In pursuit of "spontaneous miracles", "hacks", comprehending phenomenon-and evolving towards patience...

It's really amazing to see (literally, daily) hobbyists entering into our fun little speciality of botanical-style/blackwater aquariums. And, whenever you have a "gold rush" of new people into a formerly misunderstood specialty, you're bound to have more...misunderstandings, right?

I mean, more likely, you have lots of enthusiasm, experiments, and cool tanks! However, you always seem to have some people trying to get to some "point" in the process of establishing their botanical-style blackwater aquariums as quickly as possible.

Often, they look for hacks.

Shit, I hate that term, "hack!"

To many, it implies a sort of "inside way" of doing stuff...a "work-around" of sorts. A term brought about by the internet age to justify doing things quickly, often skipping slower, more cautious procedure, and to eliminate impatience because "we're all so busy." I think it's a sort of sad commentary on the prevailing mindset of many people- particularly when applied to the aquarium hobby and the living organisms which command the bulk of our attention!

Yet, we see it a lot.

We all need stuff quickly...We want a "shortcut. "Personally, I call it "cheating." 

Yes. With what we do, a "hack" is trying to cheat nature. Speed stuff up. Make nature work on OUR schedules.

Bad idea, if you ask me.

In our game of aquariums-particularly the blackwater, botanical-style ones, the idea of "hacks" seems sort of contrary to all that we proffer here: Patience, time, embracing the process, etc. Yet, curiously, a fair amount of questions trickle in about how to achieve certain things quickly in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums. And you know what the most common "hack" question we receive is?

"How do I get my tank to tint up faster?"

I swear, I'm totally serious. Faster.

This is kind of funny.

This is literally how cool stuff is getting in our world!  I mean, we went from an aquarium culture that was practically horrified at the prospect of a tank with brown water and decomposing leaves, to one that is now impatient about achieving dark water and all of its alleged collateral benefits...quickly, I might add!

Interesting paradigm shift of sorts, huh?

Now, in all fairness, most of us understand that there are real no true "shortcuts" in any part of the aquarium game, but I do understand that there is a certain degree of impatience with this. The typical newbie to the "tint" world sees all of these pics cool tanks; of natural habitats that they've  always dreamed of replicating, and even though he or she totally understands that it's a natural process that takes time, wants to "get in the game" as quickly as possible!

Think about it: Many of you have probably been a bit nervous and excited about doing blackwater; it's a totally new look, new approach, and new mindset, and you've deployed some "mental energy" to embracing it. You might have even been on the receiving end of some criticism from your "clearwater" friends! And there are some unusual impacts created by use of botanicals.

So, yeah, you're eager to see that water turn color!

Now, here's the deal. 

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that certain botanicals do seem to impart color to the water more quickly than others. I honestly don't know if it's because they have more tannins in their surface tissues that leach out quickly upon immersion, or if there is some other specific reason.

With botanicals like leaves, it's understandable, because most of the popular ones that we use (with the exception of say, Magnolia) have very thin tissues that start to break down quickly after immersion and begin imparting tannins to the water quickly. And of course, cones tend to break down quickly, making them a favorite of "tint hackers" everywhere! 

Shit, I just used that term again...

One observation that I have made- besides the fact that pretty much every botanical I've worked with seems to impart some tint to the water it's submerged in, is that some of the palm-derived products, like Coco Curls, Nypa Palm pods, etc. seem to impart a lot of color really quickly. In fact, Nypa Palm pods seem to really pack a wallop, delivering a pretty dark tint immediately after preparation.

And the ultimate "tint bombs", IMHO, are bark pieces- specifically, Red Mangrove and Catappa. They rapidly leach out tannins to the point where you can have a significantly dark color in just a few days, depending upon a few variables like tank size, current, etc.- but significant, nonetheless!

Yes, it is funny that we're awful hung up on the visual cues (ie; the tint); of course, when one makes a leap of faith and goes against the grain in aquaristics, tossing all sorts of leaves and seed pods to decompose in his/her display tank, it makes sense that we want to see something for this leap of faith investment! 

Oh, and on at least a few occasions, when dealing with a frustrated hobbyist who's tank just didn't seem to "tint" up after repeated additions of botanicals, we discovered that they were using rather substantial amounts of activated carbon in their filters!

