The aesthetic "primer" revisited...

I'll be the first to admit- the aesthetics of a botanical-style aquarium are just fundamentally different than what we've come to expect from other types of aquariums we play with in the hobby. And this often comes up when it's time to share our work with others!

Periodically, we do photography on the tanks here in the office, and I'm fortunate enough to have the incredibly talented Johnny Ciotti practice his craft. Typically, a day or two before he comes to do the pics, Johnny will call me and tell me stuff like, "Remember to clean the waterline..."

And of course, that's where I start getting stressed, lol.

Have you ever noticed that our botanical style aquariums, with all of their leaves and seed pods and such, when they break down, seem to leave behind a sort of "protein film" on the water's surface.

I almost always see this stuff in my you? And I suck at removing the stuff...And when I apologize for Johnny having to do one more "wipe down" of the waterline before he photographs my tanks, he'll often joke that, "No one in the aquascaping world ever accused your tanks of being too clean-looking..."

And I have to laugh when he says that, because it's once again, a matter of perception, right?

Now, it's typical of the "visuals" and aestheics that I have come to expect from botanical style aquariums. And of course, it's just one of them..there are quite a few, really. 

Here are a few:

Biofilms will accumulate on "undefended" surfaces (ie; leaves, seed pods, bark, etc.).  We know this from years and years of working with this stuff, right? Particularly when terrestrial materials are submerged in water, they tend to be very attractive "attachment points" for bacterial growth and the "construction" of biofilms. The appearance and proliferation of biofilms are almost a "right of passage" to botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts.

They look awful to those who are not accustomed to seeing them in aquariums. I get it- they are sort of "contrary" to everything we take as "normal" in aquarium keeping. They look like shit to many hobbyists, but they are absolutely natural and normal. When you make that mental shift which understands that biofilms are a key part of the habitat, and perform a vital role in the sequestering and processing of nutrients in Nature, providing supplementary food for other organisms, and contributing to the formation of food webs, they become desirable, elegant...perhaps- maybe...beautiful?

Decomposition of botanicals is another absolute "given" for botanical-style aquariums, right? Pretty much the minute that you add botanical materials to water, they start to physically disintegrate; the speed and extent to which each breaks down influenced by numerous factors, such as the specific "structure" of the botanical itself, the water chemistry, temperature, and other physical influences, such as water movement, the presence of xylophores, or fishes which disturb or "graze" on the botanicals.

There is a difference between "color" and "clarity." The color of the water in botanical-style aquariums is, as you know, a product of tannins leaching into the water from wood, substrate materials, and botanicals, and typically is not "cloudy." It's actually one of the most natural-looking water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye.

Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, but these factors have no bearing on the visual clarity of the water.

I'm gonna "riff" on this a bit, because it's both "foundational" to our work, and often misunderstood...

And of course, I won't disagree that "clear" water is nice. I like it, too...However, I would make the case that "crystal clear" water is: a) not always solely indicative of "healthy" or "optimum" , and b) not always what fishes encounter in Nature.

The point is, we as fish geeks seem to associate color in water with overall "cleanliness", or clarity. The reality is, in many cases, that the color and clarity of the water can be indicative of some sort of "issue" in many aquariums, but color seems to draw an immediate "There is something wrong!" from the uninitiated!

And it's kind of funny- if you talk to ecologists familiar with blackwater habitats, they are often considered some of the most "impoverished" waters around, at least from a mineral and nutrient standpoint.

In the context of the aquarium, of course, the general hobby at large doesn't think about "impoverished." Many just see colored water and think..."dirty." 

And of course, this is where we need to separate two factors:

Cloudiness and "color" are generally separate issues for most hobbyists, but they both seem to cause concern. Cloudiness, in particular, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium. And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:

1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).

2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).

3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).

4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.

Remember, just because the water in a botanical-influenced aquarium system is brownish, it doesn't mean that it's of low quality, or "dirty", as we're inclined to say. It simply means that tannins, humic acids, and other substances are leaching into the water, creating a characteristic color that some of us geeks find rather attractive. If you're still concerned, monitor the water quality...perform a nitrate test; look at the health of your animals.

What's happening in there?

People ask me a lot if botanicals can create "cloudy water" in their aquariums, and I have to give the responsible answer- yes. Of course they can! If you place a large quantity of just about anything that can decompose in water, the potential for cloudy water caused by fine particulate matter from the materials, and a bloom of bacteria resulting from their presence exists.

In my home aquariums, and in many of the really great natural-looking blackwater aquariums I see the water is dark, almost turbid or "soupy" as one of my fellow blackwater/botanical-style aquarium geeks refers to it. You might see the faintest hint of "stuff" in the water...perhaps a bit of fines from leaves breaking down, some dislodged biofilms, pieces of leaves, etc. Just like in nature. Chemically, it has undetectable nitrate and phosphate..."clean" by aquarium standards.

Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?

"Turbidity." Sounds like something we want to avoid, right? Sounds "dangerous" somehow...

On the other hand, "turbidity", as it's typically defined, leaves open the possibility that it's not a negative thing:

 "...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air..."  

What am I getting at?


