How to succeed at a botanical-style aquarium without really trying...

Okay, that's probably one of the worst blog post titles I've come up with lately, but it might make some sense.

The idea of creating an aquarium filled with leaves, seed pods, and other botanicals is as much a leap of faith as it is a practice. We're talking about adding all of this stuff to your tank and then letting Nature "do her thing" to a certain extent. As we've (painstakingly) analyzed over the years, adding these materials to an aquarium not only impacts the aquatic environment- it actually creates it- biologically, chemically, and physically. 

So, how difficult is the idea of creating and managing a botanical-style aquarium, really?

I mean, it's not THAT hard. The hard part is deploying patience, and the need to observe and go slowly when setting up your tank; allowing natural processes to occur and play out. And you need to learn a little bit about basic water chemistry...stuff you likely should already have a grasp of, right?

As we've discussed many times here, if you're starting with a brand new aquarium, you can stock the shit out of it with botanicals and leaves and such. Since you have no existing fishes I the tank, you'd simply add your selections of botanicals and cycle the tank in your fave manner. Add fishes when ammonia and nitrite levels  have stabilized. This is not all that different from establishing a reef aquarium. Before you add the fishes, you need to create a stable aquatic environment.  You need to test. You need to deploy patience and common sense. 

And you need to educate yourself.

And you need to have a game plan. It's not just, "Let's throw all sorts of stuff into the tank and we have an instant blackwater aquarium!" Nope. You need to have some sort of game plan that dictates not only the type of materials that you add- but in what quantities and with what intentions. Are you trying to create a certain "look?" Are you trying to create optimum environmental conditions to breed a certain fish? Are you wanting to impact the pH of the tank? Have really darkly tinted water?

One thing to note: Keep in mind that you need to utilize water with little to no carbonate hardness to have anything but the most negligible impact on pH in your tank. There has been this long held "aquarium urban myth", perpetuated by hobbyists who simply haven't had first hand experience, as well as certain vendors who are- well, let's call them what they are- morons- that adding Catappa leaves, Alder cones, or whatever will enable you to dramatically lower the pH of your tap-water-filled aquarium with little or no effort and create "Instant Orinoco" conditions.

These kinds of regurgitated bullshit hyperbole claims need to stop, as do the over-generalized (often incorrect) assumptions of what botanicals can and cannot do. They damage the hobby and the botanical-style aquarium movement by offering false hope and unrealistic expectations to the aspiring botanical-style aquarium enthusiast. We need to spend the time researching these things before we leap. We need to put in the work to learn about what to really expect before we can have an "Instagram-ready" tank to share! 

I know, it sounds like a bit of a buzzkill; I hate to be the "sugar in your gas tank", but it's important to be realistic and be informed. There are tons of resources, beyond just our blog, about how pH and hardness work. There are a lot of articles on water chemistry, the nitrogen cycle, reverse osmosis, and on wild blackwater habitats and how they function. You need to put in the work and research them. Personally, I receive several emails a week from hobbyists who purchased botanical materials from vendors around the world, who have some of the most basic questions and are disappointed because the stuff they purchased from "XYZ Botanicals" didn't lower their pH, or killed their fishes, or whatever.

CRAZY MICRO RANT TIME: To my fellow vendors- an appeal...A request. No, actually a challenge: STEP UP YOUR GAME! Don't just try to make a quick sale by luring in the uninformed and inexperienced, and promising them some sort of fantastic results...and then, in an act of unmitigated gall- refer them to our site or to ME for the "education." I've seen a few of you guys out on social bragging about your vast experience, passion, ability to source stuff, and such...Great- So, why don't you share it? Where is your blog? Where is your podcast? Why is it so easy to sell the stuff, but apparently even easier to take no responsibility to educate the customer? Why do you "sub-contract" it out to me? If you don't make this effort to help your suck. Period.

Don't suck.

Whew!! Rant over. For now.

Obviously, I'm happy to help. Our blogs, podcasts, videos, live events, etc are free for everyone to make use please do. And of course, you can hit me up with your questions. However, the answers to many of them are right here for the taking. Oh, and we're doing a book, too- so soon, it will be even more concise!

Anyways, back to the topic...

With regards to adding botanicals to an established, stable, populated it slowly. Monitor water parameters. Observe. Test. 

Simple. Logical. 

There are not concepts unique to our specialty...

Like so many things in aquarium keeping, the extent to which we put our animals lives at risk is in our hands. Using botanicals to help foster "blackwater" conditions in an aquarium is no more dangerous than any other aspect of fish care. It's not all doom and gloom...You simply need to be aware of the potential of these materials to impact the aquatic environment, just like anything you add- from substrate to rocks, to driftwood-in any type of aquarium. 

This is no different than running an African Rift Lake cichlid tank or a reef aquarium- you need to be aware of what's going on in your water...part of the game. Blackwater aquariums, like many other "specialty" aquaria, are not "set and forget" systems. They require monitoring, management, and observation on a continuous basis.

And preparation of the materials you add is crucial.

Like many of you, I've made my share of errors in this hobby. Almost all of them involved rushing stuff, taking shortcuts, or getting too "relaxed" in my practices. 

