The eternal wisdom of common sense, and the temptations of "tea" revisited...

There is that expression, "Speed kills" which sometimes seeps into our conversations about aquariums. You know, you can't rush the nitrogen cycle. You shouldn't add too many fishes too fast. In our instance, you have to slowly add botanicals to an existing system. 

Things which, if you violate the rules of Nature, you'd get away with them perhaps 9 times out of 10...but the one time you push it- BLAM! Doomsday. Blowing off common sense, or pushing it to the limit- has its place in experiments- if you're willing to take the risk.

Otherwise, it's just not smart.

We have spent a lot of time educating our community on the common sense aspects of working with botanicals. We literally have hundreds of articles about almost every aspect of our "craft." And for good reason. Part of it was a desire to help others succeed by knowing everything we knew about this stuff. About the good, the bad, and the- well, stupid. 

We felt- and still feel- that although everyone needs to use as much common sense as possible when playing with botanicals, it's just as much a part of our job to encourage best practices as it is to offer all this cool stuff. Encouraging patience, going slowly, evaluating, and understanding the stuff that can go wrong if you don't use common sense.

Stuff that's become part of hobby "lore." And in our case, part of the evolving "best practices." The very, very few disasters we've seen happen on this journey have almost always been caused by our own error. Not following common sense. Misunderstanding the "rules" of Nature. Rushing stuff..Going too fast, too hard. Not thinking it though. That's why we write about some of these things in "The Tint", and have discussions about them- over and over and over again. Every day. 

And yet, have you ever noticed that there are certain things we simply don't like to do as hobbyists?

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

Impatience is, I suppose, part of being human. However, in the aquarium hobby, it occasionally drives us to do things that, although are probably "no big deal" on their own- 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 potential detriment of our fishes.

We get casual. We become "complacent"- and we make assumptions. And you can't make assumptions with nature. We have to accept responsibility for what we do and why. And as humans, we occasionally fall back into practices that, to me, at least- reek of impatience.

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 personally 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, such as lignin, proteins, and other stuff, in addition tannins and humic substances- are released.

So, why on earth would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a home-brewed "blackwater extract?" And how much do you add? 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. We're just learning how to utilize the botanicals themselves correctly and safely; is it wise to use concentrated waste extract to our tanks?

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.

In my opinion, 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. Absolutely. Am I being overly conservative? No doubt, I am. 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 import and export processes far, far  superior and more efficient than anything we can hope to create in the confines of our aquariums! 

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

Now, I suppose there is a "silver lining" here. I mean, if you are dead-set on using some of the botanical prep water in your tank if use the water from the "secondary soak", I'd feel a lot better about that.. At least it is arguable that the bulk of the initial surface pollutants will have been released at that point. That being said, it's still a practice filled with "concentrated uncertainty."

Better yet, IMHO 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.

Even then, it's not an exact science. Or even a "science" at all. I mean, how fast are the tannins and humic substances released?

How much to use?

Well, that's the million dollar question.

Who the &%$* 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- like how much tannins and such are in the particular botanicals/leaves you're using-which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best. 

You need to kind of go with your instinct.

Damn, that's a shitty excuse, isn't it? However, it's really the best thing we have to go with. We have to work with what we've got and use it in a way that make sense in the context of what we do.

The safest recommendations?

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 situ in the aquarium. The botanicals will release their "contents" at a pace dictated by their environment. Of course, you can still add too many, too fast, as we've mentioned numerous times, pushing your tank to the limit. Not thinking it through and deploying patience, observation, personal responsibility, and simple common sense. Assuming things; pushing it... As we've discussed ad nauseam on these pages- that's the place where the "disaster stories" live.

It's not all "doom and gloom", of course.

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. Of course, Nature will "slap you upside the head" if you challenge her; flaunt her "rules"- get complacent...

Be patient. Go slowly. Observe. Think. Apply common sense.

And the whole "tea" thing?

If you're doing it and you're happy with the results, I can't argue with that. I can only tell you that I personally wouldn't do it that way. At least, not without trying to control as many variables as possible. Personally, I'm not even certain how the manufacturers that offer these extracts for sale have determined their concentrations, formulas, and dosages.

How do they extract the "tonic?"Not trying to cast doubts on any commercially available products. I'm just curious, because I'd bet that most of us would find it pretty cool to know. I'm just trying to point out how this is a lot more complicated than we might think it is, and that having access to chemists and labs and equipment is a good starting point if we want to get really "down and dirty" with this stuff!

Although there are 3 main classes of tannins. there are hundreds and hundreds of specific tannins found in virtually all families of plants, and comprising up to 50% of the dry weight of their leaves! 


And in regards to tests?

Well, there are at least three general types of testing that you can do for tannins: Precipitation of proteins or alkaloids, reaction with phenolic rings, and depolymerization. Which one works for our purposes? How do you interpret the results? Maybe you'll be the one to crack the code. Maybe you're a chemist with access to a lab? Or, maybe you can interpolate the date from a generic "tannin test kit" and figure out how to  calculate "x" mg/l of "tannins" into a formula that is safe, predictable, and more effective for the widest variety of aquarists?

Not easy, huh?

But then again, I'm the guy telling you to toss in leaves and botanicals in your aquarium...and not really giving you "x" amount per gallon or whatever...just telling you to "go slowly, observe and test." - all "sweeping generalities" at what do I know?

Yeah, there is so much we need to learn...

So much that we still don't know; and we are often operating on pure "gut instinct." The world of botanical use in our aquariums is every bit as much an art as it is a "science."

And perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Like many things in our hobby, it's very easy to overthink. And it's even easier to take shortcuts...with a wide range of potential outcomes.

Just be careful. 

Consider the "temptations of tea."

Keep studying. Keep experimenting. Keep tweaking. Keep observing.

Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay smart. 

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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