Among the many things that we obsess over with our aquariums, selecting and utilizing driftwood occupies a good amount of our attention and mindshare. You'd think it was a simple thing- pick a nice piece of wood, prepare it and plunk it down in your tank...done.
Well, it CAN be. It ISN'T. But it can be...
My philosophy on what wood type to utilize in your aquarium is, as you might expect from me- a combination of personal aesthetic tastes and functional attributes of a given specimen.
Yeah, I think it starts out with the most simple question: What type of wood appeals to you? Sure, you can address this angle by asking yourself what type of habitat or ecological niche you're trying to recreate in your tank, and what "configuration" would be most appropriate to do the job? That's kind of my starting place.
Example? Well, let's say you're trying to recreate the look of a tree stump or fallen tree section. You'd likely want to select a piece or pieces of wood that are thicker, "heavier-looking", and larger in size and stature to recreate such a feature. If you're trying to recreate the land/water interface of a flooded forest, and want to represent roots, then you'd likely select specimens of wood which are thinner, perhaps more twisted and gnarled in shape.
Ironically, our most popular wood type- Manzanita, is- in my opinion, probably the least "realistic" wood you can use, in terms of how it looks/works when placed in an aquarium. I mean, we typically place the piece of wood on it's side, surround it with rocks and plants, and that's that. So, it's cool...but does it represent how a piece of wood would typically look/occur in a wide flooded forest, steam, or lake?
I mean, if you look closely at a lot of displays that use this wood, they look sort of like a bunch of little peices all stuck together. Which, I suppose, is part of the "charm" of the stuff. You have to envision it after a month, covered with a "patina" of biocover, surrounded by decomposing botanical botanicals...
But really, I think it makes more sense to look at different orientations for this wood- like, vertically ( And, NO! Not like a freaking wedding centerpiece, with the wood projecting out of the water like a submerged tree or something. I'm talking the branches DOWN, like the overhanging branches or roots of a tree dangling into a flooded forest floor or stream). This is what our Creative Director, Johnny Ciotti, did in one of his recent scapes, to great effect.
I just love Manzanita, but I think it's become a more purely aesthetic choice more than any other attribute it brings.
What about Spider Wood?
It has a most unusual root-like configuration, which lends itself well to all sorts of aquascaping applications.
Now, I've always liked this stuff, and we've pretty much always sold this stuff as "Hand-Selected Pieces" (ie; random ones we pic FOR you!), which are just as good as when we used to sell them as WYSIWYG...And better for you, because it costs less when we don't have to photograph each piece! I mean, they ALL pretty much have unique attributes and almost every piece looks good from one or more angles.
You almost can't go wrong, really.
Even with a guy like me selecting for you!
Now, I'll be the first to tell you that "Spider Wood", although stupidly easy to work with, has its own set of quirks. It has some really gnarled shapes- which is awesome, but you need to think about it if you're trying to use a few larger pieces in your 'scape. Often the pieces are rather challenging to "fit together" if your goal is to make it look like they are part of one "organic formation", if you will, so you really have to use some forward vision if that's your goal and you're using the larger-sized pieces.
My understanding that what the aquatic trade refers to as "Spider Wood" is the roots of Rhododendron (aka Azalea), a genus of over a thousand woody plants found in Asia and North America. Like everything else in the aquarium hardscape trade, the exact species or origins are kept shrouded in a sort of deliberate mystery. Typically stupid aquarium industry mind set, IMHO. Why doesn't anyone mention this? I'm flummoxed.
Uh-oh, I feel a rant coming on....
I mean, I make it a point to tell you that you're buying Oak leaves or Mangrove leaves. I'm not trying to create a trade secret. We sell convenience here. Don't want to pay for them? Go collect your own? Can't collect your own, buy them from us. No biggie. Want to buy a desk? You can buy it from Ikea for half the price of the other furniture store, but you have to build it yourself. Want the convenience of a "ready-to-go" product? Pay more at the conventional furniture place.
Same with leaves. Or wood.
WTF is wrong with this confidence of this industry that everything is some big damn enigma? Like, OMG- 4 people might collect their own leaves and deprive me of $24 in income... the horror. Or, people might find out that Manzanita can be purchased in bulk from a florist supply place and you'll save $4 if you buy 6 of them, or whatever... It's okay. Fellow hardscape vendors...let's grow the f- --- up!
Okay, that was therapeutic!
Oh. back to Spider Wood.
Now, that being said, it's no mystery why the stuff is popular! It looks pretty cool...once you figure out how to use it! You can get it in larger sizes, and these smaller "nano" sized pieces...different sizes for different looks.
And, as an added "bonus", this stuff releases a lot of nice, water-tintitng tannins...something that freaks the f--- out of most hardcore aquascapers (much to my sadistic delight, as you know), but something that our tribe just loves! Oh, and the plant (and I think likely by extension, the roots) is known to offer "..possible anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective activities" which may be due to the antioxidant effects of flavonoids or other phenolic compounds and saponins the plant contains...
If you recall, some of these same substances are known to occur in Catappa leaves, and there are documented fish health benefits of catappa, validated in scientific research.
Oh, and it does tend to recruit a fair amount of gooey fungal/biofilm growth shortly after submersion, often to the horror of the unaware...So, if ever there were a candidate for "pre-soaking" wood before using in the aquarium, "Spider Wood" is it. Granted, this growth will usually subside after a few weeks of submersion, and some well-timed scrubbing with a soft-bristled brush.
