It's about wood. It's about form. It's about function.

As I've mentioned repeatedly, the "botanical-style" aquarium is not really a "style"- it's more of an approach. A methodology. A mindset.  A mindset which embraces what we call "functional aesthetics"- a way of appreciating the collateral benefits of the materials we utilize to create our aquariums. A sort of "function first" approach.

And as a supplier of natural materials, and lover of a cool aquairum or two, we often receive questions from fellow hobbyists asking about how to achieve a certain result, or what can be used to achieve it. 

We receive tons of questions about wood.

We field a lot of questions about why we only carry certain types of wood, or what "the best wood is for _______________?"

The answer to the first part of the question is because I really have specific feelings about wood in botanical-style aquariums, and what the point of using wood is in our aquairums. Like, yeah, I want stuff to look good- but to me, it's more about recreating some of the amazing features found in wild aquatic habitats like flooded forests and jungle streams.

Wood tells a story. Or. part of a story, anyways.

A story of the interrelationship between the terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and how each is influenced by the other. 

There are natural structures, such as fallen tree trunks/branches, and submerged root systems, which I find compelling and irresistible- and not every type of wood used in the aquarium trade seems to represent these features well, IMHO.

I mean, pretty much any wood used in the aquarium hobby can work; I just found over the years that I'm drawn to a certain look that can best be achieved with certain varieties of wood. I never intended to make Tannin Aquatics a generalized "one stop shop" for wood, rock, and aquascaping stuff, offering every variety under the sun. There are a lot of places that do that well.

We're a bit more specialized, as you know.

And there is another reason:

I'll come right out and admit it: I'm not much of an "aquascaper." Like, you could take the same rocks and wood as me, and come up with something epic and beautiful. I just don't have that designer's touch or whatever.

And really, I couldn't care less! I enjoy doing what I do, and sharing the ideas with more talented hobbyists like you!

I like to replicate stuff I see in the natural aquatic habitats of the world, if both form and function. Often it's function first, and the aesthetic is a "collateral benefit" of sorts.

"Okay, cool, Scott- but about your wood choices...."

Okay, fine, let's discuss that briefly.

When it comes to wood, I have  developed a sort of "taste" for certain types of wood. Typically, they are the more tangled, root-like varieties. That's reflected in the selections of materials we offer at Tannin, and what I tend to use in my personal tanks.

One of the most consistently popular wood types in our hobby is what is known as "Spider Wood",  which I understand to be the roots of Rhododendron (aka Azalea), a genus of over a thousand woody plants found in Asia and North America. Like everything else in the aquarium hardscape trade, the exact species or origins are seemingly kept shrouded in a sort of deliberate mystery by vendors.

I don't know why, because it's not like every hobbyist is suddenly going to eschew buying the stuff and start digging up every Rhododendron in the neighborhood looking for the perfect root! That being said, it's no mystery why the stuff is popular! It looks pretty cool... It has a definite  root-like configuration, which lends itself well to all sorts of aquascaping applications.

You can't really go wrong with this stuff, either using it alone, or combining it with other wood/root varieties. 

And, as an added "bonus", this stuff releases a lot of nice, water-tintitng tannins...something that freaks the f---out of most hardcore aquascapers (much to my sadistic delight, as you know), but something that our tribe just loves! Oh, and the plant (and I think likely by extension, the roots) is known to offer "..possible anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective activities" (in humans, I might add)which may be due to the antioxidant effects of flavonoids or other phenolic compounds and saponins the plant contains...

If you recall, some of these same substances are known to occur in Catappa leaves, and there are documented fish health benefits of catappa, validated in scientific research.


Oh, and it does tend to recruit a fair amount of gooey fungal/biofilm growth shortly after submersion, often to the horror of the unaware...So, if ever there were a candidate for "pre-soaking" wood before using in the aquarium, "Spider Wood" is it. Granted, this growth will usually subside after a few weeks of submersion, and some well-timed scrubbing with a soft-bristled brush.

And it looks cool. You can do lots of cool stuff with it.

And it works really well with more "fine-textured" roots, like Melastoma.

One of my favorite tanks I ever created, the so-called "Tucano Tangle" was a fusion of Melastoma root and "Spider Wood."

It was so easy that I'm almost embraced about all of the accolades I've received for this tank over the years. It was literally a matter of stacking a few pieces of "Spider Wood" to form a sort of "platform" for about 6-10 pieces of Melastoma root...and that was it. No great aquascaping skill or feat of aesthetics. No gluing intricate pieces of wood together...Nope- it was literally about placing the pieces on top of each other and pushing until  everything locked together. 

That's how effortless "aquascaping" can be really.

Or should I say, that's how effortless attempting to recreate a component of the natural habitat of some fishes can be, aesthetics-wise. Especially when you have the right materials! From there, it was about the environment: Water chemistry, flow, substrate, temperature, biology...The stuff that I personally find far more interesting than trying to achieve the perfect "look" every time. 

I think we over-obsess on wood too much.

