The impact of the land...the concept of terroir-and the nuances of Nature.

To me, perhaps one of the most elegant and compelling aspects of Nature is how the aquatic environments we love are so profoundly influenced by the terrestrial habitats which surround them. 

There is a remarkable similarity between this intimate land/water relationship, and the world that we can create in our aquariums.

Every aquarium that we assemble is not only a unique expression of our interests and skills- it's a complex, ecologically functional microcosm, which is impacted by not only the way we assemble the life forms, but how we utilize them.

And of course, being the self-appointed "World's most prolific aquarium hobby philosopher,"  I have spent a fair amount of time ruminating on the idea, attempting to grasp the concept.

I think it simply starts with the materials that we use in our aquairums.

It is perfectly logical to imply that botanicals, wood, and other materials which we ultiize in our aquascapes not only have an aesthetic impact, but a consequential physical-chemical impact on the overall aquatic environment, as well.

We know this, because we see their impact on natural aquatic systems all the time, don't we? Every flooded forest, inundated Terre Firme grassland, every overflowing stream- provides a perfect example for us to study.

The land influences the water.

Each component of the terrestrial habitat has some unique impact on the aquatic habitat. Not really difficult to grasp, when you think about it in the context of stuff we know and love in other areas of life.

Wine, for example, has "terroir"- the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma...  Coffee also acquires traits that are similar:  Tangible effects and characteristics, which impact the experience we get from them.

And of course,  I can't help but wonder if this same idea applies to our botanicals?

It must!

Sure, it does.

I mean, leaves come from specific trees, imparting not only tannins and humic substances into the water, but likely falling in heavier concentrations, or accumulating in various parts of rain forest streams or inundated forest floors at particular times of the year, or in specific physical locales with in a stream or river. And of course, they provide the fishes which reside in that given area a specific set of physical/chemical conditions, which they have adapted to over time. 

Is this not the very definition of "terroir?"

Yeah, sort of...right? 

Actually, the idea makes perfect sense.

As we've discussed before, the soils, plants, and surrounding geography of an aquatic habitat play an important and intricate role in the composition of the aquatic environment. They influence not only the chemical characteristics of the water (like pH, TDS, alkalinity), but the color (yeah- tannins!), turbidity, and other characteristics, like the water flow. Large concentrations become physical structures in the course of a stream or river that affect the course of the water.

And of course, they also have important impact on the diet of fishes...Remember allochthonous input form the land surrounding aquatic habitats? And the impact of humic substances?

I can't help but wonder what sorts of specific environmental variations we can create in our aquarium habitats; that is to say, "variations" of the chemical composition of the water in our aquarium habitats- by employing various different types and combinations of botanicals and aquatic soils.

I mean, on the surface, this is not a revolutionary idea...We've been doing stuff like this in the hobby for a while- more crudely in the fish-breeding realm (adding peat to water, for example...), or with aragonite substrates in Africa Rift Lake cichlid tanks, or with mineral additions to shrimp habitats, etc.

In the planted aquarium world, it's long been known that soil types/additives, ie;  clay-based aquatic soils, for example, will obviously impact the water chemistry of the aquarium far differently than say, iron-based soils, and thusly, their effect on the plants, fishes, and, as a perhaps unintended) side consequence, the overall aquatic environment will differ significantly as a result.

So, it pretty much goes without saying that the idea that utilizing different types of botanical materials in the aquarium can likely yield different effects on the water chemistry, and thus impact the lives of the fishes and plants that reside there- is not that big of a "stretch", right? I can't help but wonder what the possible impacts of different leaves, or possibly even seed pods from different geographic areas can have on the water and overall aquarium environment.

I mean, sure, pH and such are affected in certain circumstances - but what about the compounds and substances we don't- or simply can't- test for in the aquarium? What impacts do they have? Subtle things, like combinations of various amino acids, antioxidant compounds, obscure trace elements- even hormones, for that matter...Could utilizing different combinations of botanicals in aquariums potentially yield different results? You know- scenarios like,  "Add this if you want fishes to color up. Add a combination of THIS if you want the fishes to commence spawning behavior", etc.

It sounds a bit exotic, a bit gimmicky, even, but is it really all that far-fetched an idea?

Absolutely not, IMHO.

I think the main thing which keeps the idea from really developing more in the hobby- knowing exactly how much of what to add to our tanks, specifically to achieve "x" effect- is that we as hobbyists simply don't have the means to test for many of the compounds which may affect the aquarium habitat.

At this point, it's really as much of an "art" as it is a "science", and more superficial observation- at least in our aquariums- is probably almost ("almost...") as useful as laboratory testing is in the wild. Even simply observing the effects upon our fishes caused by environmental changes, etc. is useful to some extent.

At least at the present time, we're largely limited to making these sort of "superficial" observations about stuff like the color a specific botanical can impart into the water, etc. It's a good start. 

Of course, not everything we can gain from this is superficial...some botanical materials actually do have scientifically confirmed impacts on the aquarium environment.

In the case of catappa leaves, for example, we can at least infer that there are some substances (flavonoids, like kaempferol and quercetin, a number of tannins, like punicalin and punicalagin, as well as a suite of saponins and phytosterols) imparted into the water from the leaves- which do have scientifically documented affects on fish health and vitality. 

When we first started Tannin, I came up with the term "habitat enrichment" to describe the way various botanicals can impact the aquarium environment. I mused on the idea a lot. (I know that doesn't surprise many of you, lol...)

Now, I freely admit that this term may be interpreted as much more of a form of "marketing hyperbole" as it is a useful description. However, I believe that the idea sort of resonates, when we think of the aquarium as an analog for the wild aquatic habitats, and how the surrounding environment- the terroir- impacts the aquatic environment, right?

And we hear the interesting stories from fellow hobbyists about dramatic color changes, positive behavioral changes,  rehabilitated fishes, and those "spontaneous" spawning events, which seem to occur after a few weeks of utilizing various botanicals in aquariums which formerly did not employ them.

Sure, a good number of these interesting events and effects could likely be written off as mere "coincidences"- but when it happens over and over and over again in this context, I think it at least warrants some consideration! 

We're slowly beginning to figure this stuff out.

Yeah, we’re artists.

Mad scientists.

Fish geeks.


Yeah, artists.

And this stuff is really as much of an “art” as it is a “science”, IMHO.

There is so much we don’t know yet. Or, more specifically, so much we don’t know in the context of keeping fishes. We need to tie a few loose ends together to get a really good read on this stuff…until we get to the "Dial-a-River” additive stage ("Just add a little of this and a bit of that, and...".)

But we're getting there...At least in terms of understanding some of the tangible benefits of botanical use, besides just the aesthetics.

And it all starts with understanding the impact of...the terroir, right?

I think so.

I think that really sums up how much amazing stuff there is to extrapolate from observing the nuances of Nature.

Stay resourceful. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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