When you're working with dried botanical products in your aquarium, one of the most important things you can do is to properly prepare your pods, leaves, seeds, etc. for use. Although by no means rocket science, it's such an important step that we keep hitting you with it over and over again, just to make sure!
Essentially, there are 3 steps to preparation of most aquatic botanicals:
1) Initial rinsing
Now, some products will not require boiling before use, but we do recommend soaking. If you're working with one of those botanicals, just skip to step 3!
Let's look at these simple steps and break down the "hows", "whys", and "what fors!"
THE INITIAL RINSE
Since most botanicals arrive in a completely dry state, it's important to give them a good initial rinse with some fresh water. This helps remove any dirt, dust, or foreign materials that may have accumulated on them during collection, drying, shipping, packaging and storage. Although we aspire to send you "clean" materials, being that they are seed pods, leaves, etc., it's inevitable that they will accumulate some "stuff" before they get to you, so a quick rinse is an easy "no brainer" to start the prep process.
For the more durable pods, like "Jungle Pods", "Tapete Pods", "Savu Pods", "Ra Cama Pods", "Monkey Pots", etc., you might want to give them a quick "once over" with a vegetable brush (you know, the kind you use to clean carrots and potatoes before cooking..). A gentle brush, followed by a thorough rinse of the surface will really help in getting your prep off to a good start. Don't get carried away, of course- you don't want to grind 'em down, either!
When it comes to aquatic botanical preparation, by far the most crucial step is boiling. Yeah, it's not glamorous, hardly enjoyable, yet very critical if you want to have a great experience with these natural materials. Why? Well, for one thing, boiling helps further sterilize your botanicals. In the unlikely event that any dirt or other nasty stuff that might be present happened to squeak through your rinse, the boiling process will take care of them!
And of course, boiling helps really saturate the structure of most of these harder materials, breaking down some of the lignin and softening up the tough exterior of many enough to let water in- which facilitates sinking in the aquarium! Of course, this boiling will also release some of the tannins and humic acids bound up in the structure of the pod, leaf, etc., which is never a bad thing, because you really don't want a huge release of this stuff at one time into your established aquarium environment! (The old adage of "nothing good ever happens quickly in an aquarium" definitely applies here).
Smaller botanicals, such as Alder Cones, "Carambola Lixo", etc., are easier to work with if you use a mesh bag to contain them in while boiling and rinsing. It's a personal preference and a matter of convenience, but if you're like us, we like to keep things easy, so a bag for the smaller stuff is great!
The big question everyone asks is, "How long should I boil my botanicals for?" I wish I had a perfect answer other than, "Long enough." Yeah, real helpful, Scott. Seriously, you need to boil them long enough to get them to sink...And in the case of some of the serious heavyweight pods, like "Jungle Pods", "Tapete Pods", "Ra Cama Pods", etc., this can be an hour- even two!
You can neither predict or rush the "sinking process", trust me. I've tried every shortcut I could think of, but there is simply no substitute for time and patience. And yeah, I've had a few botanicals that simply wouldn't sink, regardless of length of boiling time, etc. After you've been working with these materials long enough, you'll get a feel for just how long it takes to sink your botanicals, trust me.
AND A NOTE ON LEAVES...
Now, you're not really going to "boil" leaves. What you really want to do is to steep them in boiling water for a while. The amount of time varies based on the leaf and size, but the essential point is to expose them to boiling water long enough to ensure that they are saturated, and to help release that initial burst of tannins. Too long an exposure will result in (yeah, you heard it here first) "premature leaf sogginess syndrome" (PLSS)...so use some restraint here with leaves!
The other critical step to aquatic botanical preparation is to soak your botanicals- either after boiling, or- in the case of some of the "ready-shrunk" botanicals- in place of boiling. Typically, we use room temperature fresh water in an inert plastic bucket. Being an avid fish geek, you no doubt have an arsenal of plastic buckets. If you don't, buckets are one of the best investments you can make, so go down to the local hardware store and grab a few (I can't believe I'm actually telling any fish geek to get a bucket, but there's a first time for everything, right?).
The soak process performs a few critical functions in the prep process. First, it allows your freshly-boiled pods, etc. to further absorb water, which makes sure that they're good and waterlogged, which keeps 'em down! Second, it allows some of the initial tannins, humic acids, etc. that were released in the boiling process to leach out in a non-critical (i.e.; uninhabited) environment. Lest you be concerned that a prolonged soak will release all of the water-staining goodness contained in your botanicals, alas- no need to be concerned. Even after a prolonged soak, most botanicals will slowly leach tannins into the water over time, assuring you weeks and weeks of "The Tint", as we lovingly refer to it!
During the soaking process, which can last anywhere from 2 days to two weeks, depending upon your comfort level, patience, and urge to get the botanicals in your tank, you'll probably want to change out some or all of the water in the bucket a few times, to keep the process moving. We highly recommend at least the "passive" use of some activated carbon, like our favorite, Sachem "Matrix Carbon", to help absorb some of the organics and tannins released in this process. You could, of course, utilize your favorite chemical filtration media instead. There will most likely be a dramatic explosion of nitrifying bacteria developing in the bucket, which help to break down the organics released by the botanicals. The carbon helps to mitigate some of this.
While there is nothing wrong with the presence of the bacteria (it's a natural thing, of course), a sudden explosion of them in your tank is a potential detriment, perhaps leading to a rapid reduction of oxygen, etc.- very valid reasons why you want to give the pods a soak in a separate container before adding them to you display! If you really want to geek out about the soak, we recommend running an inexpensive, air-driven "box filter" containing some carbon, in the bucket for the duration of the soak.
Upon completion of the soaking process, your botanicals are ready to add to your display- giving you the cool "tint" we talk about so much, as well as all of the wonderful benefits of using natural materials with our beloved tropical fishes. They will add an entirely new dimension to your hobby, including creating a great new aesthetic, offering supplemental foraging for some fishes, and breeding and sheltering areas for others. My recommendation is to add the botanicals slowly to an established aquarium, even after the prep process. There's simply no reason to rush! Enjoy it!
I hope that this little review of "Pod Prep" has answered a few of the questions you might have had about using aquatic botanicals in your aquarium! If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact me!
Remember, be patient...
And stay wet!