The "tinter's palette"- media for the "dark arts"

Now a little over two weeks in on my latest blackwater aquarium, I can sit back and peer into the tank and realize one thing: It's pretty friggin' dark! Like, the materials which I have selected- Mangrove branches, mangrove and catappa bark pieces, and yellow mangrove leaves, have really done a "number" on this tank.

It's really dark, A reddish-orange color that is optically limiting in many ways. IN fact, it's so dark that I- ME- the guy who people attach all of those wacky nicknames to:  "Mr. Blackwater Aquarium Guy"  "The Podfather", "Prince of Darkness", "Tint Jedi", etc... himself, is looking forward to the water lightening up a bit!

Like, seriously! It's really dark. Like, a reddish orange that's seriously opaque! The photo below doesn't really capture this.

It's funny, but on a fairly regular basis, I actually receive questions about how to make the water in your aquarium....darker. Like, people actually want their water to be more deeply tinted. In fact, I'll occasionally field emails from people who are kind of bummed out that some of the pods they placed into their tanks aren't helping them achieve the rich, dark tint they want!

I mean, this is were we're at now! 🤓

These are actually fun questions that I really never envisioned that people would actually ask when we started Tannin over 4 years ago. And it makes sense, right? So many of you have made the "mental shift" that embraces the dark water, the biofilms, etc. that it goes without saying that we want to do things that keep things "tinted!"

Now, it's important know that, although almost anything botanical you immerse in water will release some tannins which can tint the water, some materials are better at it than others! For example, many of the "tougher" botanicals, such as Cariniana Pods, Sterculia pods, and the like won't get you that nice dark color you want.

Sure, they will release some tannins and humic substances (perhaps more than some "clearwater-centric" hobbyists might like), but the coloration will likely be less than what you had in mind. They're more about the aesthetics they bring based on their unique appearance, and their utility as hiding places for fishes.

To really get the "tint", you'd want to use botanical materials which more easily seem to release the tannins we want. And, having worked with these materials for some time now, we're kind of at the point where I could literally recommend certain materials to achieve certain "tinting effects"- I know, it sounds weird, but it's true!

And, yeah, this blog risks seriously becoming a "promo piece" for our products, but you're regularly asking me what I use personally in my tanks to achieve these effects, so I'll tell you. Now, sure, you can get some of these things from other places, so at least I'm being fair, right?

Oaky, maybe.. 😆

And no doubt, soem of you will be reading this and asking, "Why did you leave out ____________- they kick ass?" Again, I agree- there are dozens and dozens of possibilities, and your faves may not be mine!

Yet, Everyone always asks about my personal faves to produce "tint", so here we are..


Yeah, let's start with leaves.

Being typically the most "ephemeral" of our botanical materials, they give us a lot of options, and the ability to quickly impart color into the water...and to remove them and the color they produce easily. 

If you are looking for a very light, almost golden or amber color, Guava leaves are perfect for this. They impart a beautiful color, are reasonably durable, and look great as they break down.

If you're looking for "basic brown" tint, you'd be hard-pressed to find better "media" to work with than Texas Live Oak leaf litter. The leaves contained in this mix are really long-lasting, look "generic tropical", and pack a lot of tint-producing tannins in a little package! 

Then there are Yellow Mangrove leaves...They produce a very dark, almost reddish-brown color that is undeniably attractive. And these leaves last a very long time after preparation and submersion. A great all-around choice.

 And of course, the old classic- Catappa leaves, are reliable for creating a nice, brown tint, the degree to which is dictated by how many you use, and how often you replace them.

Of course, the reality of leaves is that just about any of 'em will do the job...I mean, every leaf that we offer can impart some tint to the water... The above are my faves at the moment- just utilize any leaves that you like and you'll be able to achieve a good look, for sure.


My absolutely my top favorite botanical for serious color is Red Mangrove bark. You can take an aquarium from "crystal clear blue/white" to "mystery dark reddish/brown" overnight with this stuff! It packs a serious wallop and is my number one choice hands-down. Just don't use too much, or you'll be staring into a very dark tank for a me!

Second is Catappa Bark...I mean, pick a variety- we offer three different "flavors"- each looks a little different and imparts a slightly different coloration to the water. Personally, I find the Selatan, Borneo variety to impart the nicest, dark brown color of the bunch- but they're all good.

For an interesting look and some nice color, I'm a big fan of oak twigs. Oak has a nice bark which imparts a deep brownish/yellow color to the water and it's quite distinctive. There is a reason why our "Twenty Twigs" packs are pretty popular, and it's not just because you get a bunch of cool sticks!


Well, yeah- seed pods are a very important part of any "tinter's" palette, and there are so many choices that you can play with...Here are just a few that I've incorporated over the years which do a better-than-average job, IMHO:

Coco Curls. These botanicals (perhaps by virtue of their fibrous structure?) realize a lot of reddish/brown color into the water quickly! Oh, and they look kinda cool, too!

Alder Cones are, as one of my customers says, little "tint grenades!" You can employ them I the tank, in the filter, or in a reactor...Lots of possibilities here. They produce a "classic brown" tint that is very attractive.

Nypa Palm pods have a surprisingly large amount of tannins and impart an almost reddish color to the water! Like, quickly, too. And they last a really long time.

