Hard to believe we're past the halfway point of 2018, and in Tannin's third year of operations! It's been a fabulous growth trajectory...The blackwater/botanical "sector" of the hobby has gained a lot of momentum, with hobbyists all over the world trying new things all the time. We're pretty proud to have played a small part in helping to bring it "out of the darkness!"
Truth be told, our community (YOU guys!) did most of the "heavy lifting" here!
And we know that the idea of using leaves and other “aquatic botanicals” in aquariums is not exactly new. It's not some "invention" by us, or anyone else. We'll hazard to guess that it just sort of happened by chance. One day, some fish breeder was looking for a way to simulate the natural waters where his/her fishes came from, threw in a few old leaves, and lo and behold- his fishes started looking better, showing stronger colors, breeding, etc.
Yeah, no one can really claim to have “invented” the process, but our community is sort of hell-bent on perfecting it, right?
Botanical-rich environments are important and productive in nature.
The areas of leaf litter, in particular, foster an enormous variety of fishes. Some species of small Apistogramma, for example, almost exclusively inhabit the matrix of leaves and branches, and many other fishes, from Discus to Knifefishes, may spend their whole lives living in these biotopes without ever encountering an aquatic plant.
It’s a brown, murky world to them, and they're just fine with that! And apparently- so are we! 🤓
Now, we freely accept that, when you start throwing things like leaves, branches, seed pods, etc. into a closed aquarium system, there will be some impact on the pH, the color and clarity of the water, and, of course, the overall aesthetic.
It’s not for everyone, as we have discussed ad nauseam!
However, if you are looking for significantly different results from your breeders, trying to create a more realistic biotopic aquarium display, or are simply being a bad ass, and want to take the plunge into something different, botanical-style tanks are a good way to go!
You also need to understand that, if your goal is to create a "blackwater" aquarium with soft, acidic conditions and a lot of tannins (or if you're adding these materials to an existing aquarium with these types of conditions), that there are characteristics, practices, and implications that you need to be aware of.
Bad stuff CAN occasionally happen if you're not careful (and sometimes, even if you are). Patience, observation, and of course, monitoring are all essential components of a successful foray into blackwater, botanical-style systems.
And it stands to reason that if you're going with an acidic, low-alkalinity environment, you need to be aware that it's not "set and forget." You need to monitor basic water parameters, such as pH and alkalinity (hardness) on a regular basis. If you're not prepared to do this, maybe you just want to run a "hard-water/tinted" aquarium, with more of an aesthetic component provided by the botanicals than a chemical one.
No problem! it's a good, responsible compromise.
All of the scary-sounding caveats aside, we've found that, once they're established, blackwater aquariums are among the more stable, straightforward-to-manage systems you can own.
At the risk of sounding a bit crassly commercial, we offer what we hope is the widest variety of aquatic botanicals available anywhere, and we know that each one requires some consideration and some preparation before use.
We'll revisit the most basic of preparation concepts for the benefit of anyone who's new to the game...It's evolving regularly, like everything else we do!
One sweeping generality, however: Always rinse any of our aquatic botanicals before use, even after boiling or soaking. By the way, a "post-boil soak" in fresh water with a bag of activated carbon is a recommended step, too. Although we obtain our products from sources known to be free of pollution, impurities and pesticides, you can never be too careful, and the extra step is worthwhile, in our opinion. Any dirt and trapped organics can leach out just a bit more during this soak...
Also, to the dedicated "botanical lover", we make this recommendation that can preserve domestic tranquility: Purchase a nice quality cooking pot and some wooden spoons! Having your own dedicated "Aquatic Botanical Prep Pot" is a wise and thoughtful investment!
And then there is the simple, but "cardinal rules" of botanical aquarium keeping:
Always go slowly- add a limited quantity of your botanicals to your aquarium at first, to gauge their impact on your animals.
Upon introduction to your aquarium, your botanicals will begin to soften and gradually break down...yep, that's right. They will decompose, just as they do in nature. Although many can last weeks; even months- some even years- in general, aquatic botanicals should be viewed as sort of "transient" residents of your aquatic community, and will periodically need to be replaced. All part of the charm and mystique!
Nothing ever goes exactly how we'd like with natural materials, and there are times when you'll think you've emptied a pile of yuck into your tank. Yeah, bring on the biofilms!
We're not 100% certain why, but in some systems, you'll get a heavy dose of "biofilms" all over your botanicals after they've been down a short time. These biofilms are caused by bacteria, and are not dangerous to your fishes. It's perfectly natural- you see it in the wild all the time- and accepting that you'll see this stuff in your tank s just part of the "mental stretch" we have to make when we play with botanicals in our aquaria.
Probably 90% of the time, it's like a "phase", and will ultimately dissipate without much in the way of intervention on your part. You can siphon it out as you see fit, or even employ some ornamental shrimp to graze on it (snails like 'em, too). Curiously enough, we've found through our experience and that of our customers that the biofilms tend not to occur as often when the water is already tannin-stained. So, perhaps "leaves first" is not a bad way to introduce botanicals into your system.
If you really can't handle the "biofilm phase", should it occur in your tank, we recommend pulling out botanicals, inspecting them, and then giving them a rinse/scrub with fresh water ( a soft toothbrush can help). After rinsing, we recommend a day or two soaking in a container of freshwater before replacing them in the tank.
As long as they don't have a nasty, hydrogen sulfide ("rotten egg") smell, you can re-introduce them without concern. Most of the time, pods will have an earthy, almost "potting soil-like" smell, even when they've been covered with nasty biofilm. If you're really having issues with your botanicals, contact us and we can figure out the best course of action together!
After the "biofilm phase", you will sometimes experience a "beard algae" phase, too (yay!), which will result in some of your botanicals covered in a coating of yucky algae. Fortunately, just when you think you're ready to cry and give up, the algae almost always spontaneously vanishes after a few weeks, with surprisingly minimal intervention on your part. Sure, you could scrub the stuff off, but it may simply come right back.
You could also incorporate some algae eating fish to help attack it (We've used Otocinculus cats for this purpose with great success, believe it or not!). In the end, it's simply about playing a "waiting game" should the algae rear its ugly head...Patience is important. In time, it will go away, although, much like in nature, you will almost always have some of this stuff in your system. It's kind of a part of this type of approach to aquariums, and is, believe it or not- natural, and very much a part of the aesthetic!
Another annoying thing about botanicals is that there are many that simply won't sink, even after an hour or more of boiling. You can continue to leave them "steeping" in water for as long as it takes to "get 'em down", or you could put them in a mesh filter bag and keep them in your canister or outside power filter to continuously pass water over them. All of these tricks can help- and no doubt, you'll develop some of your own, too!
Okay, we've given you the good, the bad, and the necessary...and the annoying- about preparing and using aquatic botanicals in your aquarium. There is still much we can all learn as more and more hobbyists work with them! It's an evolving art and process- one which we can all contribute to!
Stay intrigued. Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.