Not my cup of tea...But it might be yours.

One of the weird (but cool) things about being in the natural, botanical-style aquarium game is that you are frequently exposed to a lot of interesting information shared by hobbyists and vendors worldwide. Every once in a while, I'll have a friend  contact me about something that I'm "missing out on" or some new "thing" that will  "change the game" and provide an "existential threat" to Tannin Aquatics. I certainly appreciate that, but it's okay.

And of course, I DO take note and check out the "thing" and see what it's all about. And, to be honest, 9 times out of 10, it's usually a forum discussion about people collecting their own botanicals (which I've encouraged from day one of our existence and still do...), or using some "extract" or "solution" to create "blackwater" easily as an alternative to leaves or what not.

Of course, these "extracts" almost always tend to be things we've done for a generation or two in the hobby, and are no better-or worse- than the idea of tossing leaves and botanicals in the aquarium, in terms of what they appear to do on the surface.

And it almost always seems to me that these "solutions" are simply an alternative of sorts; generally one which requires less effort or process to get some desired result. Of course, they also play into one of the great hobby "truisms" of the 21st century:

Like, waiting for stuff. We love "hacks" and shortcuts. We're impatient.

Impatience is, I suppose, part of being human, but in the aquarium hobby, it occasionally drives us to do things that, although are probably no big deal- can become a sort of "barometer" for other things which might be of questionable value or risk. ("Well, nothing bad happened when I did THAT, so...") Or, they can cumulatively become a "big deal", to the detriment of our tanks. Others are simply alternatives, and are no better or worse than what we're doing with botanicals, at least upon initial investigation. 

Now, for a lot of reasons, I f---ing hate most "hacks" that we use. 

To many, "hacking"  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 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.

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

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

Bad idea, if you ask me.

Of course, there are some hacks, like the one we're about to discuss, which aren't necessarily "bad" or harmful- just different. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing them. Yet, they deny us some pleasures and opportunities to learn more about the way Nature works. And we can't fool ourselves into believing that they are some panacea, either.

The one that seems to come up at least a few times a year in discussion, and is often preferred to me as rendering the botanical-style aquarium "obsolete" is the use of...tea.

If you haven't heard of it before, there is this stuff called Rooibos tea, which, in addition to bing kind of tasty, has been a favored "tint hack" of many hobbyists for years. Without getting into all of the boring details, Rooibos tea is derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, also known as "Red Bush" in South Africa and other parts of the world. 

(Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis.  Image by R.Dahlgr- used under CC-BY S.A. 2.5)

It's been used by fish people for a long time as a sort of instant "blackwater extract", and has a lot going for it for this purpose, I suppose. Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, and and has low levels of tannin compared to black or green tea. And, like catappa leaves and other botnaicals, it contains polyphenols, like flavones, flavanols, aspalathin, etc. 

Hobbyists will simply steep it in their aquariums and get the color that they want, and impart some of these substances into their tank water. I mean, it's an easy process. Of course, like any other thing you add to your aquarium, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding. 

Like using botanicals, utilizing tea bags in your aquarium requires some thinking, that's all. 

The things that I personally dislike about using tea or so-called "blackwater extracts" are that you are simply going for an effect, without getting to embrace the functional aesthetics imparted by adding leaves, seed pods, etc. to your aquarium as part of its physical structure, and that there is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______.

Obviously, the same could be said of botanicals, but we're not utilizing botanicals simply to create brown water or specific pH parameters, etc.

Yet, with tea or extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little slice of Nature in your aquarium. And of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, I suppose. And I understand that some people, like fish breeders who need bare bottom tanks or whatever- like to condition water without all of the leaves and twigs and nuts we love.

On the other hand, if you're trying to replicate the look and function (and maybe some of the parameters) of THIS:

You won't achieve it by using THIS:

It's simply a shortcut.

And look, I understand that we are all looking for the occasional shortcuts and easier ways to do stuff. And I realize that none of what we proffer here at Tannin is a n absolute science. It's an art at this point. There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are hundreds) in aquariums.  I have not found a study thus far which analyzed wild habitats (say, Amazonia) for tannin concentrations and specific types, so we have no real model to go on.

