The beauty of the ephemeral...

One concept about botanical-style aquariums that I can't seem to bring up enough is the idea that many of the habitats we like to represent in our tanks- and the materials which we utilize to 'scape them, are ephemeral. In other words, they are not permanent features, breaking down and decomposing following long-term submersion.

I find the ephemeral alluring. 

Leaves, of course, are the ultimate statement of Nature's ephemeral character. Things always change. Nothing lasts forever- at least, not in its original form. Leaves begin to break down and impart organic materials, ranging from tannins to humid substances- even sugars- to the water.

One interesting observation I’ve made over the years concerning adding leaves to the aquarium and letting them decay: Dead, dried leaves such as those we favor don’t have nearly the impact on water quality, in terms of nitrate, as fresh leaves would. I’ve routinely seen undetectable nitrate levels in aquariums loaded with botanicals. This is largely because dead, dried leaves have depleted the vast majority of stored sugars and other compounds which lead to the production of nitrogenous substances in the confines of the aquarium.

Hence, leaving leaves in to fully decay likely reaches a point when the detritus is essentially inert, consisting of the skeletonize sections of leaf tissue which can decay no further. Dead leaves contain largely inert forms of polysaccharides, and are reach in structures like lignin and cellulose. Oh, and doing regular water changes can’t hurt...😆

In the aquarium, much like in the natural habitat, the layer of decomposing leaves and botanical matter, colonized by so many organisms, ranging from bacteria to macro invertebrates and insects, is a prime spot for fishes! The most common fishes associated with leaf litter in the wild are species of characins, catfishes and electric knife fishes, followed by our buddies the Cichlids (particularly Apistogramma, Crenicichla,  and Mesonauta species)!

Some species of RIvulus killies are also commonly associated with leaf litter zones, even though they are primarily top-dwelling fishes.  Leaf litter beds are so important for fishes, as they become a refuge for fish providing shelter and food from associated invertebrates.

How often do you need to replace your leaves? Well, another great question for  which there is no "rule" involved. The reality is that you can simply add new leaves on a regular basis, so you'll always be making up for the ones that have decomposed. Some hobbyists like to remove the decomposed leaves, preferring a more "pristine" look. It boils down to aesthetics, really.

Of course, besides leaves and seed pods, there is that other "stuff" that we all love..Branches, stems...twigs.

Those of us who obsessively study images of the wild tropical habitats we love so much can't help but note that many of the bodies of water which we model our aquariums after are replete with tree branches and stems. Since many of these habitats are ephemeral in nature, they are only filled up with water part of the year. The remainder of the time, they're essentially dry forest floors.

And what accumulates on dry forest floors?

Branches, stems, and other materials from trees and shrubs!

When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate who we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches. They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!

There is no real rhyme or reason as to what stuff orients itself the way it does. I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just sort of tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?

I'm not so sure why they wouldn't. 

I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that "gobbldeygook" that hardcore 'scaping snobs will hit you over the head with...

But nature doesn't give a f*^%# about some competition aquascaper's "rules"- and nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."

Nature is...well...

Which begs the question: Who really cares? Do what you like! I think that we could do a lot worse than literally dropping materials into our tanks (taking into account their size of course). 

Look to Nature. And be bold.

It can seem a bit  intimidating at first, but if you force yourself beyond just the basic hobby-oriented mindset out there on these topics, there is a whole world of stuff you can experience and learn about!

And the information you can gain from this process just might have an amazing impact on your aquarium practice; that might just lead to some remarkable breakthroughs that will forever change the hobby!

That's the beauty of the ephemeral.

Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay geeky. Stay adventurous...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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