The ephemeral pace of the botanical-style aquarium...

As we all know, nothing lasts forever.

And it's especially true with our botanicals.

Those of us who play with botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquariums find out in the earliest stages that each aquariu  moves at its own pace. Each one establishes itself, evolves, and matures differently than any other one. There is a real "pace", a process- to what occurs when they are utilized in our aquariums.

And a good part of it is dictated by the natural degradation, change, and decomposition of the materials we utilize in our tanks. From the minute you prepare a leaf, seed pod, stem, or other botanical for use in the aquarium, it begins to soften and break down. It's definitely the embodiment of "ephemeral." 

The processes of hot water steeping, boiling, or prolonged soaking start to soften the tissues of the leaves or seed pods, release bound-up surface pollutants, and begin the gradual, inevitable, and irreversible process of breaking them down, at a pace, which nature determines.

As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some botanicals, like Catappa leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.

Others last a much longer time.

Knowing when to replace or add to them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace them.

On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.

Again, it's sort of a judgement call. As much of an instinct and "art" as it is a "science."

Without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are, and what is considered "normal" for the system!), it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts.

Yeah, I know- it's hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of tank at this point in time. It's not like, our example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them.

Nope. It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse. 

Obviously, you need to obey all of the common best practices of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!

And you need to keep yourself in check, too. Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium.

A foundational, important thing to understand.

I see some new botanical vendors getting into this game lately (which is cool), and they're just sort of "peddling the look" without even discussing the very real biological/functional considerations that come with working with botanicals in an aquarium. It worries me a bit. I love competition. Anyone can sell you some leaves and such, but there's more to this than sexy pics of botanical stuff.

Way more. 

I guess that will still fall on Tannin Aquatics to keep top of mind those additional considerations!  We need to discuss the practice as much as we need to share the cool pics. We'll continue to do both.

Yes, we'll happily continue to oblige.🤔

Botanical-style aquariums embody the art of observation and study. Much like managing any type of aquarium, the successful botanical-style aquarium is about understanding a balance, a quantity, a "cadence" for adding stuff, so that the closed environment of your aquarium can assimilate the new materials, and the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms which serve to assimilate the bioload and break them down can adjust.

Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to insults from big moves as any other- perhaps even more. Again, I worry that as the idea-the look- become more popular, people will jump into the game without understanding that there is a consideration for everything we do- each item we add...and that it influences and affects our fishes' lives.

The real the key here is that pace- and an understanding that the materials that we add need to be added-and replaced- at a pace that makes sense for your specific system. An understanding that you'll have a front row seat to the natural processes of decomposition, transformation, decay...and accepting that they are part of the beauty of this style of aquarium, just like they are in nature, where water is seldom crystal clear and the surroundings perfectly arranged.

Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, understand the way water and botanicals interact..and have a great "feel" for how our tanks run in this fashion.

Again, there is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only procedure.

Only recommendations for how to approach things. Many of them are grounded in basic husbandry and the ability to keep control of our human instincts to be impatient or make rash adjustments. It's a mindset shift. We sound a bit like the proverbial "broken record"; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:

1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium. 

2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.

3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.

4) Observe your aquarium continuously.

If you noticed, the first practice is simply logical.

You need to employ it...if there were ever a "hard and fast rule in the botanical/blackwater game, this would be it.  It makes little sense, in the closed confines of an aquarium, to just toss something in without at least cleaning it. Number 2 is all about the pace...the real "secret sauce", if you will, which sort of sets up everything else. There is simply no need to rush this process.

And, by observing and assessing, you'll get a real "feel" for how botanicals work in your aquarium.  And #3 is the real "finesse" part of the equation...the nuance, the subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, a reef aquarium, or cultivating a backyard's a process.

In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. It embraces patience, and the ephemeral nature of things.

And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

The "ephemeral pace", if you will. A slow, beautiful journey into the wonders of nature.

And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion and instinct as you do procedure- all done in the proper the right pace.

All the while, understanding that nature will follow her path- with minimal intervention on our part- just as she's done for eons.

Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay calm. Stay diligent. Stay measured...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman                        

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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