My Botanical Romance: Four Botanicals I just can't live without...

Let's face it- even after all of these years of playing with botanicals, there are some that I'm simply more in love with more than others. And of course, in the course of my hobby and my work, I see a lot of 'em. Yet, I keep migrating back to a select few favorites that find their way into my tanks again and again for some reason. And, you'll notice that they tend to end up in a lot of your "Enigma Packs" and our variety packs as well.

And everyone seems to ask me what my faves are- so why not share a few, right?

Now, I realize that pretty much any time I highlight a botanical in "The Tint", the accusation can be made that I am sort of "selling" stuff. Well, I can't fight that; even though the idea is to simply highlight stuff I like, they sort of "sell" themselves, lol. Each one has its own merits. It's own unique aesthetics and utility. I just sort of romance them, really.

The botanical-style aquarium movement in general is growing! It's quite exciting. And, judging by the "work" of a couple of the outright rip-off copycat botanical vendors ("Rant much, Scott?") who've cropped up lately (yes, I've been watching you trying to rip off our brand aesthetics, and even our descriptions/prep information-it's laughable...and in some cases, of dubious legality-be very careful), I realize that there is plenty of interest out there!  (Damn, did I just call out some poseurs? Yup. Yes I did. And you know who you are. And yeah, that was kind of ugly...). I mean, I love it..I just hate people who try to copy the way we do stuff. Be original.  There's room for individuality here. You're better than just copying us..I think.

Yeah, ugly side rant completed- back to the topic at hand! Here are a few of my personal faves that I hope will become some of yours!


Texas Live Oak Leaves- There is something amazing about these leaves. Now, I'll be the first to tell you that when our friend Cory Hopkins told me about 'em, I was shockingly indifferent. I mean, you see oak leaves of all sorts used in tanks worldwide, and they look like...oak leaves. Multi-lobed, large, pronged, crinkled...just not "tropical-looking", IMHO. Yeah, they look like- well, Oak leaves. And they suck. They look stupid in a tropical tank. I cringe when I see them in a tropical tank (sorry, being honest here)!

However, when I saw the ones Cory was raving about- ones he collects in his home state of Texas...I suddenly realized why these are so cool: They look decidedly "generic-tropical", are small in size, and produce copious amounts of tannins.

I believe the species we offer to be Quercus virginiana, known to botanists as - wait for it- the "Live Oak." And frankly, whatever you choose to call it, we find this to be one of the best leaves we've ever used in our blackwater, botanical-style aquariums- period- right on par with Catappa, Guava, and the like.

They're perfect to use alone or in conjunction with other smaller leaves. Great for nano tanks, or where you need to keep the "scale" small. We prep them by boiling them in water and letting them sit overnight...This generally sends them straight to the bottom. And, lest you be concerned about losing precious tannins through the boiling and soaking won't. These guys seem to put out nice tint-producing tannins for weeks and weeks. Oh, and they last for like months underwater!


Mangrove Leaves- Now, this is another one of those leaves that has been "MIA" I the hobby for as long as hobbyists have been using leaves in the aquarium. I'm not sure what we've not been using them for decades...The only reason I can imagine is that there has been a certain "concern" about them being from mangrove trees, which are typically found in brackish-water habitats, and fears abound that they will somehow leach salt out into your tank. (Oh, that and the fact that my overseas suppliers never gave 'em much though until I bothered the hell out of them about these leaves...)

Now, it is a fact that salt is exuded by some species of mangroves via the leaves. However, once the leaves are naturally fallen and dried, there is no detectable salt in them. And when you boil/soak them as recommended for pretty much any leaves, there is none whatsoever. I've experimented many times by simply throwing a bunch of mangrove leaves into a jar of RO/DI water, letting them soak for a few days, and checking the specific gravity with a digital refractometer. The number 1.000 keeps coming up...pure fresh water. So leave those worries at the door, folks. You won't "taint" your soft, acidic blackwater tanks with salt by using these leaves in your litter bed.

And one of the really cool things about these leaves (besides their look, tannin-producing capabilities, and invigorating scent) is that they break down moderately fast, and are utilized by a surprisingly large number of organisms, like snails, crabs, shrimp, fishes as a supplemental "grazing substrate" and direct feed. They make an amazing botanical "mulch" when decomposed, too! One of the things that makes mangrove habitats so productive is the utilization of mangrove leaf litter by the resident flora and fauna. It's the same in the aquarium. They are superb for fresh and (of course) brackish tanks...and I believe the marine aquarium, as well. We will see more of them in marine tanks in the near future, I promise! 


Fishtail Palm Stems- Well, let's just face it...the idea of using anything palm-derived in a tropical aquarium is just cool, IMHO! Palms are found in pretty much every tropical habitat which we care to replicate in the aquarium, making parts of them remarkably appropriate as an aquascaping "prop!" This interesting little "stems" are actually the inflorescence of the Caryota mitis palm from Southeast Asia and India (where our suppliers collect them for us), and range from around 4" to 8" or so in length. Their delicate, almost "bonelike" appearance makes them perfect as little accent botanicals in your aquarium. 

Like just about anything from a dried terrestrial plant that you toss into water, there might be a slight leaching of a tiny amount of tannins from these. More likely, however, the primary benefit of them is their aesthetics. They look cool. And when they decompose over time under water, they sort of crumble away, and just look pretty cool in the substrate. Although found in Southeast Asia and India, these unique botanicals are a perfect generic "stand in" for pretty much any tropical palm you might encounter, so utilizing them in a botanical-style aquarium is a "no-brainer", IMHO.

From a preparation standpoint, a few minutes of boiling and maybe an extended soak should be enough to send them straight to the bottom, where they provide a very interesting aesthetic and are a perfect compliment to leaves and other botanicals for a great overall look on your substrate!


Catappa Bark- It's almost impossible for me to discuss botanicals without mentioning catappa bark. I LOVE this stuff! If you've been following the goings-on here at Tannin Aquatics over the last few years, you've seen us consistently offer a variety of bark and bark-related products. Part of the reason (besides the desire to offer you the widest selection of natural materials for botanical-style, blackwater aquariums) is because we feel that bark is an excellent vehicle for imparting tint-producing tannins (and their associated humic substances) into your aquarium water.

As a source of tannins, bark is significant. Tannins are naturally occurring plant polyphenols, and are ubiquitous in trees worldwide, in the leaves, roots, branches, and of course, the bark. Bark functions as a protective barrier for trees, and it provides a thick, waterproof covering to the living inner tissue. It protects the trunk against the elements, disease, animal attack and fire. Tannin is typically concentrated in the inner bark (known as the "cambium layer") of trees. According to botanists, older trees have bark which contains  more tannins than a younger tree, and, consequently, the lower parts of a tree contain a higher concentration than the top parts.

Bark not only is functional, but it provides a very cool aesthetic touch that really represents nature in a realistic way. As we've talked about endlessly here over the years, branches, logs, and (by extension) tree bark and such combine with leaves and seed pods in natural waterways of the world, providing shelter, supplemental food, and environmental enrichment for fishes...and they do the same in the aquarium!

If you're looking for a real "hack" for blackwater tanks- and there are scant few in this game- using pieces of catappa bark in your 'scape provides just that. A really cool-looking "prop" and a functional botanical that can help tint the water and impart lots of tannins and humic substances in the process. A simple "boil/soak" as outlined in our ever-evolving "Aquatic Botanical Preparation" section is the way to go here!

Well, that's a little summary of four of my fave botanicals. And the nice thing about botanicals in general, is that they don't last forever. Ultimately, after some period of time, most of the leaves, seed pods, and other botanical materials we use will be reduced to little bits and pieces. You can either remove them from your tank (if you find them unsightly), or leave them in place to completely break down (we do). It's your call. 

And then, you can try different ones! And maybe, just maybe...find some NEW faves of your own!

I hope that you do.

In the mean time...

Stay inspired. Stay adventurous. Stay creative. Stay original (who's THAT targeted to?). Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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