Eschewing the prep process, and the sheer audacity of being stubborn

As the botanical-style/blackwater aquarium world evolves, we've seen a lot of changes in practices, procedures, and techniques. Here at Tannin, we've spent the better part of the past 5 years attempting to dispel old, outmoded ideas, second-hand "facts", and outright myths in our little niche. 

And the battle continues. It's an old hobby story which never really ends. For whatever reason, there are factions within the hobby who imply refuse to accept any idea, practice, or approach which contradicts "long-settled" aquarium hobby thinking. It's almost sort of strange. And shockingly predictable. We've all seen this many times.

You develop an idea or approach, experiment with it, perfect it, have fellow hobbyists replicate it, and there are STILL huge areas of resistance or the perpetuating of misinformation ( largely unintentional, but harmful nonetheless). For whatever reason, a lot of longtime hobbyists simply LOVE to trash on new ideas. Like, really aggressively. And a lot of times, these people are just flat out wrong in their steadfast adherence to (often) outmoded thinking.

Not everyone, of course, but quite a few. 

IMHO, it's not just because they're  "angry" or whatever...It's because many of these long-established practices WORK. And they work just fine.

Yeah. They do.

However, the real annoying part is that there is a lot of reluctance in some areas to simply consider the potential benefits of a new idea or approach. Couple that with the dogmatic attitude of "your new idea is wrong" and you simply create two hobby communities: One that is open-minded and values new approaches and ideas, and the other which is stubbornly- audaciously- holding on to the past.

In our little niche, for example, there was the perception for decades that blackwater aquariums (I really didn't use the term "botanical-style" here because that's another level of nuance on top of this) were somehow dirty, dangerous, even foolhardy attempts at trying to replicate more natural environmental conditions in the aquarium. 

And I admit, the vendors or experts who navigated these waters over the years did little to earn the confidence of the hobby community. Poorly explained rationales for the new approaches, products with very vague descriptions or efficacy, and a lot of "trust me" sort of stuff.

I think the resistance that we initially encountered to the version of the blackwater/ brackish, botanical-style aquarium that we push here is part the result of some of the incomplete work of those who came before us, and the general stubbornness of some of the loudest corners of he mainstream aquarium world.

When we burst forth on the scene, we made the deliberate decision to share our ideas and our approach even before we started offering products. We felt it necessary to explain our philosophy and the rationale for why we advocate the ideas that we do. It made for a much, much slower growth and market penetration for Tannin Aquatics ; however, those of you who follow us should have no confusion as to where we stand, why we favor the approaches that we do, and what we believe in as a brand. 

Now, let me be clear- there were a LOT of people doing stuff the right way. Plenty of open-minded, detail-oriented hobbyists sharing their ideas on this speciality, refusing to be shouted down by the louder, more stubbornly resistant factions in the hobby. 

I still see so much stubbornness and confusion sowed by those who simply refuse to do the research, either by themselves, or through studying the vast body of free information that's now out there. Now, Im not saving that MY ways is the only way, or even the BEST way...however, I think it's a pretty GOOD way! Recently, I saw a post on a forum where hobbyists were debating the merits of preparation of absolutely fundamental aspect of the botanical-style aquarium approach.

Even within our movement, there is stubbornness, opinion, and misinformation. 

There was a surprisingly large amount of responses which simply indicated that you should just "dump stuff in", or if you DO prep, that you could "use the water you boiled the botanicals in as a home made blackwater extract..." Stuff that we've talked about so much here- and so clearly stated our rationale for our approach- that it's almost fun that people still ask us our position on it.

Of course, it's worth covering this topic one more (hopefully not agonizing) time:

Why, Scott? Why do we recommend boiling or steeping this stuff?

Well, to begin with, consider that boiling water is used as a method of making water potable by killing microbes that may be present. Most nasty microbes "check out" at temperatures greater than 60 °C (140 °F). For a high percentage of microbes, if water is maintained at 70 °C (158 °F) for ten minutes, many organisms are killed, but some are more resistant to heat and require one minute at the boiling point of water. (FYI the boiling point of water is 100 °C, or 212 °F)...But for the most part, most of the nasty bacteria that we don't want in either our tanks or our stomachs are eliminated by this simple process.