The best we can do is create a reasonable facsimile of Nature.

We have to understand that there are limitations to the impacts of botanicals, tea, wood, etc. on water chemistry. Adding liter upon liter of "extract" to your aquarium will have minimal pH impact if your water is super hard. When you're serious about trying to create more natural blackwater conditions, you really need an RO/DI unit to achieve "base water" with no carbonate hardness that's more "malleable" to environmental manipulation. Tea, twigs, leaves- none will do much unless you understand that.

I'm not trying to throw a wet blanket on any ideas we might have. I'm not feeling particularly defensive about using tea or other "extracts" because I sell botanical materials for a living. It's sort of apples and oranges, really.

And hey, the whole idea of utilizing concentrated extracts of stuff is something I've looked on with caution for a long time, and we've discussed here before. I'm an "equal opportunity critic"- I'll jump on our community for stuff we do, too! 🤬

One of the things that I have an issue with in our little hobby sector is the desire by many "tinters" to make use of the water in which the initial preparation of our botanicals takes place in as a form of "blackwater tea" or "blackwater extract."

Now, while on the surface, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the idea, I think that in our case, we need to consider exactly why we boil/soak our botanicals before using them in the aquarium to begin with. 

I discard the "tea" that results from the initial preparation of botanicals- and I recommend that you do, too.

Here's why:

As I have mentioned many times before, the purpose of the initial "boil and soak" is to release some of the pollutants (dust, dirt, etc.) bound up in the outer tissues of the botanicals. It's also to "soften" the leaves/botanicals that you're using to help them absorb water and sink more easily. As a result, a lot of organic materials, in addition tannins and humic substances are released.

So, why would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a "blackwater extract?" And (dredging top a similar question asked above) how much do you need? I mean, what is the "concentration" of desirable materials in the tea relative to the water? I mean, it's not an easy, quick, clean thing to figure, right?

There is so much we don't know. 

A lot of hobbyists tell me they are concerned about "wasting" the concentrated tannins from the prep water. Trust me, the leaves and botanicals will continue to release the tannins and humic substances (with much less pollutants!) throughout their "useful lifetimes" when submerged, so you need not worry about discarding the initial water that they were prepared in.

It's kind analogous to adding the "skimmate" (the nasty concentrated organics removed by your protein skimmer via foam fractionation in your marine aquarium) back into your aquarium because you don't want to lose the tiny amount of valuable salt or some trace elements that are removed via this process.

Is it worth polluting your aquarium for this?

I certainly don't think so! 

Do a lot of hobbyists do this and get away with this? Sure. Am I being overly conservative? No doubt. In Nature, don't leaves, wood, and seed pods just fall into the water? Of course.

However, in most cases, nature has the benefit of dissolution from thousands of gallons/litres of water, right? It's an open system, for the most part, with important and export processes far superior and efficient to anything we can hope to do in the confines of our aquariums! 

Okay, I think I beat that horse up pretty good!

If you want to use the water from the "secondary soak", I'd feel a lot better about that..The bulk of the surface pollutants will have been released at that point. Better yet is the process of adding some (prepared) leaves/botanicals to the containers holding the makeup water that you use in your water exchanges. The materials will steep over time, adding tannins and humic substances to the water.

How much to use?

Well, that's the million dollar question.

Who knows?

It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best. 

You need to kind of go with your instinct. Go slowly. Evaluate the appearance of your water, the behaviors of the fishes...the pH, alkalinity, TDS, nitrate, phosphate, or other parameters that you like to test for. It's really a matter of experimentation.

I'm a much bigger fan of "tinting" the water based on the materials in the aquarium. The botanicals will release their "contents" at a pace dictated by their environment. And, when they're "in situ", you have a sort of "on board" continuous release of tannins and mic substances based upon the decomposition rate of the materials you're using, the water chemistry, etc.

Of course, you can still add too many, too fast, as we've mentioned numerous times. It's all about developing your own practices based on what works for you.. In other words, incorporating them in your tank and evaluating their impact on your specific situation. It's hardly an exact science. Much more of an "art" or "best guess" thing than a least right now.

