Brown crush. Falling further in love...

Another week in the world of the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium movement. More excitement. More new tanks. More "love" for this unique aesthetic and the function and fascination it brings with it.

And of course, with more newcomers come more questions!

One of the top questions we field here is, "Can I have lots of botanicals in my tank without brown water?"

And of course, the answer is YES!! 

This is obviously a concern for many people, and I get it.  

Happily, we are seeing a large influx of hobbyists interested in utilizing botanicals in their aquariums. Many, however, are accustomed to the clear water look. The so-called "Nature Aquarium Syle" and many in the really hardcore aquascaping crowd don't really have a "protocol" for incorporating or even considering botanicals in their scapes, let alone, the tinted water, and it makes sense. 

We hope to change that!

With more hobbyists from different "worlds" starting to play with botanicals and such, it's only logical for us to address these concerns! We're excited to have you guys playing with us!

So, just how do you get rid of the tint?

It's ridiculously easy. Just use chemical filtration media in your filter. Specifically, activated carbon or my fave, Seachem Purigen.

Yeah, it's that easy. This way, you can have all of those sexy botanicals in your tank, and none (or very, very little) visual tint.


And, as more and more hobbyists embrace the use of botanicals in their aquaria, we're seeing more and more tanks with a golden brownish-colored "tint" to the water. A lot of people are starting to take to it! Yet, there is a bit of confusion as to what it represents.

So, let's be clear (arghhh!) about one thing:

There is a difference between "color" and "clarity."

The color is, as you know, a product of tannins leaching into the water from wood and botanicals, and typically is not "cloudy." It' actually one of the most natural-looking water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye. 

Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, and a suite of other organic compounds and such, but these factors typically have no real bearing on the visual clarity of the water.

That being said, one of the things you might notice right from the start is that botanical-laden aquariums occasionally seem to have an initial "haze" that is slow to clear. Now, part of this is no doubt due to the breakdown of the leaves, pods, etc. that we use: Surface dirt, lignin, and other compounds, bound up in the tissues of the botanicals, released into the water upon the initial submergence of these materials. And the fact that many of us tend to not use a lot of chemical filtration media in our tanks might have some impact on that, too.

This "haziness" or "turbidity" is not necessarily a bad thing, nor indicative of a problem. Not in our botanical-laden systems, typically. Rather, it's a sign that the materials we use are interacting with the aquatic environment. Another reason for this "haziness" could be a burst of microorganism/bacterial growth, which impacts the visual clarity as populations multiply rapidly in the "fertile" environment of a botanical system, with its wealth of organic materials supplied by the decomposing matter upon which these life forms feed.

I think that this is another really interesting phenomenon, which is distinctive to our botanical-stye blackwater/brackish aquariums. It's one of the things I call "functional aesthetics." To accept it is a choice, and it definitely requires the adoption of a "mindset shift" to appreciate that this is very similar to what we see in many of the natural aquatic systems that we attempt to replicate. 

Now, when you think about it, the botanical-style aquarium sort of falls into that category, huh? Leaves and botanicals certainly add to the organic load, and are most definitely materials which accumulate within the tank, right? And they look very different than what we are used to seeing in contests and "Vogue-esque" Instagram posts, right?

Blackwater tanks just look different. 

The water turns brown.

We've rehashed that like 4,000,000 times here.

Is this a negative? 

If you look at a lot of the underwater photos and videos taken in the natural habitats of our fishes that, thankfully, are becoming more and more popular and abundant than ever, you see a lot of "stuff" in the water column, on the bottom, etc.  And the water is not always crystal-clear blue white, right? It's...well, brown. Natural streams are not always the pristine-looking "nature aquarium" subjects of our dreams, are they?

We are always of the opinion that an aquarium is NOT an open, natural system, and that there are fundamental differences between the two. However, to see some of the processes, aesthetics, and what we call "functional analogies" (i.e.; the way materials break down, re-distribute within the tank, and how the aesthetics and water chemistry are affected by water exchanges, etc.) take place in our aquariums, we can't help but think that we're "on to something" here.

And part of this "something" is accepting that the appearance is a visual/functional manifestation of the processes going on in your aquarium. And again, it's something not everyone likes. It's something that many might perceive as "dirty", "messy", and just plain ugly. 

And, perhaps even more important, the idea of throwing things like leaves and seed pods into a tank- a carefully managed artificial world, seems on the surface like simply "polluting" what was long suggested should be as pristine a system as possible.

And that brown water= "dirty", right?

Yeah. A lot of aquarists still equate tannin-stained water with "dirt." And curiously, with them being somehow more difficult to maintain. And really, blackwater/botanical-style aquariums are no more difficult than pretty much any other "style" of aquarium; they simply require an understanding of what makes them tick, and how to optimize maintenance activities to facilitate their long-term success.

Oh, and the understanding that the color of the water does not equal "dirty" or "difficult." 

Yet, I still  hear this a lot when I speak at clubs, showing hobbyists the wonders of the blackwater aquarium world. It's still kind of hard for many to get their heads around, despite us showing videos and pics up the ass of all sorts of wild blackwater habitats.

I know, I know- an aquarium is not an open, natural system, yet if well-managed, it can function beautifully for years and years.

Yet some hobbyists still perceive blackwater aquariums with botanicals as...ugly. And lately, I hear it called a "fad" or "trend" by some, which makes me laugh. (Nature doesn't play with "trends...")

It's becoming something we are more aware of. More exposed to, for better or worse. Some find it repugnant. Others find it an amazing area to explore.

Differences of opinion abound.

And that's perfectly fine. We all have our definition of beauty. Yet, we do carry a sort of "clearwater prejudice" in our fish-keeping "genes", right? 

I think so.

It's almost like our idealized aesthetic perceptions of what we feel water should look like in an aquarium have conditioned us as a hobby to sort of gently disregard what it truly looks like in the habitats from which our fishes evolved, and why it's important to their health. Now, I'm certainly not asserting that keeping fishes from blackwater habitats in a crystal-clear aquarium is somehow going to ruin their vitality or render them susceptible to many illnesses, or that providing "blackwater" conditions is some sort of "miracle concept" that will lead to unimagined success.

That's just too hyperbolic, IMHO.

However, I'm at least curious about how much better our animals might do long-term (I'm talking decades in captivity of being bred, etc.) if maintained in conditions that more-or-less replicate the waters from which they evolved. We've seen a lot of Discus, Betta and Apistogramma breeders utilize these types of conditions in their aquariums for many years, and their successes have been obvious.

And what's exciting is that we are still starting to see hobbyists equate the way natural ecosystems provide for the life forms which reside in them and how many factors contribute to their success. Like so many things in nature, the complexity of blackwater habitats is more than what meets the eye. This creates many opportunities for hobbyists to create amazing aquariums!

Chemically, biologically, and ecologically, blackwater habitats are a weave of interdependencies- with soil, water, and surrounding forest all functioning together to influence the lives of the fishes which reside within them. No single factor could provide all of the necessary components for fish populations to thrive. 

And they simply look different. Yet, amazingly natural-looking, and we hope, compellingly beautiful.

To replicate these unique habitats and the function and aesthetics which they bring requires some observation, open-minded experimentation, and a sense of adventure! 

And, perhaps, a little love for that brown water! 

Stay excited. Stay inspired. Stay open-minded. Stay educated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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