When I started playing with botanicals in my aquariums almost two decades ago, I made a fair number of mistakes. Sometimes, they cost the lives of my fishes. And killing fishes sucks.


Some mistakes were caused by my lack of familiarity with using various materials. Others were caused by not understanding fully the impact of adding botanical materials to a closed aquatic ecosystem. All were mitigated by taking the time to learn from them and honestly asses the good, the bad, and the practical aspects of using them in our aquariums. 

And sometimes, that meant developing "best practices" to help mitigate or eliminate issues as much as possible, even though the "practices" may not be the easiest, most convenient, or expedient way to proceed.

After more than four years of running Tannin, I have pretty much identified the two most common concerns for customers associated with utilizing botanicals in their aquariums. Curiously, our two biggest concerns revolve around our own human impatience and mindset- not the botanical materials themselves.

The first is... preparation.

We are often asked why we don't feel that you can, without exception, just give any of your botanicals "a quick rinse" and toss them into your aquarium.

After all, this is what happens in nature, right? Well, shit- yes...but remember, in most cases, there is a significant "dilution factor" caused by larger water volumes, currents, biologically-rich substrates, etc. that you encounter in natural aquatic systems. Even in smaller bodies of water, you have very "mature" nutrient export systems and biological equilibriums established over long periods of time which handle the influx and export of organic materials.  

However, even in Nature, things go awry, and you will occasionally see bodies of water "fouled" by large, sudden influxes of materials (often leaves, grass clippings, etc.)- sometimes after rain or other weather events- and the result is usually polluted water, large algal blooms, and a pretty nasty smell! 

In the aquarium,  of course, you have a closed system with a typically much smaller water volume, limited import of fresh water, limited filtration (export) capacity, and in many cases, a less robust ecological microcosm to handle a large influx of nutrients quickly.

So you know where I'm going with this:

Fresh botanical materials, even relatively "clean" ones, are often still "dirty", from collection, storage, etc. They may have dust, airborne pollutants, soil or silt (depending upon where they were collected), even cobwebs, bird droppings, and dead insects (yuck!).

Natural materials accumulate "stuff." They're not sterile; made in some clean room in a factory in Switzerland, right? 

So, "just giving botanicals a quick rinse" before tossing them in your tank is simply not good procedure, IMHO- even for stuff you collect from your own backyard. At the very least, a prolonged (30 to 60 minute) steep in boiling hot water will serve to "sterilize" them to a certain extent. Follow it with a rinse to remove any lingering dirt or other materials trapped in the surfaces of your botanicals.

Now, I don't recommend this process because I want to be a pain in the ass ( I mean, it's debatable that I am...). I recommend it because it's a responsible practice that, although seemingly "overkill" in some people's minds- increases the odds for a better outcome.

There is simply no advantage to rushing stuff.

Like all things we do in our aquariums, the preparation of materials that we add to them is a process, and Nature sets the pace. The fact that we may recommend 30 minutes or more of boiling is not of concern to Nature. It may take an hour or more to fully saturate your Sterculia Pods before they sink.

So be it.


Savor the process. Enjoy every aspect of the experience.  And don't you love the earthy scent that botanicals exude when you're preparing them.

How much to use?

Well, that's the million dollar question.

Who knows? Even that is a guess and decidedly unscientific at best! 

It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best. 

Now, nothing is perfect.

Nothing we can tell you is an absolute guarantee of perfect results...You're dealing with natural materials, and the results you'll see are governed by natural processes that we can only impact to a certain extent by preparation before use. But it's a logical, responsible process that you need to embrace for long-term success.

And when it comes time to adding your botanicals to your aquarium, the second "tier" of this process is to add them to your aquarium slowly. Like, don't add everything all at once, particularly to an established, stable aquarium. Think of botanicals as "bioload", which requires your 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.

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 wouldn'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.

It's interesting how the process of selecting, preparing and adding botanical materials to our aquariums has evolved over the time since we've been in business. Initially, it was all about trying to discover what materials weren't "toxic" in some way! Then, it was about figuring out ways to prepare them and make sure that they don't pollute the aquarium. Finally, it's been about taking the time to add them in a responsible, measured matter.

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.

I know I may be a bit "blunt" when it comes to these topics of preparation, practices, and patience- but they are critical concepts for us to wrap our heads around and really embrace in order to be successful with this stuff.

All caveats and warnings aside, the art and evolving "science" of utilizing natural botanical materials for the purpose of enriching and influencing the environment of the aquarium is an exciting one, promising benefits and breakthroughs that we may not have even thought about yet! It's okay to experiment.

SO in summary- there IS no way to create a successful botanical-style aquarium without really trying...but you probably guessed that already, huh? The successful botanical-style tank- ANY successful tank, for that matter- requires you to be patient, employ discipline, observation, and education.

That's the easy part- and the hard part- depending upon how you look at it, right?

So, before you jump, make that effort to educate yourself and get really smart about this stuff...And share what you experience on your journey- all of it- the good and the occasional bad. It helps grow the hobby, foster a viable movement, and helps your fellow hobbyists!

That's pretty cool, right?


Until next time...

Stay thoughtful. Stay educated. Stay observant. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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