Out of the woods...

Okay, so I admit, I'm no expert on the use of wood in aquariums. At least, I'm no expert on what's "hot", and what the sexiest way to arrange it is.

However, as you know- I'm pretty opinionated on stuff, and I'm happy to share my thoughts, despite the peril they occasionally place me in!

My philosophy on what wood type to utilize in your aquarium is, as you might expect from me- a combination of personal aesthetic tastes and functional attributes of a given specimen.

Yeah, I think it starts out with the most simple question: What type of wood appeals to you? Sure, you can address this angle by asking yourself what type of habitat or ecological niche you're trying to recreate in your tank, and what "configuration" would be most appropriate to do the job? That's kind of my starting place. 

Example?

Well, let's say you're trying to recreate the look of a tree stump or fallen tree section. You'd likely want to select a piece or pieces of wood that are thicker, "heavier-looking", and larger in size and stature to recreate such a feature. If you're trying to recreate the land/water interface of a flooded forest, and want to represent roots, then you'd likely select specimens of wood which are thinner, perhaps more twisted and gnarled in shape. 

Okay, time for a little detour into a rant!

Ironically, our hobby's most popular wood type- Manzanita, is- in my opinion, probably the least "realistic" wood you can use, in terms of how it looks/works when placed in an aquarium to represent a natural scene. (I have to say it...I really hate Manzanita. IMHO, the way most people employ it, Manzanita rarely looks like something you'd see underwater in Nature..I know, bring on the hate mail 🤬)

Seriously.

Maybe it's the way we place the stuff. I mean, we typically place the piece of wood on it's side, surround it with rocks and plants, and that's that. So, it's cool...but does it represent how a piece of wood would typically look/occur in a wide flooded forest, steam, or lake? 

Maybe that's it.

I'm sure plenty of people with talent do incredible stuff with Manzanita. Maybe I am just not a big fan of the stuff anymore.

Yeah, THAT'S it.

Micro hate rant over.

So, back to wood in general.

There's a fair amount of misconceptions and misinformation out there about what can work and what is not safe, etc. 

And a lot of misunderstanding about where and how wood in the aquarium fits into the whole "equation" of creating a functionally aesthetic aquarium habitat...

At the risk of adding to the confusion, I'll try to clear up some stuff here.

Believe it or not, if properly prepared, almost (I say…ALMOST- don't go overboard, here) any type of dried wood can be utilized in aquariums. The important thing is that the wood must be…well, DRY! It can’t be “live”, or have any "greenwood" or sap present, as these may have toxic affects on fishes when submerged. And it can't be of a variety know to be toxic to fishes or other animals. That's pretty obvious, right?

So...sap.

Sap can be toxic to fishes, even when dry, so if you see a piece of wood- even dry- that’s displaying some sap- it might be a good idea to remove the section where the sap is coming from, or to simply take a pass. And avoid wood with lots of sap, or that is known to contain stuff like that (Like, pine- which is a non-starter, right?)

In general, when it comes to wood, in our experience, it’s a better idea to purchase/collect your wood from sources known to offer “aquarium safe” wood, and not worry about suitability, toxic concerns, etc.

 

"Driftwood" is a nome de guerre I the hobby; a sort of a generic term for wood that has been dried over time, generally free of bark, (which, other than containing tannins and polyphenols, that are largely non-toxic in reasonable concentrations- is not that problematic, actually) and "greenwood" as outlined above. In most trees, the real chemically active substances are found in the leaves, live “greenwood”, and the sap.

So, a dry, largely bark-stripped piece of wood, free from sap, dried or otherwise, is generally pretty good to go, and is relatively stable and neutral.

Now, a lot of people ask me how we arrive at the selection of wood that we do, and why we don't offer certain types, yet offer others...

When it comes to the types of wood we offer, it's pretty straightforward. 

I select stuff that I think is cool.

You might fucking hate everything I offer.  I understand. And that's okay, because there are plenty of vendors out there who offer everything you could want, wood-wise. I just offer stuff I think would work with the kinds of aquariums we play with.

It seems to me that, on any given day, such-and-such a wood type is the "IT" variety, and everyone wants it. Some guy does a tank with this scraggly shit emerging from the water, posts a few sexy pics on his Instagram feed, and the next thing you know...trend. Everyone wants it. Now.

As someone who offers natural aquascaping materials for use in specialized aquariums, I long ago realized that I needed to stop chasing every hot type of wood that shows up on the market. I am generally clueless on "what's hot" in the aquascaping wood world, nor do I really care, to be perfectly honest.

"Scott, that's not very customer-centric. You claim to be so consumer focused, but it sounds like you couldn't care less what the market wants when it comes to wood!"

Yeah, confession. You're correct.

Because I'd go crazy trying to chase after all the "trendy" stuff all the time...And I'd be selling myself out offering stuff that I wouldn't want to use in my own tanks.

We'll continue to offer types of wood that we enjoy using in our own 'scapes. Some will just happen to be ones that are popular and relatively common- or even "trendy" at the moment. Some will be types which fell out of favor with the mainstream 'scaping world. Some will be obscure, niche-specific stuff. We will constantly introduce new varieties as we encounter them.

The majority, however, will simply be stuff that we think works.

That answers that, I hope?

Of course, that also means I'm really the last guy who should be discussing what wood to use in your aquascapes. Why am I talking about this topic at all? Well, there are plenty of vendors who write "authoritative" articles on botanicals who are more clueless than I am about wood, so...