Bye, bye, tint!

Yup. So, think about that, too. okay?

And- there is an increasing body of evidence to support the assertion that many aquatic plants are able to uptake tannins from the water. Now, I admit, I simply don't have the scientific background to confirm this, but it is entirely logical. They are thought by science to protect the vulnerable structures of plants from microbial attacks, and tannins and polyphenols (the stuff we find in leaves and botanicals, remember?) are known to influence the growth, development, and reproduction of plants, so this makes a lot of sense!

My personal experiences with this "visual tannin depletion syndrome" (LOL) has not borne this out, however. I haven't seen this occur in tanks with aquatic plants present, myself. And of course, that doesn't mean anything; there could be hundreds of possible variables here.

Yet, in terrestrial plants, they are know to interfere with potassium and iron uptake when found in heavy concentrations in soils...I mean, the information on this stuff is all over the place, and the possible implications for the presence of tannins in aquariums containing aquatic plants is likely significant and needs further exploration!

Yes, some people with heavily planted aquariums do seem to have trouble maintaining that "visual tint." As you can see here, there is so much that we are clueless about that we can only call it an "interesting phenomenon" at this point. I'm sure there is a lot of science out there, for those willing to dig for it. In our limited experience, a lot of what we "know" is anecdotal...Yet, I think that there is something interesting there to research and consider further. 

Now, to be clear once again, this is really a piece on the aesthetics of tinted water and the patience which needs to be deployed by the aquarist to get there safely; we're not really getting into the chemistry behind this within the scope of this particular blog piece. I admit that, not only is it beyond my ability to discuss logically, it is extremely challenging for me to personally even comprehend this, above the most superficial aspects!

There is simply so much we don't know. Which is why I absolutely cringe when I see definitive, bold statements and assertions about some of this stuff on hobby forums, with little in the way of solid research- or even personal experience- to back up such claims.

However, it's important, as a "general rule", to understand once again that ANYTHING-botanicals, rocks, substrate- whatever we place into a closed aquatic ecosystem- will have some impact on the aquatic environment. Not necessarily "chemical" ( in the case of say, "inert" materials such as plastics and maybe some substrates), but definitely a "physical impact" of some sort.

It's not a big leap of faith to understand this concept. I admit, however, that it is significant to understand- or even start to comprehend- the science behind it. Your pulling from multiple scientific disciplines, as well as from the practical art and practice of aquarium keeping.

Just a lot to absorb.

And yes, then there is "the pH thing..." We all know  by now that you typically can't take water that has a pH of 8.2 and a hardness of 10dKH or whatever, and expect it to rapidly drop to 6.2 with a dKH of like 2 simply by tossing in some Catappa leaves. If the water in your aquarium is just plain old HARD, you're not likely to see the pH decrease in any meaningful measure with just the addition of a typical load of botanical material to your tank.

You need to have "softer" water (i.e. water with less carbonate hardness) to more easily affect pH levels using botanicals. And you'll need to read up on managing pH in low carbonate hardness environments. It's all out there. And easier to find than ever before. It drives me crazy when someone asks a seemingly "simple" question on DM that is actually rather complex, and requires a fundamental understanding before you could even make sense of the answer.

Of course, people often want the quick answer without the "education." I get it, I suppose...But in the absence of willingness to do the research, you often have to accept an "answer" which really leads to more questions! 

Education is important. The amount of ignorance on this subject among many hobbyists is stunning, really!

The science behind (aquarium) water chemistry- specifically pH and "hardness" management- is well understood and studied, and has been documented in aquarium literature by very capable, scientifically-trained hobbyist/authors for generations. The information is there for the taking; there are no excuses for not being able to grasp this if you're interested.

Google is amazing.

Don't be fucking lazy.

And the idea of botanicals impacting water parameters in our tanks?

You can't expect "miracles." On the other hand, you CAN expect changes. And disasters if you act rashly and stupidly. Sorry, no sugar coating here. We've talked about this ad nauseam over the past few years.

There is no excuse for NOT making the effort to at least try to understand what you're doing in your aquariums. And "trying to understand" isn't just posting a "WTF?" question on a forum. It means rolling up your sleeves and researching, too.

And it means monitoring your aquarium. Learning about what's "normal" or a deviation from it.

