Shortly after I began writing this article I got an email from Kai Witte in Germnay concerning this tentative identification. Kai specialises in the "blackwater" crypts:

Attempts to identify Cryptocoryne which are not flowering are generally understood to be tentative at best or rather futile with crypts as difficult as the C. cordata species group. That being said, this giant crypt doesn't strike me as very close to C. cordata var. grabowskii as we know it. OTOH, the historical link with plants imported by Shirley Aquatics should not be easily dismissed.

The name Cryptocoryne cordata var. grabowskii is based on plants collected in southeastern Borneo (Kalimantan ), not far from Banjermasin; there is not much left from the historical collections though. Traveling hobbyists have repeatedly recorded similar plants in that region during the last 30 years or so but none of these made it into culture as far as I know. During the last years collecting efforts dedicated to explore Cryptocoryne diversity in Borneo has resulted in several strains which seem to be reasonable candidates. However, the jury is still out on which of these - if any - is typical for Cryptocoryne cordata var. grabowskii. Nevertheless, all are doing fine in leaf-mold based, acid substrates and are in my experience suitable plants for (large) blackwater aquaria!

Until recently, our concept of what Cryptocoryne cordata var. grabowskii should look like has been dominated by a crypt only found in the Matang swamp area close to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Originally described as Cryptocoryne grandis, it was later regarded as belonging to Cryptocoryne cordata var. grabowskii. However, there is still no proof that these Bornean crypts from widely separated localities really are closely related. It may be just as likely that they are local adaptations to habitats with deeper water (including tidal influence at Matang)! While the Matang crypt has been commercially exported early on and also got collected by travellers, culture success was limited until the understanding of blackwater crypt cultivation increased. It is now not really difficult to grow in a tank with acid blackwater. Just don't put snails in there: underwater leaves are flaccid and apparently a really good snack! The color, the soft leaves and the preference for acid water are my main reasons for doubting that Charlie's giant crypt may have originated from Matang.

However, crypts can look markedly different depending on the growing conditions so I can't be positive short of growing (and flowering) them in the same tank!

There is also another, somewhat similar Cryptocoryne from the Malay Peninsula in the Sg. Kolok swamp at the Malaysian-Thai border. This is also an acid blackwater habitat. Elsewhere in southern Thailand Cryptocoryne cordata are mainly growing in rainwater streams and even hard waters originating in limestone formations. These are the source for all widespread cordata strains like "blassii" and "siamensis" - my best guess would be that these unique giant crypts have a similar origin

So, it turns out the Cryptocoryne cordata species complex is about as diverse as say, gardneri killifish. That is, there is a species, there are subspecies and there asre different populations of subspecies and while we have a reasonable handle on the different forms of Fundulopanchax gardneri there's a lot less we know about the cordata species complex.

Looking for information about this plant on the net is about as useless and looking for information on C. grandis. Other than Jan's Crypts Pages, there is nothing. It is not a common plant by a large margin. It is beyond rare. In fact Charlie's tank in all likely hood is most probably the only thriving culture of this plant in cultivation anywhere in the world. The few scant paragraphs on Jan's site also mention the plant is not known in cultivation (to Jan, tee hee) and is probably very difficult if it's like the other member of the cordata group.

In a world of giant welding-tank sized cylinders of CO2 hooked up to aquariums and closed loop fertilizer dosing one wonders how Charlie grew these rare impossible to grow plants with just sand and sh--... uh manure. A half inch of manure under 4 inches of fine beach sand is all I've seen Charlie use for 30 years and he claims it works especially well with crypts. Charlie has heard of CO2 and but doesn't see the point and does not add any fertilizers. Every ten years he may tear down a tank to replenish the manure under the sand. Sometimes it's 20 years not 10. The plants don't seem to care much.

Outside of Charlie's basement the plant has a reputation of being difficult to grow. Outside of the aquarium world, in the Aroid fancier world there are few plants in cultivtion from the cordata group collected from Borneo. C. grabowski is among them and does not grow well, nor to any or the COR species. So we have a situation where the non-aquarist crypt fans who grow them emersed can't do well with the plant... and Crypts are often easier to grow emersed than submersed.