(ohh, had your coffee today, Fellman?)

Let's lighten this up a bit. 

Instead, lets have a brief discussion on what happens at that magical moment when we place wood in water...

 

It starts by considering the source of the wood.

Well, shit- it comes from (wait for it...) trees.

BOOM! Minds blown, I know!

For the sake of this discussion, let's just assume that you're working with wood that's been properly collected and is suitable for aquarium use.

When you first submerge wood, a lot of the dirt from the atmosphere and surrounding environment comes off, along with tannins, lignin, and all sorts of other "stuff" from the exterior surfaces and all of those nooks and crannies that we love so much. And a piece of wood initially emersed in water typically floats, much to our chagrin, right?

And of course, there are the tannins.

Now, I don't know about you, but I'm always amused (it's not that hard, actually) by the frantic posts on aquarium forums from hobbyists that their water is turning brown after adding a piece of driftwood. I mean- what's the big deal?

Oh, yeah, not everyone likes it...I forgot. 😂

The reality, as you probably have surmised, is that driftwood will continue to leach tannins pretty much for as long as it's submerged. As a "tinter", I see this as a great advantage in helping establish and maintain the blackwater look, and to impart the humic substances that are known to have health benefits for fishes.

Some wood types, like Mangrove, tend to release more tannins than others over long periods of time. Other types, like "Spider Wood", will release their tannins relatively quickly, in a big burst. Some, such as mangrove wood, seem to be really "dirty", and release a lot of materials over long periods of time.

And it's a unique aesthetic, too, as we rant on and on about here!

What I'm more concerned about are the impurities- the trapped dirt and such contained within the wood. As you probably know, that's also why I'm a staunch advocate of the overly conservative "boil and soak approach" to the preparation of botanicals as well. A lot of material gets bound up in the dermal layer of the tree where the wood comes from. Atmospheric dust, pollutants, bird droppings, insects, etc.  None of this is stuff you want in your tank, right?

Generally, no. I suppose, however,  some could take the view that this stuff is "fuel" for microorganism growth and run with it.

What other sort of stuff is in wood?

The bulk of the dry mass of the xylem (the "network" within the tree which transports water and soluble mineral nutrients from the roots throughout the plant, and comprises what we know as "wood.") is cellulose, a polysaccharide, and most of the remainder is lignin,  which is a sort of complex polymer. 

Why the botany lesson?

Well, because when you have some idea of what you're putting into your tank, you'll better understand why it behaves the way it does when submerged! In a given piece of driftwood, there is going to be some material bound up in these structures, and it will be released (gradually or otherwise) into the water that surrounds it, with a big "burst" happening on initial submersion. This is why, during the first couple of weeks after you submerge wood, that the water often becomes dark- and even cloudy.

There is a lot of "stuff" in there!

It's far better, in my opinion, for most hobbyists to take the time to start the "curing" process in a separate container apart from the display aquarium. This is not rocket science, nor some wisdom only the enlightened aquarists attain.

We all know this, right?

It's common sense, and a practice we all need to simply view as necessary with terrestrial materials like wood and botanicals. You may love the tannins as much as I do, but I'm confident that your tank could do without those polyscaccharides and other impurities from the outer layers of the wood. The potential affects on water quality are significant!

It's pretty plain to see that at least part of the reason we see a burst of new algae growth and biofilm in wood recently added to an aquarium is that there is so much stuff bound up in it. That "stuff" is essentially "algae fuel" when added to water. Algal and fungal sports can literally "bloom" during the initial period after submersion, and this alone is great reason to take the long, slow approach to wood prep.

Interestingly, the same "process" of "curing" happens naturally when tree trunks and branches fall into wild aquatic habitats.

It's not necessarily a "quick" process in Nature, either. So, we need not feel too bad about playing a "waiting game" when it comes to curing wood for aquariums

Could you boil wood and speed up the process?

Well, sure- if you have a cauldron or something large enough. SO, most of us just soak.

And we've talked about "in situ" curing of wood. You CAN do that. Absolutely, as we've discussed. I've done this a lot. However, it means a large amount of stuff being released into the water. It means levels of possible impurities that would demand significant water exchanges and aggressive use of chemical filtration...and there is NO way you'd want to add fishes for some time.

So, yeah- If you're patient, understand the need to maintain water quality, and can handle just looking at an empty tank with wood and botanicals in it...Have at it. 

Suffice it to say, that wood, when being submerged in an aquarium, will likely leach tannins into the water. It'll make the water dark...So, you "know the drill"- use activated carbon in quantity if you don't want this tint in your aquarium. 

And biofilms and fungi, which we've written about dozens of times in this very blog- will likely make their appearance at some point. We've talked ad nauseam how to deal with this stuff...

Yeah...that's like a whole different discussion we could have.

Bottom line here?

Choose the wood you like, which you feel best represents the habitat that you're trying to recreate. Understand that it will require preparation (soaking, etc.) before its really "set for use"- and that ideally, this should occur in a operate container instead of the aquarium it's ultimately destined for. Realize tannins and biofilms happen. While most wood types have their own "behavior" in the water, they all are comprised of the same substances, so there are generalities that make one type as good as any other. 

Be creative with how you use wood.

Combine it with other materials- or blend different wood types. Be original.

Kick some aquascaping ass.

Rant over.

Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

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