It's in the ground...and the water, and...the terroir?

What is it about our botanical style aquariums that makes them so unique?

Being the absurd amateur aquarium hobby philosopher from way back, I have spent a fair amount of time playing with the idea, attempting to grasp the concept. I think it simply starts with the materials that we use.

It seems logical to imply that botanicals, wood, and other materials which we ultiize in our aquascapes not only have an aesthetic impact, but a physical-chemical impact on the overall aquatic environment, as well.

Not really an alien concept, when you think about it in the concept of stuff we know and love in other areas of life.

Wine, for example, has terroir- the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma... Coffee- much the same. And I can't help but wonder if this idea applies to our botanicals?

I mean, leaves come from specific trees, imparting not only tannin and humid substances into the water, but likely falling in heavier concentrations, or accumulating in various parts of forest streams at particular times of the year, or in specific physical locales with na stream or river. And of course, they provide the fishes which reside in that given area a specific set of physical/chemical conditions which they have adapted to. 

Terroir? Yeah, sort of...right? 

Actually, it makes perfect sense.

As we've discussed before, the soils, plants, and surrounding geography of an aquatic habitat play an important and intricate role in the composition of the aquatic environment. They influence not only the chemical characteristics of the water (like pH, TDS, alkalinity), but the color (yeah- tannins!), turbidity, and other characteristics, like flow. And of course, they have important impact on the diet of fishes...Remember allochthonous input form the land surrounding aquatic habitats?  And the impact of humic substances?

I can't help but wonder what sorts of variations we can create in our aquarium habitats; that is to say, variations of the chemical composition of the water in our aquarium habitats- by employing various different botanicals and aquatic soils. I mean, on the surface, this is not a revolutionary idea...We've been doing stuff like this in the hobby for a while- more crudely in the fish-breeding realm (adding peat to water, for example...).

In the planted aquarium world, it's long been known that soil types/additives, ie;  clay-based aquatic soils, for example, will obviously impact the water chemistry of the aquarium far differently than say, iron-based soils, and their effect on the plants, fishes, and overall aquatic environment will differ significantly.

So, it goes without saying that the idea that utilizing different types of botanical materials in the aquarium can likely yield different effects on the water chemistry, and thus the fishes and plants that reside there is not that big of a "stretch", right? I can't help but wonder what the possible impacts of different leaves, or possibly even seed pods from different areas can have on the water.

I mean, sure, pH and such are affected- but what about the compounds and substances we don't- or simply can't- test for in the aquarium? What impacts do they have? Subtle things, like combinations of various amino acids, antioxidant compounds, obscure trace elements- even hormones, for that matter...Could utilizing different combinations of botanicals in aquariums potentially yield different results? You know- like,  "Add this if you want fishes to color up. Add a combination of THIS if you want the fishes to commence spawning behavior", etc.

It's funny, but is it really all that far-fetched an idea?

Absolutely not, IMHO.

I think the main thing which keeps the idea from really developing more in the hobby- knowing how much of what to add to our tanks, specifically to achieve "x" effect- is that we simply don't have the means to test for them. It's really as much of an "art" as it is a science, and more superficial observation- at least in our aquariums- is probably almost as useful as laboratory testing is in the wild. Simply observing the effects upon our fishes caused by environmental changes, etc. is useful.

So, we're largely limited to making sort of superficial observations about how a given botanical can color the water a certain tone, or what not. In the case of catappa leaves, for example, we can at least infer that there are some substances ( flavonoids, like kaempferol and quercetin, a number of tannins, like punicalin and punicalagin, as well as a suite of saponins and phytosterols) imparted into the water from the leaves which do have scientifically documented affects of fish health and vitality. 

When we first started Tannin, I came up with the term "habitat enrichment" to describe the utility of various botanicals in the aquarium. I mused on the idea a lot. Now, I freely admit that this term is as much a form of "marketing hyperbole" as it is a useful description, but the idea sort of resonates, when we think of the aquarium as an analog for the wild aquatic habitats, and how the surrounding environment- the terroir- impacts the aquatic environment, right?

We hear the interesting stories from fellow hobbyists about the dramatic color changes, the positive behavioral changes, and those "spontaneous" spawning which seem to occur after a few weeks of utilizing various botanicals in the aquarium which formerly did not have them. Sure, a good number of these interesting events could likely be written off as coincidences- but when it happens over and over and over again in this context, I think it at least bares some consideration! 

We're slowly figuring this stuff out.

Yeah, we’re artists. And this stuff is really as much of an “art” as it is a “science”, IMHO. There is so much we don’t know yet. Or, more specifically, so much we don’t know in the context of keeping fishes. We need to tie a few loose ends together to get a really good read on this stuff…until we get to the "Dial-a-River” additive approach.

But we're getting there...

And it all starts with understanding the impact of...the terroir, right?

Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay objective...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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