I think much of the frustration that many hobbyists encounter in the "aquascaping" process is caused by trying to create some perfect scene they have in their minds, or to recreate something they saw in someone else's tank. Looking for the perfect piece of wood to match the vision or the execution that you're trying to replicate. It can be pretty hard to do that.  And never quite as fun as looking at something you see in Nature and working on that.

So, as an alternative, may I suggest attempting to replicate- in both form and function- a feature in a natural underwater habitat where your target fishes come from?

Consider what factors lead to the formation of this feature. Think about how it came to be, and what benefits fishes receive by inhabiting it. We can utilize all of this information to create unique underwater features, and to facilitate more natural behaviors from our fishes in our aquariums..

So, yeah-think about how fishes act in Nature.

They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...

I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?

Another interesting phenomenon that any fisherman will tell you is that fishes also like to gather under trees. Not only do trees provide a respite from the bright light, they provide an opportunity to grab a meal of insects, fruit, and other materials which might fall from the trees throughout the day.

You know, allochthonous input...

For some reason, I've always found it a bit easier- and far more enjoyable- to look at one of these natural structures and examine how it formed, why it formed, and what makes it attractive to fishes...If it's a log, tree trunk, or root tangle, you simply find pieces of wood that look like logs, tree trunks, or roots, right? Yup.
If you're not trying to construct underwater arches or "bonsai forests", the world of functional aquascaping opens its arms to you, and challenges you to create an aquarium which represents natural underwater features in a more realistic way.

What, exactly IS the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right?


So when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come? The information that you can garner from such observations and research is amazing!

One of the key takeaways that you can make is that many freshwater fishes like "structure" in their habitats. Unless you're talking about large, ocean-going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like certain types of structure- be it rocks, wood, roots, etc.

Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

So, where does this leave us in terms of creating and/or editing an aquascape for our fishes in the aquarium?

Well, for one thing, we can look to Nature to see just what it is, "material-wise" that falls into the water. In many wild habitats, it's leaves, seed pods, branches, etc. All sorts of stuff. 

And what about how these materials are oriented or distributed in the water after they fall? For example, when a tree branch falls into the water, gravity, current, wind, etc influence how it lays on the bottom of the stream. Often times, in shallow streams, the branch extends partially out of the water...kind of like what we do in 'scaping, right?

Yet, somehow less "contrived."

As aquarists, we put an amazing amount of time into trying to achieve a perfect placement for wood, when the reality is that, in Nature, it's decidedly random. Is there not beauty in "randomness", despite our pursuit of the "golden ratio", etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the Manzanita branch or whatever within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

Bottom line- maybe we don't need to "stress out" so much in our placement of wood in the aquarium, striving for some "artistic" interpretation...maybe we'd achieve something altogether different- and cool-if we just sort of randomly "drop" the wood into the tank and go from there...maybe?

Could you handle that? 

And ask yourself, honestly- is there not a true beauty in the "randomness" of nature? Isn't this what aquarists like Amano were really trying to stress, rather than preaching the rigid adherence to some "formula" of placement? Can't you see the beauty in replicating as scene like this one, photographed my Mike Tuccinardi in the Rio Negro?

It's remarkable how simply considering your aquarium in the context of "functional aesthetics" can give you  new ideas, inspiration, and purpose.

And that includes understanding and accepting the "other stuff" we encounter- by-products of natural processes like decomposition, fungal growth, etc. All of the stuff we see happening in our tanks now? It was there before... in Nature.

For eons.

It's just that now, instead of freaking out about stuff like brown water, biofilms, and detritus, and worrying about the "damage" they might inflict on our aquariums,  we're studying them. We've made a tangible mental shift. Appreciating their role in a functional closed ecosystem. Embracing their form and function. Rather than siphoning out some of this stuff in horror, we're admiring it and appreciating why it's there, and the functional role it plays in our little aquatic worlds.

Rather than strictly approaching stuff like wood selection and placement from the aesthetic perspective exclusively, we're thinking about function. We realize that wood only tells part of the story in an aquarium as it does in Nature. It's also about the dozens of other by-products of natural processes which help set the scene.



The initial skepticism and resistance to the idea of an aquarium filled with biofilms, decomposition, and tinted water has given way to enormous creativity and discovery. Our community has (rather easily, I might add!) accepted the idea that nature will follow a certain "path"- parts of which are aesthetically different than anything we've allowed to occur in our tanks before- and rather than attempting to mitigate or thwart it, we're celebrating it!

It's a fun and fascinating journey, that will not only yield greater understanding of our fishes, but of the precious and fascinating environments from which they come. And a greater appreciation for the functions and vulnerabilities of these wild ecosystems means that we'll be in a better position than ever as aquarists to call attention to the perils that they face. And when we inspire non-aquarists to understand and learn more about this stuff- the planet wins.

Take the time to go beyond the sexy look.Time to stop obsessing over finding the "perfect" materials to get a certain "look." Because you'll find that the function is every bit as fascinating and inspiring-if not more so- as those looks. 

Stay studious. Stay fascinated. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay generous. Stay diligent. Stay obsessive!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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