Joseph Bogner is a name you should know if you're interested in the genus, he's done quite a bit of work in the area lately and has stumbled on to the discovery of using beech tree leaf litter in cultivation of difficult to grow crypts in the cordata complex. While specimens of various plants in the cordata complex are grown in emerse culture (where reports day they do better than submersed culture) the plants never get very big. At least that's the word coming from Europe and Japan. What's the missing ingredient? It is not known why, but if a certain amount of beech tree leaf litter is added to the compost then members of the cordata group grow to full size... just as if you'd put them in one of Charlie's tanks. Heh. It's also be reported than any leaf will work - just find the black crumbly moist leaf litter from the forest floor or mix layers of dead laves and soil and wait a few weeks and use as is.

I was under the impression as a kid that all crypts were soft acid water plants. The sort of thing you're see accompanying, say Rasboras, mimicking an Asian version of the Amazon black water acidic, zero hardness river.

No. just plain no. Period. Full stop. There are crypts that will grow in brackish water (C. cilita) but there are whole legions of crypts that do best and are found in hard alkaline water - they're fond in limestone streams (for example C. pontiderifolia).

But, alas the spectacular C. grabowski is not one of them. They are indeed the soft acid water plants and can be found in peat bogs with a very acid pH of around 4.5 and in fact shots of their habitat shows a bunch of plant leaves exposed to the sun with the stems underwater completely chocked out from the sun from the covering layer of leaves. This is exactly the picture I remember in my mind from 30 years ago, that big square tank of Charlie's with only stems in it for all intents and purposes, and a carpet of dark olive green leaves with screaming shrieking purple-pink underneath.

But giant red crypts grow in peat bogs, not limestone streams. Charlie's water - the same as I used when I lived there is pH 7.2 and has 375 ppm of hardness. The water where I live now is 3-4X that hard. And the plants grow fine for me, and, obviously, Charlie.

Now, the beach litter thing has me puzzled. It's not like the use of peat moss is unknown - the European Aroid fanciers traditionally use coarse sand and peat moss which certainly ought to be acid, so it seems to me we can rule out simple pH as the thing that holds some people back from growng this majestic plant to its full size. So what is there in Beech leaf litter that lets plants in the cordata group grow to be as big as they're supposed to be? The answer is unknown. Oddly too, Jan's pictures of grabowski in situ show plants that are nowhere near as large as the ones in Charlie's tanks. Hmmm...

So what's the deal with Beech tree leaf litter? Why does this seem to apparanly work to cause - or let - members of the cordata group reach their full potential size? Is it the breakdown of the leaves that produces copious amount of food? Is it a fungus that grows sympatricaly ? or is it some chewmical thats also in beach leaves? The answer is unknown at this time. One are of investigation might be to see why manure and Beech tree litter have in common in terms of feeding aquatic aroids. There has to be some connection there. Personally I like the idea these plants need a very very rich subtrate. Perhaps they're inefficient feeders.

Is it the breakdown of the leaves that produces copious amounts of food? Why don't other leaves work. Or do they? Is it a fungus that grows sympatricaly ? Or is it some chemical they need that also occurs in beech leaves?

These are questions nobody seems to have an answer for. But then the night is young so to speak, it's only been in the past few months that the beech leaf litter trick was discovered. Could it be the plant just requires massive amounts of food? It is a big plant after all, and pehaps the Aroid-fan staple of a bit of peat moss in #2 gravel is just not enough.

Certainly there are still mysteries surrounding this plant even if we might be closer to having a handle on the name!

Charlie, probably wisely, does not let these plants go easily and thoughout my teenage years he always managed to find a reason why he could never sell me any. That's probably one of the reasons why he still has a more than healthy colony of the plant

Two plants obtained in 2003

Here are the two plants as I obtained them in the fall of 2003. The small one is on my desk, the large one was floating in a 15 gallon tank for a few days.

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A Root Cutting
As you can see in one photo (50-1), the rather long rhizome was cut, and planted. A new plant grew from this. Here in the summer of 2005 is the plant that grew from this.

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Charlie Drew's plants in a two foot tall 100 gallon tank in 2007:


Further reading: (Now at (Now at (Now

The cordata complex (2005)

The cordata complex (2014)

Aquatic plants of borneo:

Flora and fauna of borneo

Beech tree leaf litter (Now:

More photos of Charlie Drew's tank full of these Crypts:

Postscript: 2012 - Possible location of origin of these plants found: I can't be certain without genetic testing or at least a flower from both (neither exist) but I think I found the origin of Charlie's plant. It's not in the area Shirley's aquatics was known to be getting plants from on the west wide of Borneo Island in Sarawak. Instead, there's a plant from the middle of the In the middle of the Island up in the highest point of this mountainous area called "Dayu" and west of there we find this plant:

I found this in 2012 when I spent some time looking on Google images for every form of COR that was pictured with a known location and only one had leaves large enough and stems long enough to be the same plant, the form west of Dayu. As far as I know this plant exists only in a small number of collection in Japan but I am convinced it's the same material Charlie Drew has and is the source of the 1950 Shirley's Aquarius importation.See note[1] below.

Postscript: 2014 - I found a photo of when I'd done this in 2004 as well:

First published in the November 2009 Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine


[1] I disagree. We do know and are sure it came from Borneo. All cordata forms on Borneo are the 2n=68 diploid genotype of C. cordata grabowski. C. cordata cordata is haploid (1n=34) and found in peninsular Malaysia and not Borneo.

Note that Jan Bastimeijer (pers. comms.) has made the same argument, summarized as:

"maybe, but there are large forms from Thailand that grow in hard water, grabowski will not - it's a medium sized peat-bog plant near coastal Sarawak that will not grow in hard aquarium water".
and my response to that is: "Sure, there are three different forms of a large cordata like plant form Thailand we now refer to as C. cordata siamensis, but not one has leaves like Charlie's plant, and the from of Grabowski from Dayu at the very least - is not from a peat bog on the coast, but from a deep river with a gravel bottom high up in the mountains. To be sure, it is not growing on limestone and the pH is midly acid, but it's nowher enear peat-bog stuff and all those rocks in the river suggest to me it would do ok in aquarium - note that Charlie's wate ris 175-275ppm hardness depending when in the year you measure. Here are photos TS Wang took there in 2010:

See that grey rock at 7 o'clock in the last photo? Limestone. Although the pH is 6.8 there that's not very acid, and expected for that type of substrate with a river that's fed by rainwater.

Perhaps Shirley's got them form there or perhaps the plant floated downstream and there are other populations growing there but not up in the mountains I don't know.

However, not that Ridley himself did say apart from C. ciliata, C. grabowski is the largest Crypt he'd ever seen[1] and this does not sound like the coastal short forms of grabowski suggesting again there are larges forms of the plant in an area Ridley explored on Borneo. My guess is he was looking at same the plants Charlie Drew still keeps.

C. ciliata isn't particularly large plant - so I thought - I've certainly never seen CIL larger than 18 inches or so while Drew's plant is over two feet. The answer came in 2015 when a friend in Borneo sent these photos of a giant CIL growing in a canal in Borneo. So Ridley's comment make more sense in light of this.

We can't know for sure. Jan and Kai assert it's improbable if not impossible. By showing Wang's collection of a giant cordata for in the Borneo Highlands then it is not impossible this could be the same plant. We can we discuss various percentages of probability until DNA testing proves one way or the other.

There are also medium sized forms of GRA on the coast at Pelaihari and Taminglayang but, they're nowhere near as large as the ones at Dayu by leaf length or stem length.



    [1] "Endemic, the biggest species I have ever seen except C. ciliata"
    - H.N. Ridley, Aroids of Borneo, 1905

    Note that he was referring to C. grandis a junior synonym for grabowski.