Ten minutes of boiling is "golden", IMHO. Of course, we boil for other reasons, as we'll touch on in a bit.

For one reason, we boil botanicals to kill any possible microorganisms which might be present on them. And of course, there's the simple reason that...they're dirty. Why the fuck do you want "dirt" or pollutants" in your aquarium? To provide some point t? To be "rebellious?" I have no idea.

Leaves, seed pods, etc. have been exposed to rain and dust and all sorts of things in the natural environment which, in the confines of an aquarium, could  introduce unwanted organisms and contribute to the degradation of the water quality.

The surfaces and textures of many botanical items, such as leaves and seed pods lend themselves to retaining dirt, soot, dust, and other atmospheric pollutants that, although likely harmless in the grand scheme of things, are not stuff you want to start our with in your tank.

So, we give all of our botanicals a good rinse.

Then we boil.

Boiling also serves to soften botanicals.

If you remember your high school Botany, leaves, for example, are surprisingly complex structures, with multiple layers designed to reject pollutants, facilitate gas exchange, drive photosynthesis, and store sugars for the benefit of the plant on which they're found. As such, it's important to get them to release some of the materials which might be bund up in the epidermis (outer layers) of the leaf.  As we get deeper into the structure of a leaf, we find the mesophyll, a layer of tissue in which much of photosynthesis takes place.



We use only dried leaves in our botanical style aquariums, because these leaves from deciduous trees, which naturally fall off the trees in seasons of inclement weather, have lost most of their chlorophyll and sugars contained within the leaf structures. This is important, because having these compounds present, as in living leaves, contributes excessively to the bioload of the aquarium when submerged...

Are there variations on this theme?

Well, sure.

Many hobbyists rinse, then steep their leaves rather than a prolonged boil, for the simple fact that exposure to the newly-boiled water will accomplish the potential "kill" of unwanted organisms, which at the same time softening the leaves by permeating the outer tissues. This way, not only will the "softened" leaves "go to work" right away, releasing the beneficial tannins and humic substances bound up in their tissues, they will sink, too! 

And of course, I know many who simply "rinse and drop", and that works for them, too! And, I have even played with "microwave boiling" some stuff (an idea forwarded on to me by Cory Hopkins!). It does work, and it makes your house smell pretty nice, too!

It's not a perfect science- this botanical preparation "thing."

However, over the years, aquarists have developed simple approaches to leaf prep that work with a high degree of reliability. Now, there are some leaves, such as Magnolia, which take a longer time to saturate and sink because of their thick waxy cuticle layer. And there are others, like Loquat, which can be undeniably "crispy", yet when steeped begin to soften and work just fine.

So why do we soak after boiling?

Well, it's really a personal preference thing.I suppose one could say that I'm excessively conservative, really. 

I feel that it releases any remaining pollutants and undesirable organics that might have been bound up in the leaf tissues and released by boiling, which is certainly arguable, but is also, IMHO, a valid point. And since we're a company dedicated to giving our customers the best possible outcomes- we recommend being conservative and employing the post-boil soak.

The soak could be for an hour or two, or real "science" to it. Some aquarists would argue that you're wasting all of those valuable tannins and humic substances when you soak the leaves overnight after boiling. My response has always been that, sure, you might lose some, but since the leaves have a "lifespan" of weeks, even months, and since you'll see tangible results from them (i.e.; tinting of the water) for much of this "operational lifespan, an overnight soak is no big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Besides, do we even have a way to measure how much of the "good stuff"- and what it is- that we are both receiving or potentially losing- by doing this?

We don't.

So, rather than being a total ass, my advice to you is simply to do what's most comfortable for you- and what you feel is best for your fishes.

When it comes to to other botanicals, such as seed pods, the preparation is very similar. Again, most seed pods have tougher exterior features, and require prolonged boiling and soaking periods to release any surface dirt and contaminants, and to saturate their tissues to get them to sink when submerged! 


