As one who plies his trade curating, loving, and marketing natural materials for aquariums, I receive a lot of questions from our customers and community. And the most common questions I receive are, as you might imagine, the most straightforward and simple ones.
Perhaps the most common type of question goes something like this, "I'm creating an Amazonian-themed habitat. What botanicals should I use?"
Now, sure, on the surface, this seems like a pretty basic question, but where it gets a bit "muddy" is when you "deep-dive" into which materials make the most sense to use in this type of 'scape. And the reason is that there really has not been any sort of comprehensive "guide" as to what specific natural materials are appropriate for various species found in various regions of the world.
Of course, we have to consider what "appropriate" really means in this context, right?
Now, to start off, I'll tell you that many of the natural materials we offer are okay to use in aquariums for a wide variety of fishes. The real "qualifier" is that most of the stuff we offer (botanicals and leaves, in particular) are geared towards fishes which come from aquatic habitats other than super-specialized environments like the African Rift Lakes, which are hard, alkaline lakes with more rock and sand than wood and leaves.
So, yeah, it's easy to establish they we're more geared towards earthy, jungle-stream/rain forest-type habitats (of course, we're evolving...stay tuned, lol). Habitats in which materials from trees and other vegetation, such as leaves, twigs, and seed pods are most prevalent.
Now, if you've visited our web site (I mean, you're here already- so that's not much of a "stretch", right?) you'll see that we have broken down our classifications of natural materials on our website into categories such as leaves, seed pods, stems and bark, and substrate additives. And, if you read our descriptions more carefully, you'll notice that we try to provide not only the scientific name of the botanical in question, but the geographic origin if known.
This is somewhat important for those of you who require the most geographic accuracy possible.
That being said, nothing is perfect. Nothing is 100% infallible.
Most of our items, however, fall into that category we've often referred to (rather unprofessionally, I must confess) as "generic tropical"- stuff that represents the materials you might find in tropical aquatic ecosystems around the world.
"Represents" is a real key word here.
In other words, the cool-looking Cariniana pod from the Cariniana legalis tree of South America would be perfectly at home in an "Amazonian-themed" aquarium. It would also be perfectly acceptable in a Southeast Asian or African-themed tank, as it resembles some of the botanical materials that are found in the aquatic habitats of these regions.
Yeah, this concept might make a few hardcore biotope enthusiasts cringe. I get it. It's not 100% accurate and perfect.
However, I've seen dozens of biotope aquariums in big competitions representing very specific Asian or South American habitats, with substrates covered in Beech or Oak leaf litter from Europe or North America, and no one- judges included- batted an eyelash, so...
I'm just sayin'.
IMHO, we shouldn't get too bent out of shape about this, right?
And if you really, really want to "split hairs" about this stuff, it's important to think about it in this context: Do the specific compounds and levels of tannins, humic substances, and other substances found in say, Texas Live Oak leaves from temperate North America vary significantly from those found in Jackfruit leaves from tropical India?
Do the specific concentrations of these compounds and their known benefits make such a difference when submerged in water as to impact the behaviors and health of our fishes from tropical regions any differently than others?
We just don't know, right? I mean, how can we say? Other than knowing that tannins and humic substances have clearly understood health benefits for fishes, it's difficult to make any other conclusions. Without rigorous laboratory analysis and comparisons between materials, we simply have to rely on the idea of "generic tropical", IMHO.
And it's also important to consider exactly how botanical materials arrive in aquatic environments in tropical regions and elsewhere.
The reality is that most of the materials which accumulate on the substrate or elsewhere in the aquatic habitats we try to recreate either were there to begin with (as in the case of the flooded igapo forest floors of South America), or fell into the water from overhanging vegetation, or were swept up by flooding, wind, or other natural events.
There is not some set model for how these materials arrive into aquatic habitats. And, to be objective, I have to proffer that many of the materials that we offer for this purpose are from trees and shrubs often not found directly in the path of water.
Maybe they're from areas nearby.
Or, simply in the region.
Some are from mountainous areas or plains which likely don't have bodies of water in the immediate vicinity where they're found. Again, they are selected for inclusion in our offerings because they have an appearance or characteristics which represent those of materials that we've seen in various aquatic habitats.
And of course, if you want to really "split hairs", you could likely be more accurate if you say "generic botanical", because several of the botanical materials which we offer are from temperate regions of the world, too!
They just look "tropical." (whatever that means!)
It all goes back to the level of authenticity or specificity that you are striving to achieve in your aquarium.
And some tropical-derived materials from one part of the world are perfectly suitable for- and I'd argue, indistinguishable from- from materials found in other regions of the world.
Yet they work perfectly in aquariums to represent them. Hobbyists have been playing with this idea for generations, right? We can use all sorts of stuff to do the job.
Case in point?
The Melastoma root from Borneo that we have been using to represent the root tangles in which Tucanoichthys tucano from Brazil are found. Did I just use "Borneo" and "Brazil" in the same sentence? Yeah, I did. This material is from a totally different part of the world, yet I challenge everyone but the most diligent botanist to distinguish the difference between this stuff and roots of "any old plant" found in the Tucano's natural range.
And another important thing to remember is that many of the nations from which our tropical fishes hail prohibit, or severely limit the export of botanical materials for non-food purposes. Forests are protected, or biological quarantines are imposed on even fallen, dried stuff. There are lots and lots of reason why we cannot obtain the exact leaf or whatever from say, the jungles of Brazil, for example.
So yeah, we need to utilize materials which do the best job of representing the ones found in the areas that we are so inspired by. Materials which can be sourced on a more sustainable basis; often from plantations or collected naturally fallen from areas in which the removal of these materials does not damage critical habitats. Sourcing is challenging AND important in this game.
We take it pretty seriously.
So, in summary- when you ask, "What are the best botanicals for ___________?" the most accurate answer is likely, "Whatever you like!"
So yeah- even you ultimate hardcore biotope aquarium enthusiasts- I think that you just need to relax a bit (I realize I'm opening myself up to a thrashing her, but what else is new, lol?) and enjoy what you're doing- representing unique wild aquatic habitats- and focus on "the bigger picture." That being, helping to inspire, educate, and engage hobbyists and non-hobbyists alike- calling attention to the threats and challenges that many of these habitats face. Perhaps, even, inspiring others to find out more about them.
A "win" for the habitats, the fishes...the planet.
THAT is the power of "Generic tropical..."
Don't stress over it.
Enjoy it. Incorporate the function and aesthetics from materials which represent those found in our favorite tropical aquatic habitats. Learn about the habitat, and how materials accumulate in the waters- and how they influence and benefit the fishes that live in them.
It's a fascinating pursuit in and of itself!
Stay curious. Stay motivated. Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.