Brown water and red flags...

Hard to believe that we're closing in on 5 years of operations here at Tannin Aquatics! It's been a fun process, for sure, and we've enjoyed doing our small part to help grow the burgeoning interest in botanical-style/blackwater/brackish aquariums.

And it's growing- trust me.

Along with the growth in this unique hobby sector come new sources of materials...Some new vendors have arrived on the scene, providing options and ideas for hobbyists.

As we say here in L.A., it's rad.

However, one of the biggest disappointments I've had with this new growth is that the majority of these newer vendors are simply "pushing product", offering sexy photos, catchy lines, and little in the way of guidance on how to use them, discussions about their impact on the aquatic environment, or other important aspects of their use. 

So, yeah, before we get into the "meat" of today's topic, I need to clear my chest of a few things...and it may not be happily accepted by everyone.

Yeah, sadly, most of what you see from many vendors is essentially ad copy- hyping up the aesthetic aspects of what their botanicals can do: "Deeply tinted water! Lots of tannins...blah. blah, blah..!"

I mean, that's great and all- inspiring and exciting is important. However, what about talking about the impact of these materials on the aquarium environment? What about the practices involved in preparation, addition of the botanicals, and long-term management of botanical-style aquariums?

We as vendors have a lot of responsibility to educate AND inspire. There's more to this than just pushing your product out there in a sexy manner. Now, I'm not writing this piece to trash on would-be competitors in this sector.


That's a cop-out. Let me make it clear for the 1,000th time:

I'm happy to see new vendors. It means the idea of botanical-style aquariums is growing- a huge thing to me, because I love this stuff.

I'm simply trying to point out the apparent lack of education about the good, bad, and ugly of utilizing botanicals in our aquariums from many of these vendors. Extolling their virtues in a hyperbolic manner is NOT educating end-users on this stuff. Sure, it's cool to promote your stuff...Yet, as a vendor, you've no doubt played with botanicals yourself for a while- so why not do more to discuss the practical applications of them?

We all need to do better.

And, what's been happening here at Tannin lately-the main point of this piece- is that I've been receiving quite a few questions from hobbyists who tell me that they've purchased botanicals from some other source, and have lots of what amount to basic questions about how to utilize them in their aquariums.

"You're the expert on this stuff!" is a refrain I hear a lot in these emails...Well, why the - - - - did you buy from the other guy? 🤬


These people often only seem to know that some sort of vague "preparation process" is required. Well, usually. I often receive emails that include the lines, "Do I have to boil them? I've heard that I need to rinse them and..." somewhere in the body of the email.


First of all, I refer them to the many articles that we have on our site, and make an effort to encourage restraint and caution when employing these materials. We've developed quite a resource over the years by just hammering home the basics- including the good and bad of our practices. So, yeah, if you get the impression that I'm a bit annoyed at this lack of support for customers, you're right.

Do a better &%^%##@ job, guys.

Talk at least as much about technique and practices as you do about how sexy your product is. We did when we first started- and still do to this day. You have to talk about the bigger picture. I know, it is not as easy to write about all of these esoteric topics as it is to simply photograph and hype products- but it's how you foster a movement...and yeah, you can STILL build brand by doing that, trust me. 😆

In the mean time, I guess I should see it as an honor of sorts that I've apparently "got your back" as the "go-to guy" who answers your customers' basic questions on botanicals. But, you know, I've kind of got my own customers to attend to and business to run, and...well...


Okay, that's the end of my lecture to other vendors...for now.

As far as adding botanical materials to your tanks- how much to add is largely based on personal aesthetic preference, or the goals that you have for your tank. In a brand new, unpopulated aquarium, from "day one" you can knock yourself out and add as many materials as you please. You don't have to think about it too much.

Be mindful of the impact of botanicals on the nitrogen cycle in your aquarium. 

Of course, in an existing, established, populated system that you're looking to incorporate botanicals in, you need to consider them as "bioload", adding to the demands on the bacterial population. You can't simply dump a huge quantity of materials into an established aquarium, which places significant demands on the system's ability to process them.

A large quantity of botanicals added to a stable, established aquarium can  potentially affect the general water chemistry of your tank in a rapid manner, including the pH- driving it down quickly in some instances, profoundly affect the fishes, and even plants, which don't cope well with rapid environmental changes.

The result, predictably, would be disastrous.

I mean, yeah, to a certain extent, this is "Aquatics 101"- you simply don't want to do anything to your aquarium that results in rapid, significant environmental changes, and using botanicals is no exception.

Think of botanicals as "bioload", which requires your aquarium's bacterial/fungal/microcrustacean population to handle them.

Bacteria, in particular, are your first line of defense.


If you add a large quantity of any organic materials to an established system, you will simply overwhelm the existing beneficial bacterial population in the aquarium, which will likely result in a massive increase in ammonia, nitrite, and organic pollutants. At the very least, it will leave oxygen levels depleted, and fishes gasping at the surface as the bacteria population struggles to catch up to the large influx of materials.

"Red flags" that we should all familiarize ourselves with.

Everyone who plays with botanicals in the aquarium needs to understand this concept, and have a basic, working knowledge of the nitrogen cycle. To shun these things is not only irresponsible- it's inexcusable for any aquarist. 

This is not some sort of "esoteric" concept, right? I mean, we don't add 25 3-inch fishes at once to an established, stable 10-gallon aquarium and not expect some sort of negative consequence, right? So why would adding bunch of leaves, botanicals, wood, or other materials containing organics be any different?

It isn't.

So please, PLEASE add botanicals to your established aquarium gradually, while observing your fishes' reactions and testing the water parameters regularly during and after the process.

Take measured steps.

There is no rush.

There shouldn't be.

All additions of botanicals to an existing aquarium need to be measured, deliberate, slow, and considerate. You need to observe your fishes' reactions, monitor water chemistry, and stay alert to the changes and demands that botanicals will place on your aquarium.

And they will.

There's no mystery here.

Adding a ton of stuff into any established aquarium creates environmental changes and impacts that cannot be ignored.

Just be cautious and use common sense.

These are just some of the environmental considerations of utilizing botanicals in the aquarium.

In this piece, we didn't really touch on stuff like decomposition, biofilms, impacts on pH, etc.- all things that we've talked about a lot here over the years- and will again, no doubt.

Of course, the aesthetic implications are interrelated to some extent, but they're pretty well-trodden by now.. We have enough unique attributes about their function that we need to think about.

I think our biggest "struggle" in working with botanicals is a mental one that we have imposed upon ourselves over generations of aquarium keeping:  The need to control our own natural desire to get stuff moving quickly; to hit that "done"

And the reality, as we've talked about hundreds of times here and elsewhere, is that there really is no "finished", and that the botanical-style aquarium is about evolution. This type of system embraces continuous change and requires us to understand the ephemeral nature of botanicals when immersed in water.

Sure, some of the ideas we talk about- the mental shifts we ask you to make- are unorthodox and seemingly contrary to much of what we've been brought up to accept in the hobby. On the other hand, much of this stuff needs to go hand-in-hand with what we already know based on our previous hobby experience.

We just need to apply some of the same common-sense hobby "basics" which got us to this point..and maybe to pick up a few new skills along the way as well!

And that means that everyone- Vendors, hobbyists, the scientific community, and the hobby as a whole- can play a role in growing this exciting and fast-growing sector.

Stay fascinated. Stay excited. Stay measured. Stay patient. Stay disciplined. Stay progressive...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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