best beginner corals

What drew you to the idea of starting and keeping a reef tank more than likely was seeing a beautifully stocked reef aquarium with its appealing combination of colors and species. You made the commitment and purchases needed to start a saltwater aquarium. Now you have arrived at the point where you can begin populating your tank with all those eye catching corals. But now is the moment you need to show maximum restraint! There is a saying among reef hobbyists that “Only bad things happen quickly in a reef tank.” Successful reef keeping requires keeping your inhabitants happy – but book knowledge is not the same as the actual experience… Do yourself a favor and start out with some “easier” to keep corals that are going to be a bit more forgiving while you learn the ins and outs of maintaining a tank. The species listed here are hardy, easy to care for, affordable, can survive most beginners’ mistakes and still provide an incredible amount of beauty. One further benefit to these species is they will populate quickly, and thus fill your tank with life and color sooner than many tough to maintain species.

Soft Corals

Genus: Actinodiscus (act-in-o-disk-us ) or its synonym Discosoma (dis-co-som-ah): Common names also include Bullseye Mushroom, Flower Coral, Mushroom, Mushroom Anemones, and Disc Anemones. They are one of the easiest soft corals to find and keep in a reef aquarium. Their name describes their appearance: a stem topped by a round or ruffled cap. Generally the stem is short and not all that visible. They very greatly in color and can be a single or multicolored, smooth or rough, and have knobs or stripes. They prefer lower to medium light and slow to medium water movement and are generally non-aggressive. They are less sensitive to changes in water parameters and are more tolerant of a range of water quality. They can be fed but rely primarily on their zooxanthellae. Few mushroom corals have actually been named and are referred to generally as Actinodiscus species or Discosoma species.

(Family Alcyoniidae, Genus Alcyonium, Cladiella, Sarcophyton, Sinularia and Family Nephtheidae, Genus Capnella). Leather corals are octocorals having eight tentacles and eight mesentaries on their polyps and a leathery skin. Common growth forms include thick encrusting, tree like (arborescent), and lobed. Polyps are attached to the coenenchyme (mat), have zooxanthellae but also feed on phytoplankton, nanoplankton, and bacterioplankton. Most do not have stinging cells (nematocysts). The Alcyonium genus was once joined with the Cladiella which accounts for all the shared common names you see.

  • Alcyonium (al’-see-oh’-nee-uhm): Common names include Finger Leather Coral, Colt Coral, Seaman’s’ Coral, Dead Mans Finger Coral, and Encrusting Leather Coral. They occur mostly in lobed and finger like forms (hence its common names), upright with or without a stalk, and colonies tend to be small. Unlike other Leather Corals they are slimy to the touch. They come mainly brown, green, yellow, red, and orange. Alcyonium corals prefer low to average water flow and moderate lighting; when in stronger currents their encrusting form is enhanced. They get their nutrition from their zooxanthellae and do not need to be fed.

  • Cladiella (klad’-ee-ell’-ah): Common names include Colt Coral, Finger Leather Coral, Finger-Tip Cladiella, Blushing Coral, Stubby Finger Leather Coral, Seaman’s Hand, and Cauliflower Coral. These corals are found naturally in the Indo-Pacific on reef flats and back reef slopes where currents and lighting are moderate. They will do well if you mimic these but are also highly adaptable to other conditions. They have smaller lobes than Alcyonium, are heavier looking, and covered with lumpy knobs. Colors run from grey-white to cream and polyps may be a contrasting color, most often green or brown. They may release toxins that affect stony coral growth. Cladiella rely primarily on their zooxanthellae for nutrition but also may feed on phytoplankton. Like Alcyonium they are slimy to the touch.

  • Sarcophyton (sahr’-koh-fy’-tahn): Common names include Toadstool Coral, Mushroom Leather Coral, Leather Coral, and Trough Coral. The polyp free stalks of Sarcophyton teminate in a broad, flared, or smooth mushroom-shaped top (capitulum). Most are brown, tan, and cream with similar colored polyps but may also be green. Found mostly in reef flats and lagoons, they prefer low to moderate current and tolerate a range of light intensities. They get most of their nutrients from their zooxanthellae and microplankton. All shed a surface layer of dead waxy tissue from time to time and can be sick looking or withdrawn during this process but emerge larger and healthier than before. They are generally peaceful to other organisms in the aquarium. Clownfish will inhabit a Sarcophytum sp. instead of an anemone and may irritate it possibly to death. They propagate easily from cuttings and it should be easy to find aquaculture specimens.

  • Sinularia (sin’-yoo-lahr’-ee-ah): Common names include Cabbage Leathers, Finger Leather Coral, Flat Leather Coral, Flexible Leather Coral, Knobby Leather Coral, and Carnation Leathers. They prefer and have better coloration under bright lighting and medium to strong water movement but will adapt to other conditions. They form flattened or spherical lobes or fingers; crests and stalks are vertical or absent. Colors include cream, pinkish, gray, green, brown, purple and they feel dry, tough, and leathery. They have been shown to cause damage or death to some stony corals.

  • Capnella (cap-nell-ah). Common names include Kenya Tree, Cauliflower Soft Coral, Tree Soft Coral, African Tree Coral, Tree Coral, and Nephthea. The names come from their tree like structure. They have greyish trunks with lateral branches covered in non-retractile polyps of brown. They prefer medium lighting and water flow but will adapt to a range of light and flow conditions. Capnella species are known for rapid growth and self propagation. Left unchecked they can take over so give it space and be prepared to prune it. They do need a reef aquarium with adequate levels of micro-organisms in the water column for a food source which can be achieved by supplementing with foods designed for filter feeding corals.

Family Zoanthidae and include genus Palythoa, Protopalythoa, and Zoanthid): These are colonial corals (separate polyps living together). They come in a wide range of colors, color combinations, sizes, and will live in a range of lighting and water flow conditions. ALL of these corals contain a potent toxin called palytoxin that can cause serious illness or death if you get trace quantities on your lips, eyes, in a cut, or breathe it in. If you are going to touch the coral itself wear gloves, protect your eyes, and wash after touching them. Research this toxin for detailed information and safety instructions ahead of time!

  • Palythoa (pal’-ee-thoe’-ah): Common names include Button Polyps, Moon Polyps, and Sea Mat. They have large polyps or “buttons” that are embedded directly in their mat or coenenchyme with little or no stalk and grow in a crusting manner. The polyps are broad, flat discs with knoblike, short, tapered or long, thin tentacles surrounding the disk rim. Palythoa colonies are usually found in shallow waters with moderate to high water flow like the reef crest and upper back reef slope. They are usually brown, yellow, green, or cream, with the polyps sometimes being of a darker shade than the mat. They will tolerate a range of lighting conditions but are healthier beneath high light intensity.

  • Protopalythoa (proto-pal’-ee-thoe’-ah): Common names include Button Polyps and Sea Matt. The distinction between Palythoa and Protopalythoa is in their growth form: Protopalythoa polyps are large and flat with tentacles typically longer and more numerous than Palythoa and have a larger oral disc. They are not encased in a coenenchyme or “mat” but grow stalks from the coenenchyme terminating in polyps. Sometimes the tentacle tips have a contrasting color or fluorescence but normally are green or brown in color. They naturally occur at many water depths but in a marine aquarium do best under higher intensity lighting and moderate to high water flow. They grow quickly and will encrust over neighbors so give them space.

  • Zoanthus (zo-an’-thus): Common names include Zoas, Button Polyps, Stick Polyps, Sea Mats, and Colonial Anemones. Compared to Palythoa and Protopalythoa, they are more brightly colored with smaller polyps (buttons), have a dividing sphincter muscle around their oral opening, and do not integrate debris into their coenenchyme. They occur naturally in a variety of water depths, currents, and lighting. They depend primarily on their zooxanthellae along with feeding on micro fauna and algae in the water and don’t need to be fed directly. They are found in a wide range of colors, color combinations, and in patterns of stripes and polka-dots. Polyps usually have contrasting colors to the stalks and coenenchyme. They come in different forms from colorful disks to fields of feathery tentacles. Zoanthus tend to do best in medium to high intensity light and low to moderate water movement. They reproduce quickly, are easily propagated, and are among the more affordable corals.

(Family Xeniidae, Genus Anthelia, Xenia) Earn their name from the pulsate motion of their polyps. They are an octocoral having eight tentacles and eight mesentaries on their “feathery” polyps. They are generally white, yellow, green, blue, and brown. The Xeniidae members depend heavily on their zooxanthellae in addition to feeding on phytoplankton, nanoplankton, and bacterioplankton.

  • Anthelia (an-thee’-lee-ah): Common names include Glove Coral, Waving Hand Coral, and Pulse Coral. Anthelia corals differ from other Xenids in that they lack a common stalk and branches; polyps grow directly from an encrusting mat. They are typically white, gray, pink, or brown but do occur in other colors. Anthelia prefer a moderate indirect flow and moderate to higher intensity with brighter color variants generally needing higher light intensities. They have been noticed to do well in tanks with slightly elevated nutrient levels. They are normally non-toxic, peaceful, and other corals can out-compete with them for space. Captive bred varieties tend to be easier to keep than wild collected specimens. These corals do not need to be fed directly, relying on their zooxanthellae.

  • Xenia (zee’-nee-ah): Commonly called Pulse Coral, coming from the habit of the colonial polyp heads to open and close quickly and rhythmically. They prefer moderate water flow and moderate to bright light and will “walk” to move to a spot they like best. They are very fast growing, sometimes encrusting over other corals, and some are toxic to stony corals. Cream, white, ivory, brown, and light green are common colors and most have a thick, short, smooth, unbranched stalk. There is a high mortality rate for wild collected specimens so look for ones aquacultured. Some crustaceans, nudibranchs, and worms will feast on Xenia and clown fish will use a Xenia as a host.


Pachyclavularia (pah-key’-kla-vu-lar’-ee-ah): Common names are Star Burst Polyps, Star Polyps, Eight Tentacle Polyps, Mat Polyps, Green Star polyps, Grass Coral, and Daisy Polyps. Native to Indo-Pacific regions, their purple to reddish-violet mats are a distinguishing feature of the genus. Polyps are normally brown or bright green but other variation may occur and white, yellow or green polyp centers may contrast with the polyp tentacle. These corals are tolerant of both low and bright lighting but will do best in bright light and moderate to high water flow. Its encrusting growth pattern can rapidly encroach on rock work, aquarium glass, and coral neighbors. They do not need to be fed, relying on their zooxanthellae.

Stony Corals

If you are really, really, really set on starting out with some of the stony (hard) corals – or better yet, you have successfully kept some of the soft corals above, you can try these generally considered to be overall the least demanding:

  • Montipora Species: These are small polyp stony (SPS) corals and are the second largest genus of corals. (Acropora being the largest). They come in all colors, many growth forms, and can have several forms in a single colony. They are adaptable to many light and current conditions and are a good candidate for learning about stony coral propagation. Once established they are hardy and fast growing.

  • Turbinaria peltata: A small polyp stony (SPS) coral. Common names include Pagoda Coral and Pagoda Cup Coral. Grows in a conical or cup shape and is commonly green or brown. Place this coral in medium to high light and medium to high water movement and where it won’t collect debris.


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