Improvising, adapting...and just making stuff up as we go. A year in the life of the "New Botanical" movement...

"You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”- Ray Bradbury

It's been a little over a year since Tannin "opened its doors" (electronically-speaking), and during that time, we've gone from being a "What is that about?" thing to "This is exactly what I was looking for..." thing for many hobbyists worldwide, and we're seeing more and more adventurous and excited fish geeks playing with not only our products, but more important- with the concept of using botanical materials to create truly more natural-looking-and functioning- aquarium designs!

This has been a super gratifying experience, and I'm pleased to have played a small role in helping bring this much-underserved niche of the hobby to the forefront of more people's minds. Without a growing and engaged crowd, we'd just be a bunch of fish geeks playing with, as one of my friends gleefully asserts, "Twigs and nuts!"

That being said, I think we are starting to see a few techniques and "best practices" emerge from the darkness, based on the body of experience that we now have. A lot of this started with mental adjustments. Just contemplating setting up an aquarium with brown water and slowly decomposing leaves and botanicals is a huge mental leap for many of us, coming out of the "pristine-looking glass box" mind set that we've been indoctrinated into for so long. 

Accepting that brown water is not "dirty" is a huge mental leap for many people. Understanding that natural waters worldwide have a brownish tint to them, caused by beneficial humic substances and tannins is the first step towards our progression. And it's not easy for's an acceptance of a fundamental aesthetic shift from what we've done in the past, which is incredibly difficult to do!

I've been particularly fascinated with how hobbyists have adapted using botanicals in displays that were previously running without them. You've adapted a "go slow" attitude about preparing and adding the botanicals to your aquariums, fully aware of the impact that they might have on water chemistry and bioload. The much-feared "I added the pack you sent me last night and all of my fish are dead or gasping at the surface of the tank" email has only come once, and it was from an individual who told me (against my repeated warnings and advice not to do this) that they were going to add everything without preparation to "preserve the tannins" in the botanicals, and well- you can imagine the impact.

Preparation and adding stuff slowly to your tank is considered part of the technique, a practice- and perhaps the only 100% "hard rule" in the use of botanicals in our aquariums. And its a good one, based on the time-honored practice of going slowly when adding anything, or making changes to an existing aquarium that can alter the water chemistry significantly. Yet, the merits were something we had to ponder, right?

I've also enjoyed seeing how we've utilized the botanicals in our tanks. In the "early days", it was a few bold aquarists adding some of the larger materials, like "Savu Pods" and "Jungle Pods" to their tanks as spawning caves and hiding places, and a few experienced Betta and Apisto breeders looking for Catappa leaves to help "condition" their water. 

Then, it was more daring hobbyists adding various smaller botanicals here and there on their substrate to add to the aesthetics, but it was typically a more-or-less "random" scattering of stuff, just to get a "feel for the look."

Then, we had more experimentation for specific purposes...incorporating them into aquascapes that were more or less planned around using them, which was the next big evolution.

This was leading towards a greater acceptance of these items..and the first, tentative steps in figuring out how to employ them in different types of ' planted tanks.

And the acceptance of the tinted water was a huge "microevolution", as the aesthetic and functional benefits of blackwater systems were made more and more obvious by talented aquascapers like the great George Farmer.

At the same time, we started to see another exciting trend emerging: The application of botanicals for what I like to call "biotope-themed" aquariums, which embraced the look of natural blackwater habitats in an "unfiltered" way. 

Brown water, decomposing botanicals and leaves...all working together to create truly natural aquariums. Experimentation with various "niches" within the blackwater systems is starting to occur, and we're learning more about the long-term management of these systems.

A lot of interest is being focused on developing more natural substrates and bottom features, which is really exciting, as we're moving towards a more realistic replication (in both the aesthetic and functional realms) of these regions that we rarely give a lot of thought to, outside of "what kind of sand should I use...?"

Inspiration from nature is really starting to influence aquarium practice in this area...

Now, we're seeing botanicals applied in a more "holistic" manner, fostering the interactions between the aquatic environment and the aquascape itself.

As the lines between nature and aquarium are being blurred somewhat, we're starting to see more bold experimentation, such as the application of deep leaf litter beds and deep botanical coverage.

And the cool, artistic botanical concept aquariums, with achingly beautiful aesthetics, are really starting to show up again!

We've certainly learned a lot in the past year. A year that has seen a lot of growth and interest in what was previously a (pun intended) "quiet backwater" of the hobby. And now, with renewed focus on this fascinating area, we're seeing a very gratifying thing in that these task are being used to educate and enlighten both hobby and non-hobby people about the wonders of these precious blackwater ecosystems, like the Rio Negro, highlighted last weekend at the Aquatic Experience show in Chicago for Project Piaba, an extremely worthwhile organization that aims to protect and preserve these habitats, while creating a sustainable source of livestock for the hobby.

We- and that means you, me, and everyone who's played with the whole blackwater/botanical idea, should be duly proud. Without arrogance or attitude (okay, maybe a bit of attitude-in a good way...), we've collectively brought in some new energy, excitement, and attention to an area of the hobby which so desperately deserved it- and in the process, we've ignited a movement towards a greater appreciation and expression of how we can work with nature to create wonderful, memorable, and creative aquariums, for the enjoyment of all.

And we're just getting started.

Stay adventurous. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Stay committed. Stay proud.

And stay wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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