Building up with botanicals...a refresher on "the process"

As more of us explore the botanical-style aquarium concept, we learn more and more little subtleties about how these aquariums operate over time; the "eccentricities", if you will, that you'd need to expect when working with this type of tank.

It's one thing to utilize botanical materials to replicate the aesthetics and, to a certain degree, the function of a natural system...Quite another to actually operate, manage, and maintain the aquarium, as many of us already know!

Now, a botanical-style aquarium typically contains a variety of materials, each of which has a sort of "operational life span" (or "half-life", as one of my friends jokingly refers to it), during which it a)looks good, b)recruits biofilms and fungi, c)imparts tannins and humic substances into the water, and d)remains "structurally intact."

As we all know by now, materials such as leaves tend to be the least 'durable" of the botanicals, with some, of course, being more durable than others. Although we've touched on it before, here is my list of "durability" of the leaves we offer, ranging from least durable to most "durable":

1) Catappa

2) Guava

3) Loquat

4) Magnolia

5) Jackfruit

6) Teak

Now, as they say, your mileage may vary, but for the most part, this has been the results based on my experiences with each. Catappa, especially, followed by Guava, tend to be the ones that most botanical enthusiasts mention as being the ones that make the most "mess" in their tanks, i.e.; they tend to physically break up more quickly than the others, and bits and pieces can get sucked into filter intakes, snag on plant leaves, etc. I find this "natural" and "charming"- YOU may simply find it "shitty" and "nasty!" :)

As far as biofilms and such- we pretty much all know by now that the more durable leaves- particularly Magnolia and Jackfruit- tend to "recruit" them better than the more "ephemeral" Catappa and Guava do. By virtue of the fact that they have a "cutin" layer that is pretty impermeable, I'd say that Magnolia are by far the best "biofilm and fungi recruiters" out there.

(Clap it UP!)

If we shift our focus to the more "mainstream" botanicals, there are surprising levels of durability throughout the range we offer. Now, I'm not going to review each and every one here (I think we have pretty solid product descriptions for each that accomplish that), I can speak in generalities.

The obvious "durables" are botanicals such as "Monkey Pots", Sapucaio Pods, "Ra Cama", "Jungle Pods", "Savu Pods", "Ceu Fruta", "Lampada Pods", and a few others. A bit farther down on the scale are "intermediate" pieces like "Coco Curls, Banana Stems, "Capsula Pods", "Estalo Pods", "and "Concha Pods." Then you have stuff like "Terra Sorrindo", "Rio Passaro", "Teardrop" and "Manta" Pods, "Capsula", etc- which, although they tend to remain structurally intact for extended periods, recruit significant biofilms and fungal growth the longer they're "down" in your aquarium...exactly like they do in nature.

Now, we can go on and on and on, but you get the idea. Sure, you can absolutely keep your botanicals looking as pristine as possible by brushing off any biofilms, fungi, and algae as they appear, if that's your thing. Our good friends at Aquarium Design Group love botanicals, but like the more pristine look", ad have had great success in creating amazing displays by remaining vigilant about cleaning their botanicals. 

Through the preparation process (which largely consists of boiling, steeping, or soaking for extended periods, as you already know), many of these materials will already start to soften up before they are even added to your tank. And, as we've stated numerous times, we're pretty adamant about preparation of anything we add to our tanks, despite the (slight) sacrifice in long term durability you might experience as a result. Since many of these items come from trees, bushes, or the forest floor itself, they will have surface dirt, dust, and atmospheric pollutants bound up in their surface tissues, so a good steep, boil, and/or soak is simply the right precaution, IMHO.

Apart from, "What pods should I use for a _____________ style setup?" the most common question we receive is ""Do I leave them in or let them break down in my tank?"

And of course, our simple answer is..."It's your call!"

It's as much about your aesthetic preferences as it is long-term health of the aquarium. It's a decision that each of us makes based on our tastes, management "style", and how much of a "mental shift" we've made into excepting the transient nature of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium and its function. There really is no "right" or "wrong" answer here. It's all about how much you enjoy what happens in nature versus what you can control in your tank.

I tend to favor nature. But that's just me.

And of course, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that we're creating and adding to a closed aquatic ecosystem, and that our actions in how we manage our tanks must map to our ambitions, tastes, and the "regulations" that nature imposes upon us.

Yes, anything that you add into your aquarium that begins to break down is bioload.

Everything that imparts proteins, organics, etc. into the water is something that you need to consider. However, it's always been my personal experience and opinion that, in an otherwise well-maintained aquarium, with regular attention to husbandry, stocking, and maintenance, the "burden" of botanicals in your water is surprisingly insignificant. Even in test systems where I intentionally "neglected" them by conducting sporadic water exchanges, once I hit my preferred "population" of botanicals (by buying them up gradually), I have never noticed significant phosphate or nitrate increases that could be attributed to their presence.

And while we're talking about adding botanicals, it's important to note that the very few "disasters" we've been told about typically happened under a few situations or combinations of them:

1) The aquarist did not prepare anything as instructed

2) A significant amount of botanicals was added all at once to a long-established aquarium

3) A significant amount of botanicals was added to an established tank in a very short period of time (like within a week)

4) Too many botanicals are added in a short period of time to an established aquarium of small volume

Now, again, there are always anomalies, but these situations are almost "set ups" for some types of issues. Typically, what happens is you'd see fishes gasping at the surface for oxygen, which becomes rapidly depleted by the addition of a large influx of materials breaking down, which can also overwhelm the biological filtration capacity of a tank. 

Usually, the "rescue" consists of increased vigorous aeration and a succession of water changes, use of activated carbon, etc...the typical "emergency fixes" for problems of this nature.

The reality is, adding botanicals to your tank and using them, replacing them regularly, etc, is no more "dangerous" than anything else we do as aquarists. You simply need to go slowly, apply common sense, follow our prep instructions, and observe your tank carefully.

Look, stuff can still occasionally go wrong, even when you follow instructions and employ common sense. Aquariums are closed natural ecosystems, and changing the delicate balance within them always risks disrupting established biological processes. It's the reality of nature, and a reminder that, although we can control some things, Mother Nature calls the shots...

In a future blog, we'll "deep dive" into the longer-term maintenance and husbandry of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium. I hope this piece at least touched on some of the more commonly-contemplated concerns and questions many hobbyists face when thinking about and operating this type of aquarium, and perhaps spurs some thought and further discussion on the topic.

It's as much about attitude and mind set as it is about practice and performance. Enjoy your aquarium at every stage as it evolves...

Stay captivated. Stay motivated. Stay challenged. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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