And quite simply, each botanical item "behaves" just a bit differently, and many will require slight variations on the theme of "boil and soak", some testing your patience as they may require multiple "boils" or prolonged soaking in order to get them to saturate and sink.

Yeah, those damn things can be a pain! 

However, I think the effort is worthwhile.

Now, sure, I hear tons of arguments which essentially state that "...these are natural materials, and that in Nature, stuff doesn't get boiled and soaked before it falls into a stream or river." 

Well, shit, how can I argue with that?

The only counterargument I have is that these are open systems, with far more water volume and throughput than our tanks, right? Dilution. Nature might have more efficient, evolved systems to handle some forms of nutrient excesses and even pollution. It's a delicate balance, of course.

In the end, preparation techniques for aquatic botanicals are as much about prevention as they are about "preparation."

By taking the time to properly prepare your botanical additions for use in the aquarium, you're doing all that you can to exclude unwanted bacteria and microorganisms, surface pollutants, excess of sugars and other unwelcome compounds, etc. from entering into your aquarium. 

Another component of the prep process- and one of the things that I have an issue with in our little hobby sector is the desire by many "tinters" to make use of the water in which the initial preparation of our botanicals takes place in as a form of "blackwater tea" or "blackwater extract."

Now, while on the surface, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the idea, I think that in our case, we need to consider exactly why we boil/soak our botanicals before using them in the aquarium to begin with. 

I personally discard the "tea" that results from the initial preparation of botanicals- and I recommend that you do, too. Here's why:

As I have mentioned many times before, the purpose of the initial "boil and soak" is to release some of the pollutants (dust, dirt, etc.) bound up in the outer tissues of the botanicals. It's also to "soften" the leaves/botanicals that you're using to help them absorb water and sink more easily. As a result, a lot of organic materials, such as lignin, proteins, and other stuff, in addition tannins and humic substances- are released.

"Hey, that's the stuff that adds the tint to our tanks, right?"

Well, yeah. However...

It's also filled with a complex "brew" of other stuff. Stuff that you likely don't want in your aquarium.


So, why the hell would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a home-brewed "blackwater extract?" And how much do you add? I mean, what is the "concentration" of desirable materials in the tea relative to the water? I mean, it's not an easy, quick, clean thing to figure, right?

There is so much we don't know. We're just learning how to utilize the botanicals themselves correctly and safely; is it wise to use concentrated waste extract to our tanks?

Again, a lot of hobbyists tell me they are concerned about "wasting" the concentrated tannins from the prep water. Trust me, the leaves and botanicals will continue to release the tannins and humic substances (with much less pollutants!) throughout their "useful lifetimes" when submerged, so you need not worry about discarding the initial water that they were prepared in.

In my opinion, it's kind analogous to adding the "skimmate" (the nasty concentrated organics removed by your protein skimmer via foam fractionation in your marine aquarium) back into your aquarium because you don't want to lose the tiny amount of valuable salt or some "trace elements" that are removed via this process.

Is it worth polluting your aquarium for this?

I certainly don't think so! 

It isn't. We need not be stubborn about this stuff.

The simple truth about using botanicals is that you're adding natural terrestrial materials that, when acted upon by bacteria, break down in your aquarium, increasing the bioload of the system. We've said it thousands of times over the past few years, and we'll say it again here- you need to add botanical materials to your aquarium slowly, over a period of days or weeks.  You have to be careful. You have to observe, test, and adjust.

Think about it: It's not really a revelation. Adding large quantities of ANYTHING in a short period of time into your established aquarium could cause some issues.

Like so many things in our evolving "practice" of perfecting the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium, developing, testing, and following some basic "protocols" is never a bad thing. 

Being open-minded isn't a bad thing. Niether is being critical when it something sounds a bit off.

And understanding some of the "hows and whys" of the process- and the reasons for embracing it-will hopefully instill into our community the necessity- and pleasures- of going slow, taking the time, observing, tweaking, and evolving our "craft"- for the benefit of the entire aquarium community.

We need to remain open to new ideas...and even stubborn guys like me need to be able to take criticism and consider revising our positions when we're wrong.  However, being stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn is simply not being "smart."

It's audacious.

Something to think about, right?

Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay informed...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment