Often, I'll come up with an idea for the aquarium representation of a unique niche habitat, and will spend a lot of time researching the ecology and, more important to me- the function of the habitat, before embarking on my project.
And yeah, more often than not, I'll find that the plants, wood, leaves, or whatever that I need to really nail the project in a a full-on "biotopic manner" are simply not available to me.
And guess what? That's okay. I don't "get stuck."
I just don't get stressed out about it.
You shouldn't, either.
I receive a lot of emails from fellow hobbyists who are "stuck" because they can't find that exact plant...And so they dramatically change, or even abandon their projects.
A real shame.
A suggestion, if I may?
Look for some sort of analog.
For example, a plant that is found in my region which can inhabit a similar niche. If I'm lucky, the plant even looks similar to the subject I'm trying to represent.
Case in point?
It's not a secret that flooded forests/grasslands are an obsession for me.
For the amount of "ink" I devote to talking about flooded forests and grasslands, you'd think that I'd have some good suggestions about how to plant these tanks, right?
Well, I do!
And of course, I'll share my recommendations with you on these in a minute. However, I also have a suggestion to our community in general about replicating these habitats:
Let's figure out which terrestrial plants can tolerate/grow/thrive under submerged or partially submerged (blackwater) conditions. Perhaps a more "realistic" (not in the hardcore "biotope aquarium contest" context, of course) avenue to explore in this regard?
Well, it starts by studying the wild habitats that we are trying to recreate...
Think about how they form. Think about how plants grow in them during the dry season, and what materials would be found on the forest floor or grasslands when the water is absent.
The forest floors are littered with leaves and seed pods from the overhead forest canopy. With some much material on the forest floor, the potential for a dynamic ecosystem in both the wet and the dry season is assured!
You can create remarkably faithful representations of these environments by simply working backwards...thinking about what the forest floors are like, what lives there, and how materials accumulate. What materials are found...And most important, perhaps- what trees do they come from?
I've got one tree for you to research...the dominant terrestrial plant in the South American flooded forests is Eugenia inundata... Don't think I'm not well underway in my (somewhat futile) efforts to see if we can secure fallen leaves of THIS plant!
Surely, if we can't find specimens of this plant, we can certainly find some similar plants to use in its place? At least, we could utilize wood, roots, or other materials to represent the look of this plant during its "submerged" phase. What would YOU use to represent this plant?
BTW "What would you use...?" is a great excercise for natural-style aquarium lovers who are obsessed with replicating weird habitats...Just sayin'...
And of course, there are many other plants which are found in these habitats, some of which we are likely never to see available; however, we could figure out some analogous species, right? Look at the picture below and get out of your own head space for a moment...
What species DO we find there?
You'll also find Iriartea setigera, Socratea exorrhiza, Mauritiella aculeata palms in these areas, just to name a few. I say, hit Google hard. Learn more about these. Find out what related species you can source.
(Mauritiella aculeata - Image by pixel too used under CC BY 2.0)
Like so many things from the Amazon, it's not easy (read that, damn near impossible) to secure many botanical materials from this region, so the proverbial "Don't hold your breath waiting for this" comes to mind! Oh, and the submerged grasses we see and drool over in those underwater pics from Mike Tucc and Ivan Mikolji of these habitats?
They're typically Paspalum repens and Oryza perennis.
And we DO have access to some species, such as Sedges and other riparian or semi-aquatic/bog plants from genera that are found in these regions, such as Papyrus (Cyperus), Acorus, Orzyas, etc. These are surprisingly popular plants in the hobby, and for the purpose of recreating one of these seasonally-inundated habitats, they're near perfect!
Since many of these plants tolerate submersion for extended periods of time, they are of great interest to many of us for use in our aquariums. Perhaps most interesting to me is the area below the water, where the roots, fallen leaves, and shoots of plants like Cyperus are found in abundance.
A dramatic and inspiring area to replicate in the aquarium, I'd think. It's one thing to simply plant some in an aquarium- very cool...However, it's quite another to represent part of the ecological niche in which they are found in a unique and different way.
SO, sure, you can keep plants like Acorus in these submerged or partially submerged environments. Part of what interests me is that these are generally very hardy plants.
There are numerous species more commonly available from commercial nurseries in North American and European nations, so creating realistic representations of these habitats in our aquariums is more attainable than ever!
You just need to do a little research.
Now, there are also lots and lots of possibilities for creating unique aquatic displays with what I would call "aquatic analogs" of these terrestrial grasses and shrubs. In other words, incorporating some true aquatics to replicate the "look" of the flooded forests and grasslands, using representative species.
I freely admit that this is a total "cheat"- but when you think about it, it's a pretty good method that can be employed if you want to represent the inundation period for the theme of your aquarium, and aren't able to secure or grow the terrestrial/semi-aquatic analogs to the species found in these habitats.
I'm thinking about plants like Echinodorus tenellus, the "Pygmy Chain Sword", which grows in a most "grasslike" state, and certainly is representative of the grasses one might find on a flooded Panatanal or forest floor habitat in South America.
It's not hard to cultivate a little section of these plants in your representation of a flooded forest, and drop in a few leaves and botanicals, and achieve a relatively realistic-looking facsimile of this unique habitat!
Another great candidate that has a sort of "generic tropical/ terrestrial grasslike" appearance would be Cryptocoryne parva. This diminutive plant actually can be grown emerged, so for "semi-flooded" igapo or varzea biotope aquariums, it would be really adaptable! And when submerged, it bears strong resemblance to Paspalum or other tropical, submersion-resistant grasses. (It's the plant in the foreground in the below pic, BTW)
I suppose the old fave, Sagittaria, could also be employed for this purpose, but some species can achieve a larger size and perhaps ultimately be not as realistic, so you'd need to choose carefully. More exotic, but readily available as tissue-cultured, would be the beautiful Lilaeopsis mauritiana, a species often called "Micro Sword" for its appearance and size.
And of course, since we're representing a flooded forest floor or meadow, with patchy growth over rich soil and leaves, you likely don't need to have the full-on green lawn that planted aquarists strive for so ardently! A little bit of "open space" and some twigs, roots, dried weeds, bark pieces, a few seed pods, and exposed substrate and you're well on your way to creating a remarkably realistic, and undeniably cool tank!
Just plant some of it here and there in such a tank, and....well, yeah, you get the idea, right? 😆
And of course, you can always replicate the look and function of the areas where land and water meet.
Now, sure, playing with these types of setups bring together hobbyists from a number of disciplines- vivarium/terrarium people, aquarists, planted tank enthusiasts, botanical-style aquarium lovers (that's US!), etc. Each party will have their own unique "take" on this process, as well as accompanying criticisms of the process and management.
However, "putting it all together" is really a fun process!
So, the most important takeaway here is NOT to be "stuck" because you don't have access to the exact plants that you'd fin in these habitats. You can research the ecology of these habitats, and find analogs that capture both the look and function of their wild subjects.
Appreciate these analogs as functionally aesthetic means to recreate some of the world's most amazing natural ecosystems- during both the "dry" and "wet" seasons...
Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay observant. Stay unflustered. Stay motivated. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.