You can and should monitor basic water chemistry parameters during your entire "tint process", and you should be extra slow and careful when attempting to add botanicals to existing aquariums with fish populations. We say it over and over, but it would simply be recklessly irresponsible for us to tout all of these "benefits" of adding stuff without counseling you on the potential dangers. We've done crazy stuff repeatedly with botanicals in our own test aquariums- stuff you'd NEVER do to your own tanks- in the interest of finding out what could go wrong.

And stuff can go wrong.

In almost every case, the worst thing you can do is to add a large quantity of materials to an existing, populated aquarium all at once, or in a very short time span. By "very short", I mean like 2 or three days or so. It's just flat-out bad practice. Rapid environmental changes of all sorts are extremely stressful to fishes, if not fatal. Even if the materials being introduced are properly prepared, you're still putting fishes at risk by rushing things.

Under certain circumstances, pH CAN drop quickly. Biofilters CAN be overwhelmed. Dissolved oxygen levels COULD drop quickly. Some animals may display extraordinary sensitivity to change, as well.  These are rare events, but they do happen. They happen when we push for "hacks", or try to circumvent logic. If you roll the dice by rushing things, you might dodge the bullet once or twice, but eventually, gambling with the lives of your fishes WILL come back and bite you on the ass. It's just that simple. 

Don't rush the process. 

We don't. You shouldn't, either.

All of the beautiful tanks you see featured here and in our social media feeds didn't get that way quickly. And the aquarists who manage these beauties didn't rush the process to get there. They were patient. Perhaps they WERE impatient at some point, but through the "school of hard knocks" and the acceptance of the realities of "hacking" things, they became VERY patient.

You will become patient, too. 

It's the only way to succeed with these types of aquariums.

I know there are more and more vendors pushing botanical materials on their sites. This is great for the hobby. Yet, I challenge you to do more than simply try to sell shit. Educate your consumers. Share the research and experiences-good and bad-which you have no doubt had. And point them to scientific and other resources on these and tangential topics, just like we've been doing for several years now. Don't just rely on what I blog about, or some article in a hobby mag, or what you find in a one page Wikipedia article on blackwater...

You want to help grow and foster this movement? Get down and dirty and educate, share, enlighten.

Are there ways to speed things up? 

Yes, and no. (helpful, right?)

Again, if you want to get a visual "tint" more quickly, we suggest that you incorporate some of the materials discussed above into your "initial load" of botanicals- but go slowly. Enjoy watching the tint "turn on" and seeing your microcosm evolve. Color, as we discussed, is only the "tip of the iceberg"- the most visual manifestation of what's happening chemically and ecologically in your aquariums.

And yeah, there is a TON that we don't understand here.

There are always trade-offs and consequences for attempting to speed up natural processes. Some good, some inconsequential...Some utterly disastrous. The speed at which this stuff happens is dictated by Nature, and helped-or hindered- by your actions...

There is an old (LOL) expression in reef keeping that "Nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank", and I think you could definitely take out the "reef" part and apply this logic to ANY aquarium type. 

So, "hacking" in the context of a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium is a potentially detrimental, even lethal thing. I mean, developing better procedures- some which WILL save time- is a cool thing and a natural evolution based on confidence, experience, and a better understanding of the "craft" based on collective experience. However, just trying to get from "Point A" to "Point D" as quickly as possible because you're "in a hurry" not only is foolish- it denies you, and all those who come after, the knowledge gained from learning and experiencing the wonders of Nature.

It's a journey.

That's part of the whole game with botanical-style blackwater aquariums.

Remember that part of the fun is creating your little aquatic world, and seeing the reactions of the animals and the overall aesthetics of your aquarium change regularly are extremely enjoyable. You should make it a habit of taking pics of your aquarium, and journaling things from the start to see for yourself (and to share with others) the amazing and very distinct changes that occur as your system matures and evolves over time.

And yeah,  you'll be surprised how dark the water can get in a relatively brief span of time.

So don't look for "hacks."

No shortcuts. No rushing the process. Simply embracing and enjoying the journey at every phase is a really great thing.

It's totally worth it.

Today's simple, undoubtedly ass-kicking, but nonetheless important reminder...

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay resourceful. Stay emerged. Stay engaged. Stay in control. Stay educated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment