Kenya tree coral

Kenya Tree Coral Care: Capnella spp.

The Kenya tree coral (Capnella spp.) is a hardy soft coral species tolerant of a range of living conditions. This makes it great for beginner aquarists. In terms of color, this rapidly growing soft coral species might appear somewhat drab. They’re generally available in shades of brown, gold, or even pink. The rarer and more desirable Kenya tree corals tend to have a green coloration that fluoresces under blue actinic lighting. But if you want to aim for them, you’ll need to save up as they run to the expensive side.

Table of Contents: Kenya Tree Coral

Kenya tree corals work well with those starting on their reef tank journey. And you might want to jump down to a particular element of their care with these handy links. Or you can read through the entire article to make sure you have all of the information you’ll need. After all, leather corals (which Kenyans belong to) have some quirks you’ll need to know about.

Introduction

In addition to being hardy and tolerant of life in a saltwater aquarium, Kenya tree corals are fragging machines (a method of coral propagation). Even the smallest colony of this soft coral will grow quickly, forming new colonies by dropping branches. This self-propagation is a form of fragging that Kenya tree corals undergo on their own. New colonies quickly form from new buds. Frags may also detach from their place and float away in the tank in search of a better place to live. This is why they need constant monitoring and pruning if you want to keep them under control.

This makes the Kenya tree coral a great coral species if you are just starting out or are interested in fragging corals.

Kennya tree coral from the Capnella species

Quick Facts

  • Common Names: Kenya tree coral, Capnella coral, Cauliflower coral, Nepthea coral, Nephthya coral, Colt coral
  • Scientific Name: Capnella spp.
  • Care Level Difficulty: Easy – Suitable for beginners and early tanks
  • Fragging Level Difficulty: Very easy; Will frag itself or can be easily cut
  • Photosynthetic? Yes, although it may rely heavily on feeding
  • Needs to be Fed?: Yes

Ideal Habitat for Kenya Tree Corals

The Kenya tree coral hails from the Indo-Pacific Ocean area and the Red Sea. You’ll find them in deep reef areas where there’s clear water. They prefer strong water currents, which help the fragged branches float away and develop newer, large colonies. With that self-propagation at work, colonies can cover up to 19 feet (6m) of stone and coral substrate in an area!

They’re easy to pick out on the reef, too. As you might guess from their name, they resemble swaying trees. A central base or stalk grows up to support the coral. It looks smooth at first glance, but if you a finger over it, you’ll feel the rough sclerites (calcium bodies) that provide the rigid structure for the branches. From that stalk, forked branches stretch out into the current, ending in clusters of polyps. It’s a dramatic look – even if you don’t usually encounter bright colors.

Kenya tree coral in a strong flow natural environment

You could arguably keep these corals in any sized tank, including a nano aquarium – with one big caveat. These are fast-growing corals that WILL eventually take over space in the tank. Some aquarists even consider them “weeds” due to their self-propagation. Because of this, you will need to prune back (frag) the coral to keep the size in check. You also want to allow enough space for the Kenya tree coral to grow WITHOUT overgrowing its neighbors.

If you plan to keep a mixed species tank, don’t go any smaller than 30 gallons (114L). This will give your Keyan room to spread out without brushing up against the neighbors (something we’ll touch on in a moment). You’ll also have some “dilution” factors to cope with the chemicals that come with ANY leather coral.

These aquarium corals adapt to a wide range of environments in the tank, even those without sparkling clear water. Actually, a tiny bit of “grime” (translate that to dissolved nutrients within the water column – NOT gross contamination) is what these soft corals are craving. They’re a little like pulsing xenia that way. And it cuts beginning aquarists a bit of slack, preventing the need for pure water conditions that advanced hobbyists have perfected.

Water Parameters

These corals are hardy and generally tolerant of most aquarium conditions. Water parameters that approximate the quality found on the reef are generally recommended, though:

  • Temperature: ~73-82F/22.7-27.7C
  • pH: ~8.2
  • Salinity: (Measured as specific gravity) 1.025
  • Alkalinity: 8-12 dKh
  • Ammonia: 0ppm
  • Nitrites: 0ppm
  • Nitrates: Low but under 10ppm

Kenya tree corals thrive in strong currents on reefs

And while Kenya tree corals fall into the soft coral group, you can’t leave calcium out of the mix. That central stalk with its sclerites? They’re made up of calcium. And if you’re not checking and maintaining a proper balance (you want levels between 350-450ppm, by the way), the support structures won’t grow properly.

Placement of Kenya Tree Corals

The ideal location for your Kenya tree coral is in an area of moderate-high flow and moderate lighting. They don’t require particularly high levels of either, so somewhere along the periphery of the light halo from your LEDs is likely an optimal spot. As long as they are allowed to acclimate, they CAN stay under somewhat stronger lighting or flow conditions, but the strongest growth occurs when they’re not fighting overwhelming light sources, so you don’t want to use that prime real estate. Remember, they’re not found at the surface in their natural environment.

As for your flow? They love strong currents out on the reef. This sweeps those branches with their clusters of polyps out where the drifting nutrients are easiest to reach. And when it’s time to drop a new colony? It’ll transfer the bud into an ideal location. Great in the wild, but potentially disastrous in an aquarium. Unless you want to battle a Kenyan tree coral infestation, keep them under moderate flow conditions.

Lighting Requirements

Corals form symbiotic relationships with zooxanthellae. The algae supplement a coral’s diet from within, utilizing photosynthesis from the sun’s rays. And the Kenya tree coral isn’t an exception. But it doesn’t rely THAT much on their little algae helpers for food. As such, you don’t want to go overboard with you’re lighting choices. A PAR of 75+ is more than sufficient to keep them (and their zooxanthellae) healthy.

Keep them shaded from the hottest part of the light, placing them lower down in the aquarium, on the periphery of the cone of light. Keep them shaded from metal halides by placing them under rocks or larger corals. If you go TOO bright, the polyps will retract in an attempt to prevent damage. And then your Kenya tree coral will starve.

Kenya tree coral with purple color

Feeding and Diet for Kenya Tree Corals

So Kenya tree corals have those symbiotic zooxanthellae that produce SOME of the necessary nutrition they need. They also get some nutrition by absorbing nutrients from the water (which is why you can get away with less than pristine water conditions). And those polyps drift in the water current to capture tiny plankton. But Kenya tree corals aren’t a species that sits back and tolerates “passive” ingestion. You’re going to need to do your part, too.

Every two weeks (once a week is better!), you should provide a dose of phytoplankton. Kenya tree corals are happy to accept target feeding, especially if you have stony corals in the tank that HATE excess waste in their water. And since these corals feed on “marine snow” (a combination of plankton and detritus), you can even tuck some of those loose frags into your refugium. They’ll happily skim off the organic waste that accumulates there.

Kenya Tree Coral Compatibility

The Kenya tree coral is considered one of the more aggressive species out there. It doesn’t have sweeper tentacles, but (like other leather corals), it produces noxious compounds that interfere with the growth of other corals. The compounds are similar to the terpenes creates by toadstool corals (and pine trees – fun fact!). Terpenes prevent cellular division, preventing growth from continuing. It isn’t specifically HARMFUL to your other corals, but it doesn’t help them, either.

Activated charcoal removes terpenes from the water. You can also dilute them down with frequent water changes. Of course, the more you change out your water, the less dissolved material your coral will have to feed on. It’s a balancing act. But if you’re target feeding your Kenya tree coral? It should do fine.

Kenyans also arm themselves with stinging cells. And as they drop branches and encroach throughout the tank, they defend their new territories. When you add that to the INSANE growth rate, you could find your other corals struggling to survive. This is why some aquarists affectionately call the Kenya tree coral a weed. They spring up in areas of the tank where they are NOT wanted.

Colt coral also known as Kenya tree coral

Fragging and Propagation of Kenya Tree Corals

Kenya tree corals create miniature clones of themselves by “dropping” buds and branches (this is that famous self-propagation). A branch of the “tree” literally pinches off and floats downstream until it becomes trapped. Then it will attach to that substrate (if possible) and grow. There isn’t anything you can do to prevent this from happening, but you can manage a more active reproduction by fragging or trimming the branches to keep them in the desired location (or keep them from taking over the tank).

These corals can be fragged easily with a sharp blade by cutting a limb off.

Whether you are using a limb that dropped naturally or one that you cut with a blade or scissors, the next step is to attach the frag with a rubber band to a frag plug, rock, or shell. The cut branch will attach itself to the rock or rubble in a few days and start growing. If you go on a “pruning” spree, make sure you provide a quick iodine bath to prevent any unwanted infections from invading the open “wounds.”

Close-up of Kenya tree coral polyps

Concerns with Kenya Tree Corals

Even with their ease of care (and management), Kenya tree corals can throw a few quirks into an aquarist’s path. And some of their behaviors LOOK concerning, but they’re nothing to worry about. How to tell the difference? If you’re a pro with leather corals, you may not need any help. But if this is your first soft coral, you may want a little extra assistance – preferably before you lose your little “weed of the aquarium.”