Coco Palm bracts are, as their name implies, another cool palm-derived product. When steeped or boiled, these release a significant amount of tint and look really great in a leaf litter bed...Oh, and they're really durable, too!

Sure, there are a lot of others that can do the trick, but those are some of my favorite "go-to's" in this game. I didn't even touch on the substrate-oriented stuff, huh?

Now, like in every other aspect of the hobby, there are, dare I say..."Shortcuts" or "hacks" (gulp) to get the tint you like. Yes, you know my absolute disdain for shortcuts, but I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the ultimate one- wood!

Yeah, many of the types of wood that we use in our aquarium release significant amounts of tannins. I mean, this is the source of so many desperate calls for help in those planted tank forums ("Help! How do I get rid of the tannins that are making my water brown!")...Our favorite wood types for this? Mangrove, Malaysian, and the big surprise- "Spider Wood"...

So, yeah, embracing wood to help tint the water is one of the few shortcuts we can comfortably get behind! 

Now, sure, I could go on and on and pretty much mention and offer links to everything in our collection and sing some praises of each item's "tinting capability" - which would be both self-serving and kind of absurd. However, the botanicals and wood types featured here are among the best, IMHO, to do the job. 

Yet, even though they work well, and I like should do what YOU like...And you should always make the effort to understand the function behind the look...And how to prepare them for use...And the good and bad impacts of using botanicals- and the possibilities of killing your entire tank if you don't use common sense and employ patience...we've talked about it hundreds of times on these pages.

And, for like the 3,000th time, let's just review that difference between color and...well- you know where I'm going- clarity.

As more and more hobbyists embrace the use of aquatic botanicals in their aquaria, we're seeing more and more tanks with a golden brownish-colored "tint" to the water.

Now, let's be clear (arghhh!) about one thing:

There is a difference between "color" and "clarity."

The color is, as you know, a product of tannins leaching into the water from wood and botanicals, and typically is not "cloudy." It' actually one of the most natural-looking water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye.

Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, but these factors have no bearing on the visual clarity of the water.

I remember fondly, when I was co-owner of Unique Corals, a major coral importer/propagator, I had a beautiful little blackwater aquarium in my office. I loved that little tank. 

Everyone who came in my office gazed into that aquarium; most were hardcore "reef people" and marine livestock vendors. And if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, "Man, you MUST be busy! That aquarium looks pretty dirty. You need to change the filter...!"  I'd be filthy rich! Yeah. Once I explained what blackwater is and how it was natural and, in my eyes desirable, they would either have an "Ahah!" moment, or just continue with the business at hand, shrugging off my explanation. 

Some hobbyists just don't get it!

The point is, we seem to associate color in water with overall "cleanliness", or clarity. The reality is, in many cases, the color and clarity of the water can be indicative of some sort of issue, but color seems to draw an immediate "There is something wrong!" from the uninitiated!

Interestingly, if you talk to ecologists familiar with blackwater habitats, they are often considered some of the most "impoverished" waters around, at least from a mineral and nutrient standpoint.

In the aquarium, the general hobby at large has a different opinion of this, as we have come to discover!

Cloudiness and "color" are generally separate issues for most hobbyists, but they both seem to cause concern. Perhaps they should; cloudiness, in particular, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium. And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:

1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).

2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).

3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).

4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.

And, curiously enough, the "remedy" for cloudy water in virtually every situation is similar: Water changes, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, etc.), reduced light (in the case of algal blooms), improved husbandry techniques (i.e.; better feeding practices and more frequent maintenance), and, perhaps most important- the passage of time.

There are of course, other factors that affect clarity, like fishes that dig or otherwise disturb the substrate and wood with their grazing activities, but these are not necessarily indicative of husbandry issues.

"Aquarium Keeping 101", actually.

Although we all seem to know this, I hear enough comments and questions about the color of the water and its relation to "cleanliness" in botanical-style systems that it warranted this seemingly "remedial" review!

Remember, just because the water in a botanical-influenced aquarium system is brownish, it doesn't mean that it's of low quality, or "dirty", as we're inclined to say. It simply means that tannins, humic acids, and other substances are leaching into the water, creating a characteristic color that some of us geeks find rather attractive.

If you're still concerned, monitor the water quality...perform a nitrate test; look at the health of your animals.

Just try to find out the answer to that basic question: What's happening in there?

Or, you can accept it without question, if you want.

I can think of at least one or two other things that are influenced by some of the the same processes, which we accept without question in our everyday lives...


Now, I admit, visual "tint" is probably THE single most superficial aspect of what we experience with botanical-style aquariums- but the most obvious, and likely the most impactful to the casual hobbyist or observer.

It's just as important to understand the collateral benefits of utilizing botanical materials- a subject we've discussed dozens of times here. However, in the end, it's the look of your aquarium that is what you have to experience each and every day, and if having an understanding of which materials can bring you the aesthetic experience you're after in a more effective way- well, then this is a worthwhile discussion, right?

I think so. 

Enjoy curating your own palette!

Until next time...

Stay engrossed. Stay creative. Stay enthusiastic. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


October 19, 2019

I experienced this at work but it’s funny when I show the men I work with pics of my tank they all go “that’s so cool looking!” When I show the women I work with they all go “why do you want your tank to look dirty like that?” Funny how different perceptions are from men to women when it comes to this hobby

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