As long as hobbyists have been, well- hobbyists- we've created techniques, shared ideas, explored, examined, and when warranted, criticized ideas that seemed kind of weird, irresponsible, or unscrupulous.
I love that. Don't you? We all should.
One of the things I am fascinated by in the hobby-seriously- is the culture of the "armchair critic." You know, the hobbyist who, emboldened by the "firewall" that a keyboard provides him or her, uses this "defensible position" to lob all sorts of stuff at fellow hobbyists, businesses, thought leaders, etc.- for reasons not entirely known, yet likely steeped in some form of personal insecurity rather than a true desire to help their fellow hobbyists.
In the case of vendors, it's usually to "call bullshit" on some practice, product, or idea that the self-appointed "advocate" thinks is an injustice of some sort. Many times it IS deserved, and there is some good to this sort of self-policing. Other times, there is a more sinister or petty motive- a desire to hurt others, play out some frustration with themselves, or to be relevant, etc.
Yet, the fact that we have a little bit of self-policing, self-reflective mindset in the hobby is not a bad thing!
When we first started Tannin Aquatics, I pretty much KNEW that we'd be on the receiving end of "incoming fire" from some of these people. You know, we sell "twigs, leaves, and nuts" and that's outrageous...It is super easy to criticize this business model! From day one, we had "critics" who "assessed" our business, its practices and products, and made the determination that everything we could offer can be collected from the empty lot next door to their home, and that we're essentially "selling ice to Eskimos" as the expression goes. A "gotcha!" thing.
And of course, as a business owner, your natural inclination is to ignore, protect, engage, or whatever. Seeing misinterpretation, myth, and misinformation about your area of expertise- and your business- proliferate, is something you almost have to engage on. Yet, you have to temper it with a bit of self-awareness and logic, too! In my instance, I saw- and still see- little value in trying to tell fellow hobbyists that the Magnolia leaves or Oak twigs that I offer are somehow "different" than what someone with the dual blessings of time and geographic fortune can collect. It's not honest or helpful to do that.
As someone who has tried to be as open and honest about the stuff we've offered as possible, I don't really feel "exposed" by these assertions. Yeah, I mean, this stuff exists in Nature and you can grab it if you want. Of course, that never stopped the self-appointed "consumer advocate" types from claiming that we're simply trying to rip off or exploit unsuspecting hobbyists.
NEWS FLASH: As we must have mentioned 100 times or more in this column and elsewhere over the years- OF COURSE you can collect your own botanicals- we encourage you to do so if you can! However, if you can't don't have access to them, or the inclination- that's what we're here for.
Despite how delicious it might be for conspiracy-loving "keyboard warrior-hobbyists" to claim, there is no "secret" or "mystery" that we're trying to perpetuate to keep you from "discovering" this. We're pretty confident that our business can survive just fine if hobbyists collect some of their own stuff. And, judging by our market share and growth trajectory, I'd say that this mindset is just fine.
Proper identification is an important part of utilizing botanical materials in your aquarium. We've tried a lot over the years, believe me. And we've seen a fair number of them being given goofy names. In fact, almost every one of our "product names" are not "fictitious" names at all- we utilize the actual species name-tongue-twisting or linguistically ugly though it may be (I mean, Dregea Pods, are you f- ing kidding me?) of the plant/tree/shrub from which the botanical comes from, and identify the geographic sourcing as well. I don't know what others who ply their trade in this hobby sector do, but we're not about it.
And, as a hobbyist, I certainly understand that this hobby can be pricy, and that anything we can do to save a few bucks is not a bad thing. Not everyone sees the value in paying $5.00 or more for something like Oak twigs, Alder Cones, Loquat leaves, etc., if they have a clean, reliable, easily accessible source for these things in their own neighborhood. We totally get that!
What's "different" about the materials that we offer?
In a nutshell..No too much, from a "capability" standpoint.
Let's start by saying that our stuff is not "magical." It's not "manufactured" in some factory or something. There is no "special powers" that our botanicals create.
So, IS there anything "different?"
Well, for one thing, you don't have to go to the time and effort to search, identify collect them, and sort them yourself. Sure, this is not necessarily a tedious process- but it can be an inconvenience for many of us; especially those hobbyists who live in urban areas where access to clean and reliable collection sites is limited or otherwise problematic. Or for those who simply don't want to spend their free time rooting through that nearby vacant lot or urban forest area in an attempt to save a few dollars.
And of course, with our stuff, you get them delivered to you in a tidy package. We study, test, aggregate, and curate stuff from all over the world, and go to great lengths to obtain this stuff, so you don't have to. You get the confidence that comes from knowing that these were ethically/sustainably sourced by vetted suppliers, and that the materials were not collected from areas which are polluted or insecticide-laden- all super-important considerations when utilizing botanical materials in your closed-system aquarium!
Oh, and you get the support of a company which lives, breathes, and sleeps botanical-style aquariums! You get the instructions, community, and the information provided by (now) around 700 blogs on every aspect of this stuff. We think that this defines "value added" in this context for sure! It's got to be worth something, right?
Well, maybe it is worth something to you. Maybe not. Maybe you simply want to collect your own, period. Maybe you have great access to something that we don't. Judging by the number of "Have you tried_________?" or, "I have a_________ tree in my yard and was wondering if they are useable in the aquarium?" emails we receive weekly, it's obvious that there is enough interest in this "DIY" sort of thing!