That being said, I think that our entire botanical-style aquarium approach needs to be viewed as just that- an approach. A way to use a set of materials, techniques, and concepts to achieve desired results consistently over time. A way that tends to eschew short-term "fixes" in favor of long-term technique.

In my opinion, this type of "short-term, instant-result" mindset has made the reef aquarium hobby of late more about adding that extra piece of gear or specialized chemical additive as means to get some quick, short term result than it is a way of taking an approach that embraces learning about the entire ecosystem we are trying to recreate in our tanks and facilitating long-term success.

Yeah, once again- the "problem" with Rooibos or blackwater extracts as I see it is that they encourage a "Hey, my water is getting more clear, time to add another tea bag or a teaspoon of extract..." mindset, instead of fostering a mindset that looks at what the best way to achieve and maintain the desired results naturally on a continuous basis is. A sort of symbolic manifestation of encouraging a short-term fix to a long-term concern.

Again, there is no "right or wrong" in this context- it's just that we need to ask ourselves why we are utilizing these products, and to ask ourselves how they fit into the "big picture" of what we're trying to accomplish. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that you simply add a drop of something- or even throw in some Alder Cones or Catappa leaves- and that will solve all of our problems. Are we fixated on aesthetics, or are we considering the long-term impacts on our closed system environments?

Sure, I can feel cynicism towards my mindset here. I understand that.

However, if we look at the use of extracts and additives, and additional botanicals- for that matter- as part of a "holistic approach" to achieving continuous and consistent results in our aquariums, that's a different story altogether. 

It makes a lot more sense to learn a bit more about how natural materials influence the wild blackwater habitats of the world, and to understand that they are being replenished on a more or less continuous basis, then considering how best to replicate this in our aquariums consistently and safely.

So, enjoy your tea. Prep your botanicals. Replace your leaves. Observe, study, inquire. Read. Share.

Remember, it's a hobby. A marathon, not a sprint. And to truly understand what goes on in Nature, it's never a bad idea to replicate Nature to the best extent possible- even if it's not a "hack" sometimes.

Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

June 29, 2019

Hi Florian,

Interesting, right?

Hard to say what the situation might be, and it might not be as “nefarious” as pollutants or other not-so-desireable organics in the “tea”, but it IS essentially a concentrated solution of everything. I suppose the argument could be made that simply adding botanicals to the tank is just as much of a “shotgun approach”, but at least it’s a natural release, based on the decomposition rate of the materials you’ve added- versus adding some concentrated solution of stuff.

And the commercial additives seem to me to be almost as much of a “shotgun approach”, really. I mean, they advise “x” per gallon/liter, but how was this arrived at. What concentration of WHAT are you adding with this stuff? Is it a pure distillation of just the desirable humid substances and tannins from leaves or whatever- and which ones of the literally thousands of these compounds are in the solution? And at what concentration? IS it the same from batch to batch, or…?

See? So many variables that when we try to add a “concentrate” or “extract”, it’s even more vague. Trying to “dose” based on what, exactly, lol?

Urrghh…I mean, most of these products are probably fine, but it’s funny to see us try to “systemize” something that is so vague and really not well defined to begin with. That’s why, in the end, I like simply adding the botanicals themselves to your tank. At least they’re easy to remove should problems arise…

Anyways, so much to learn. Keep searching for answers!



June 28, 2019

Interesting, especially the part about pollutants in the “blackwater tea”.

I’ve been cooking up almond leaves and beech cones ever since I’ve set up my first blackwater tank months ago, but recently got the impression that my green neons don’t actually appreciate it that much. After a water change, I had no “tea” ready, and in they seemed more active and less timid, which reversed when I added some a day later. Not a valid scientific experiment and might very well be a coincidence …

Makes absolute sense that these botanicals do not only contain tannins, but a whole lot of other stuff. And I’m basically creating a very concentrated brew of all of it and then I pour that into my tank, maybe not such a good idea.

Sometimes one doesn’t question such things much, because “everyone does it that way” or “website Xy says that’s how it’s done”, and sometimes it’s also hard to let go of habits.

Anyhow, I’ll stop adding any “concentrated” tannins, be it homemade or product, to the tank for a while, add more leaves directly, and see how that goes.

Thanks for all your interesting posts Scott!

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