Well, think about a body of water like an igapo adjacent to the Rio Negro, as pictured above in the photo by Mike Tuccinardi. This water is of course, "tinted" because of the dissolved tannins and humic substances that are present due to decaying botanical materials.  And it's also a bit "turbid" because of the fine particulate matter from these materials, too.

I would argue that these conditions are not "unhealthy" to fishes, right?

Okay, we've beaten the living shit out of that, haven't we?


The substrates that we utilize influence both the aquarium's appearance and its chemistry. This is, of course, essentially what happens in Nature. In the flooded forests of South America and elsewhere terrestrial materials, such as botanicals, roots, branches, leaves, and soil play a role in shaping the aquatic ecosystem which arises following the seasonal inundation.

The mix of materials which comprise these unique habitats has definitely been an inspiration for me to create quite a few different aquariums over the years! There is so much we can learn from studying these systems that we can apply in our hobby work!

To show you how geeky I am about this stuff, I have spent hours pouring over pics and video screen shots of some of these igapo habitats over the years, and literally counted the number of leaves versus other botanical items in the shots, to get a sort of  leaf to botanical "ratio" that is common in these systems. Although different areas would obviously vary, based on the pics I've "analyzed", it works out to about 70% leaves to 30% "other botanical items." 

The trees-or their parts- literally bring new life to the waters. Some are present when the waters begin rising. Others continue to arrive after the area is flooded, falling off of forests trees or tumbling down from the "banks" of the stream by wind or rain. Terrestrial trees also play a role in removing, utilizing, and returning nutrients to the aquatic habitat. They remove some nutrient from the submerged soils, and return some in the form of leaf drop. They become part of the "active substrate" in our aquariums.

And of course, there's the soils...

Now, I think one of the most "liberating" things we've seen in the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium niche is our practice of utilizing the substrate itself to become a feature aesthetic point in our aquariums, as well as a functional mechanism for the inhabitants.

 In other words, in a strictly aesthetic sense, the bottom itself becomes a big part of the aesthetic focus of the aquarium, with the botanicals placed upon the substrate- or, in some cases, becoming the substrate! These materials form an attractive, texturally varied "micro-scape" of their own, creating color, interest, and functions that we are just starting to appreciate. In fact, I dare say that one of the next "frontiers" in our niche would be an aquarium which is just substrate materials, without any "vertical relief" provide by wood or rocks.

I've executed a few aquariums based on this idea (specifically, with leaves), and I've been extremely happy with their long-term performance! Oh, and they kind of looked cool, too...

Nature provides no shortage of habitats with unusual substrate composition for inspiration. If we look at them in context of the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, there are a lot of possible "functional takeaways" that we as hobbyists can apply to our aquarium work.

And the interesting thing about these features, from an aesthetic standpoint, is that they create an incredibly alluring look with a minimum of "design" required on the hobbyists part. Remember, you can to put together a substrate with a perfect aesthetic mix of colors and textures, but that's about it.

We have to "cede" some of the "work" to nature at that point!

And we've talked about the idea not only of creating more "functionally aesthetic" substrates, but the idea of incorporating botanicals into them, as well. One of our favorite "edits" is to include a significant amount of leaf litter into the substrate, as you'd find in the sedimented, leaf-litter-rich, and silt-laden substrates of wild tropical environments.

How would you replicate the form and function in the aquarium? We accomplish this with either the small, yet durable Texas Live Oak leaf litter, or with our "Mixed Leaf Media" product, which is essentially a graded mix of crushed Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, and Bamboo leaves. When steeped or boiled, the stuff goes right to the bottom, and is easily mixed into the substrate material that you're using in your system.

The result, when well mixed in, is a composition which looks and functions much like a real tropical stream or flooded forest floor substrate. The idea that not only will you create an interesting appearing substrate, you'll end upon with one which can impart tannins and humid substances, while serving as a biological support for the production of biofilms and fungal growth.

Functionally aesthetic.

Our original mission at Tannin was to share our passion for the reality of "unedited" Nature, in all of its murky, brown, algae-patina-enhanced glory. And I started to realize that a while back, we were starting to fall dangerously into that noisy, (IMHO) absurd, mainstream aquascaping world. Pressing our dirty faces against the pristine glass, we were sort of outsiders looking in...the awkward, different new kid on the block, wanting to play with the others.

Then, the realization hit that we never really wanted to play like that. It's not who we are.

We are not going to play there.

We're going to "double down" in our dirty, tinted, turbid, decomposing, inspired-by Nature world. Sure, our materials can and should be utilized by all sorts of hobbyists for all sorts of applications. However, if you were worried about your favorite little quirky supplier of twigs and nuts becoming yet another "player" in the world of homogenized, prepackaged, generic blah, let me assure you now that it will not be happening.


We're all-in on the "preservation of the patina." Biofilms. Detritus. Decomposing leaves... Letting Nature do her thing and not "sanitizing it."

So, it's of utmost import that we periodically publish some "position pieces" about expectations, processes, practices, and ideas. And it's also vital for us to share our ideas, experiences, and inspirations.

Thanks for being a part of this exciting, ever-evolving world!

Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay studious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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