And what about other wood types? Like Mopani Wood?
Also called "Mopane", it comes from a species of tree, Colophspermum mopane, found in hot, dry parts of Africa- specifically, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Angola and Malawi. In fact, the tree only occurs in Africa, which gives you some idea as to its relative scarcity in the aquarium trade.
The Mopane tree only grows in hot, arid climates and surprisingly alkaline soils, further restricting its range. An economically important tree to its native nations, it offers many characteristics that make it unique for a range of uses. It's a surprisingly heavy wood, and is termite resistant (really important in Africa!), and has been used by man to build everything from houses to flooring. From an aquarist's standpoint, we love this wood, not for it's intricate shapes, but for its rich, gnarled texture, and distinct "two-tone" color, not to mention its durability...the stuff can last for years and years in an aquarium!
It's a very dense wood, and sinks really easily. Preparation required is pretty simple: A good rinse and maybe a light scrub with a soft bristle brush, to remove debris and such, followed by immersion in fresh water. Like any wood, Mopani will impart some tannins into the water after it's submerged, so if you're not into "the tint", you probably want to soak it in freshwater for a week or two to "crack off" some of the initial burst of tannins and other organics contained in the wood structure. You could also boil smaller pieces, followed by a soak in fresh water for a few days, but I'm more of a "soak and wait" kind of guy with this wood, myself. Regardless, it's still gonna leach tannins for a long time...just part of the game with any wood.
Use of Mopani is really about aesthetics, IMHO.
Occasionally, I'll get an inquiry from a catfish enthusiast, asking me if this is one of the woods these fish will gnaw on. The answer, according to my many Pleco friends is that, yeah, in the absence of other, softer woods, they may pick at it; however, for all practical purposes, your Panaque L204, Ancistrus, or other cat would prefer something softer as a chew toy!
One of the biggest concerns a lot of aquarists have about Mopani is the price. Yup, this stuff is kind of expensive relative to other woods used in the aquarium. Why is this? Well, first off, it has that restricted range- Africa. Ever import something from an African nation? It's expensive, fraught with economic risk, and subject to a lot of paperwork hassles to legally obtain goods from this region. Plus, it's kind of heavy, as we've stated before, which adds to the transportation and shipping costs. You're generally not going to see huge pieces of Mopani wood offered for sale in the aquarium trade. Typically, it's more common to see pieces from 5"-25" in length.
Because it's a commercially important wood in its native region, and is increasingly being used in things like flooring and furniture, there is concern about the sustainability of Mopani harvest on this species. There are several African nations that have commissioned sustainability studies regarding harvest of Mopani and other woods, and these are ongoing.
As we are always concerned about the ecological impact and sustainability in regards to the sourcing of our botanicals, we'll be monitoring these studies and will make sure that we continue to obtain our wood from sources and suppliers operating in nations that support the sustainable and ethical harvest of this wood, and we'll discontinue offering it should the ecological impact be threatened by its continued harvest. As you can see, we're not currently offering this stuff..We are currently in the negotiation phase with a supplier who can meet our ethical concerns.
While the impact of the aquarium trade on the wood may be statistically undetectible- it still counts, and every little conservation effort helps. We want to do our part to help preserve this resource for generations to come, and if that means discontinuing offering this product indefinitely, rest assured, we will. And quite honest, the wood has mysteriously fallen out of favor in recent years..The scarcity and necessary expense of the wood no doubt contributes to this. We have literally had individual peices of this wood on our site for a year or more before they sold...even at reduced prices or during a rare sale...so..
Yeah, I kind of went on a tangent about some of these wood types, right?
Well, it's important to really to you that there are many types of wood which you could use in your aquascapes...There is really no one perfect type, IMHO. I mean, even good old-fashioned Pacfic driftwood is terrific in a variety of situations. It has a strong presence and can really replicate fallen tree trunks and massive root systems effectively. It just doesn't have some sexy name.
And of course, the other old standby, Malaysian driftwood, that knotty, interestingly-textured wood is perfect for all sorts of scapes. It's easy to saturate, interesting to look at, and loaded with tannins.
I can go on and on reviewing each type of wood used in the hobby, but that would be rather boring, repetitive, and likely cause me to go off on other regrettable tangents and rants and alienate still more of you!😆
Suffice it to say, that wood, when being submerged in an aquarium, will likely leach tannins into the water. It'll make the water dark...So, you "know the drill"- use activated carbon in quantity if you don't want this tint in your aquarium.
And biofilms and fungi, which we've written about dozens of times in this very blog- will likely make their appearance at some point. We've talked ad nauseam how to deal with this stuff...
Yeah...that's like a whole different discussion we could have.
Bottom line? Choose the wood you like, which you feel best represents the habitat that you're trying to recreate. Understand that it will require preparation (soaking, etc.) before its really "set for use"- and that ideally, this should occur in a operate container instead of the aquarium it's ultimately destined for. Realize tannins and biofilms happen. While most wood types have their own "behavior" in the water, they all are comprised of the same substances, so there are generalities that make one type as good as any other.
Be creative with how you use wood.
Combine it with other materials- or blend different wood types. Be original.
Kick some aquascaping ass.
Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay unique. Stay undaunted. Stay logical...
And Stay Wet.