And again, we say go for it, if you can!.
With that in mind, we dedicated some space in today's edition of "The Tint" to share a bit of ideas on this topic. Keep in mind that we are in The Western U.S., and this is written from the context of materials and such consistent with what is really available in North America or Europe. Obviously, if you live in tropical Asia, Africa, or South America, there are different nuances to this.
So, disclaimers aside- there are a few general words of advice we have for you if you are going to collect your own stuff:
-Make sure that you are legally permitted to gather the materials that you're considering, and that you aren't trespassing on someone else's property while doing so.
-Make a positive identification of the botanicals that you're going to collect. A good "nature guide" or field guide to plants of your region can really help. And there's this thing called "Google" that might work well, too. Don't be lazy.
-Confirm that the area you are collecting from is not sprayed with pesticides or subject to runoff from other toxic substances or pollutants. This is super important! If you're not sure, just don't grab them. It's simply not worth it, IMHO.
- Collect the botanicals you're focusing on as naturally-fallen materials. This is particularly important with leaves, as we've discussed many times in this blog. When leaves fall naturally, they have consumed many of the sugars and other compounds which are not beneficial for our aquariums, and actually are more detrimental than helpful.
-Never collect anything from a tree or shrub which is protected, endangered, or otherwise restricted from being disturbed in your area. This is pretty obvious, but we'd be negligent if we didn't mention it here!
Okay, all of the reality checks aside, what materials can you typically collect?
LEAVES: Of course you can grab leaves. Magnolia is an obvious one for many people in North America. There are plenty of references for identifying the specific species you have in your area. We've personally tried a few varieties, and have determined that no one variety is substantially better than another.
The important thing is that you collect them as naturally fallen, not "green", and that you rinse them and take the time to wipe them off and dry them a bit more before use. Their waxy dermal layer retains moisture, and they can get moldy if packed away too soon after they've fallen. The mold is not necessarily harmful, and can typically be wiped away and eliminated via boiling during the prep process, but it is unpleasant!
Oak, Beech, Ash, and many other leaves are commonly used by aquarists. At the risk of over-generalizing, numerous species of naturally fallen, dried leaves are perfectly safe for use in aquariums. There are literally hundreds of possibilities here- but I can't give you the pros and cons on each one. Some may have toxins or oils in their tissues which can be problematic, even deadly. The reality is that you'll need to research, collect, prepare, and experiment with them on your fishes carefully.
Don't like the idea of experimenting with your fishes like that? Well, we know this place online where you can get leaves that are "fish safe!" 😆
CONES: Some of the most popular botanical materials used in aquariums are cones of various trees: Alder, Birch, etc. Like leaves, there are a lot of varieties out there to choose from; many are safe, but some might not be...So, yeah, it's on you to do that critical experimentation and safety assessment for yourself. Cones typically need to be collected as naturally fallen, dried, and risked carefully and dried again before use.
BRANCHES/DRIFTWOOD: Again, there are numerous varieties of trees which yield great results when used in an aquarium setting. The caveats, besides selecting varieties that are not known to be ichthyotoxic, or otherwise environmentally polluting when submerged, are that they need to be properly sourced, collected, and prepared in order to be safe. What varieties? Again, it's incumbent upon us as hobbyists to do our homework to determine what's appropriate.
Obtaining dried, naturally-fallen branches and driftwood, collected legally from pollution-free sources are some of the important factors to consider. Also, bark typically should be removed or substantially stripped, as it often contains surface pollutants or other materials which are not desired in the aquarium. Oh, and you don't want to collect wood that is "green"- more or less "fresh"- as it needs to be largely depleted of many of the sugars and other compounds found in fresher woods. Substances like sap are extremely toxic to fishes, and any wood leaching sap- regardless of variety, should be treated as "unsuitable."
I hope that this admittedly generalized, brief summation of collecting your own botanicals for aquarium use is helpful to you! Sure, many of the materials that we play with are from tropical, rather geographically-challenging locales from around the world, and you're not likely to visit, let alone collect from- these areas. That's where we come in, of course!
There are lots and lots of botanical materials which you can legally collect and safely utilize in your aquarium. Hobbyists have done this for many decades! It makes sense that you should seek out readily obtainable free materials for use in your tanks, if only just to supplement the more "exotic" materials which we offer. Not only is it a good way to save some money- it could get you into the "Great Outdoors" and maybe even create a new hobby for you! And it can be educating!
It's beyond just "collecting stuff." It's important to understand how these materials occur, what benefits they can offer, and how they play a role in the wild terrestrial-and aquatic- ecosystems of the world.
Stay engaged. Stay inquisitive. Stay curious. Stay resourceful.
And Stay Wet.
Appreciate the kind thoughts! Sounds like you have a nice “shopping experience” in your yard! Exciting! And of course, for all of that exotic stuff…. 🤓
Hey Scott- Thanks for the kind words! We’ll keep doing all that we can to advance the movement towards more natural, botanical-influenced aquariums! We appreciate you being a part of it!
Good article, Scott. Keep up the good work, you have a great company going!
Thank you Scott for a well written, informative piece. You’ve given me a number of take-aways that will help and guide me as I check on the trees on my own property. I have hard and soft maple, walnut and oak. I’ll be looking for leaves and other bits once we’re at the other end of the growing season. For now, you’ll see me on your shopping page(s). Cheers.