The same old song- The "universality" and "reliability" of botanical materials

One of the most amazing things about our practice of adding leaves, twigs, seed pods, snd other botanical materials to our aquariums is that they can be almost "relied on" to perform in a fairly predictable manner in our aquariums.

The same natural processes which affect the decomposition of an Alder Cone from Europe impact the Sterculia pod from Southeast Asia, the oak twig from North America, the Jackfruit leaf from Malaysia, or the Banana Stem from Thailand. Colonization by biofilms, fungal growths, and the resulting decomposition which occurs are the same all over the planet.

And they're the same processes which govern what happens in our aquariums.

Think about that for  just a second. 

We receive a LOT of questions from our community, asking what botanical is suitable for a tank intended to represent a specific environmental niche or geographic area. The answer isn't always as simple as "use this leaf" or whatever.

The reality is more nuanced, really.

We should understand the overall idea that the way Nature functions is the same, regardless of what materials you're using to do the job. I know, I'm being redundant here.

It's a really important point, specifically for those of you who are just hell-bent on assuring yourself that every leaf, twig, and seed pod in your Southeast Asian-themed aquarium is, indeed from Southeast Asia! NEWS FLASH: It doesn't have to be. Yeah, unless you live in the area that you're trying to represent in your tank, or are really dialed in to a good supply of whatever botanicals are native to that region, you're going to have to use stuff that's largely representative of what comes from there. And that's just fine.

Often, I'll come up with an idea for the aquarium representation of a unique niche habitat, and will spend a lot of time researching the ecology and, more important to me- the function of  the habitat, before embarking on my project. 

And yeah, more often than not, I'll find that the plants, wood, leaves, or whatever that I need to really nail the project in a a full-on "biotopic manner" are simply not available to me.

And guess what? That's okay. I don't "get stuck." 

I just don't get stressed-out about it.

You shouldn't, either.

I receive a lot of emails from fellow hobbyists who are "stuck" because they can't find that exact plant...And so they dramatically change, or even abandon their projects.

A real shame.

A suggestion, if I may?

Look for some sort of analog.

Now, sure, I can make dozens of arguments for why a serious biotope aquarium should have only stuff from the given region, but I'd be lying to myself. Practicality has to reign sometimes. You simply can't get every single leaf or seed pod that is found in any given geographic area, for all sorts of reasons. I mean, you certainly should try- we do...and it's a kind of fun pastime for some of us!

The reality is that most of the stuff you can use in your Southeast Asia-themed tank looks very similar to the actual materials found in the region. I mean, as I've often said, I challenge virtually any judge in contest to determine if the decomposing Guava leaf from Borneo in your Amazon-themed display is really a Hevea brasiliensis, from the Amazon region.

And even more important, the same processes of Nature which impact the leaves when they fall into the water in the Amazon occur in your home in suburban Los Angeles, Paris, or Tokyo, for that matter.

Nature doesn't care. 

Sure, there are subtle chemical, mineral, and other physical variations in the tap water in different parts of the world, which, if I'm being intellectually honest, could make some difference-but the ecological processes which decompose leaves are the same.

It's pretty remarkable, when you think about it!

When viewed as a "whole", the macro view of a botanical-style aquarium is that it challenges us to look at the big picture- to not get too caught up in any one aspect of creating or managing our aquarium...and to appreciate all of the process by which Nature does its work. And to make a "mental shift" to understand that everything we see in the aquarium is exactly what Nature intends. 

I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is tons of room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the real natural environment. 

You're making mental shifts...replicating Nature in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature.

The possibilities are endless, and the potential gains in knowledge and understanding of the wild habitats- and experience with replicating them in the aquarium- are incalculable. What secrets will we unlock? What practices will yield benefits and advantages that we never even considered?

There are no "flaws" in Nature's work, because Nature doesn't seek to satisfy observers. It seeks to evolve and change and grow. It looks the way it does because it's the sum total of the processes which occur to foster life and evolution.

We as hobbyists need to evolve and change and grow, ourselves.

We need to let go of our long-held beliefs about what truly is considered "beautiful." We need to study and understand the elegant way Nature does things- and just why natural aquatic habitats look the way they do.  To look at things in context.  To understand what kinds of outside influences, pressures, and threats these habitats face.

It's entirely possible to accept the appearance of biofilms, "murky" water, algae, decomposing botanical materials, and how systems embracing them can be managed to take advantage of their benefits. You know, accepting them as supplemental food sources, "nurseries" for fry, and as interesting little ways to impart beneficial humic substances and dissolved organics into the water.

It starts by looking at Nature as an overall inspiration.

Wondering why the aquatic habitats we're looking at appear the way they do, and what processes create them. And rather than editing out the "undesirable" (by mainstream aquarium hobby standards) elements, we embrace as many of the elements as possible, try to figure out what benefits they bring, and how we can recreate them functionally in our closed aquarium systems.

The "different aesthetics" simply come along as "part of the package"- both in Nature and in the aquarium.

And the functions. Well, they're the same, regardless of what your aquarium looks like.

Stay true to yourself. Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay brave. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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