Slime

Kenya tree corals belong to the soft corals known as leather corals. That smooth appearance of the stalk? It can have a leathery look under certain conditions. And when the polyps close, you’ll see the same texture along the branches. Something else you might notice when those polyps shut is a thin, clear “slime” oozing out of your coral. Gross? Maybe. A concern? Nope.

Leather corals produce a “mucus tunic.” The mucus is a defensive measure that protects the coral against unwanted algae, debris, and other microorganisms. And it’s a normal part of the Kenya tree coral’s day. If they’re kept in a position with a higher end of the flow rate, you may not see the behavior as often as someone who goes lower with their current. But that slime isn’t a sign of sickness. It’s actually PREVENTING illness.

Drooping

Over the course of days, weeks, and months, you’ll notice a fair amount of “activity” in your Kenya tree coral. Sometimes they shrivel up, looking unhappy. Sometimes they inflate until they look like they’ve doubled in size. Other times they droop or drop their branches like a willow tree.

If your coral looks different on certain days but returns to normal, don’t worry. It’s all part of a day in the life of the Kenya tree coral. Drooping and dropping their branches is normal behavior and part of that self-propagation (their asexual reproductive method we already touched on).

What you want to watch for is EXCESSIVE drooping (to the point of damage) or persistent shrinkage. These may be signs of more serious problems, described below.

Dying

As mentioned before, the Kenya tree coral is a hardy species that will generally tolerate life in the aquarium. But that doesn’t mean the coral is incapable of dying. The first signs of trouble may be the coral remaining shriveled up for long periods of time (for instance, all day for multiple days).

To provide a clue for you, a healthy, thriving colony looks  “puffed up” and inflated with water. The branches remain extended, looking fuzzy because of the extended polyps.

If your coral doesn’t open within a few days, you need to identify the disturbance and remove the problem. It could be a neighboring coral (one WITH sweeper tentacles) stinging it. Perhaps an over-eager fish (like a clownfish) is bugging it. Or it could be unhappy with the conditions in the tank (check your water parameters). Maybe it’s the placement within the tank.

A dying coral will slowly wither away, or it could “melt away,” breaking apart and dissolving into the water. A dying Kenya tree coral will smell rotten to the other tank inhabitants. So if you suspect a problem, remove the colony or frag to an isolated tank to help prevent damage to the other corals in your system. You’ll also give yourself a chance to inspect things closer.

Pros and Cons

Now that you know what keeping Kenya tree corals entails, let’s have a quick look at the pros and cons of having this invertebrate in your reef tank:

Pros

Kenya tree corals are:

  • Hardy
  • Easy to care for
  • Adapt well to most reef aquarium living conditions
  • Easy to propagate by fragging
  • Readily available
  • Inexpensive (you may even find aquarists that give them away for free, especially in reef clubs)
  • Grow rapidly

Cons

On the flip side, Kenya tree corals come with a few problems:

  • You will not be able to keep this coral “‘in its place.” Branches or buds will detach, float away and grow anywhere and everywhere.
  • The corals grow so rapidly they may overtake slower-growing coral species if you are not careful and fail to prune back the growth.
  • You may never rid your tank of the Kenya tree coral once introduced; they are THAT prolific.
  • It may be difficult to keep them in the same place, as Kenya tree corals detach and float away, drop buds next to them, and form new colonies with ease.

Kole tang inside a Kenya tree coral

For More Information

Still curious about the Kenya tree coral? Not a problem. This handy YouTube video is just the thing for any beginner considering the species for their saltwater aquarium:

Want to learn about other great soft corals that require similar care to the Kenya tree coral?

Conclusion

The Kenya tree coral was one of my first coral species. For you veteran salties out there, you might cringe when I say this, but I still have it in my current display tank. If you are looking for a type of low-maintenance, rapidly growing coral, you can’t go wrong with these beauties.

Written by Albert B. Ulrich III, author of The Reef Aquarium Series of books: The New Saltwater Aquarium Guide, Reef Journal, How to Frag Corals, 107 Tips for the Marine Reef Aquarium.

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Kenya Tree Coral Care Guide

References

  • Borneman, Eric H. Aquarium Corals. T.F.H. Publications. New Jersey 2004.
  • Ulrich III, Albert B. How to Frag Corals. www.SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com Publications 2015
  • Ulrich III, Albert B. The New Saltwater Aquarium Guide. www.SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com Publications 2014.

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