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How to Make a Botanical Aquarium


If you are looking for a way to create a more natural and realistic environment for your fish, you might want to consider setting up a botanical aquarium.

A botanical aquarium is an aquarium that uses various plant materials, such as leaves, seed pods, bark, and wood, to mimic the conditions of natural habitats where fish live in the wild.

Botanical aquariums are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they also offer many benefits for the fish and the water quality.

Botanicals can help lower the pH and hardness of the water, creating soft and acidic conditions that are ideal for many tropical fish species, especially those from blackwater environments.

Blackwater is a term used to describe water that is stained dark brown by the tannins and humic substances that leach from decaying plant matter.

Tannins and humic substances are organic compounds that have many positive effects on fish health and behavior.

They can act as natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, reducing the risk of infections and diseases. They can also help reduce stress and enhance the colors and breeding activity of fish.

Botanicals can also provide a rich source of food and shelter for fish and other aquatic organisms. As botanicals break down in the water, they release nutrients and organic matter that stimulate the growth of biofilms, fungi, algae, and microorganisms.

These form a complex food web that can supplement the diet of fish, especially those that are omnivorous or herbivorous.

Botanicals can also create hiding places and spawning sites for fish, encouraging natural behaviors and increasing their sense of security.


Setting up a botanical aquarium is not difficult, but it does require some planning and preparation.

You will need to choose botanicals that are suitable for your fish species and water parameters. The best way to choose the right botanical for your fish is to research their natural habitats and preferences.

(Photo via Tannin Aquatic's 'The Botanical- Style Aquarium' )

For example, if you have fish from Amazonian streams, you might want to use Indian Almond Leaves, Catappa Bark, or South Americal natural Leaf Litter to create a blackwater environment.

If you have fish from Southeast Asian peat swamps, you might want to use Lotus Pods, Coco Curls, or Guava Bark to create a soft and acidic environment.

If you have fish from African rivers, you might want to use Alder Cones, Magnolia Cones, or Cinnamon Bark to create a tannin-rich environment. You can also mix and match different botanicals to create your own unique look and feel.

You will also need to prepare them properly before adding them to your tank. Here are some steps you can follow to prepare your botanicals:

Rinse your botanicals thoroughly under running water to remove any dirt or debris.

Boil your botanicals in a large pot of water for 15 to 30 minutes to sterilize them and release some of the tannins.

Drain the water and let your botanicals cool down completely.

Soak your botanicals in a bucket of fresh water for several hours or days, changing the water daily, until they sink or until you are satisfied with the amount of tannins they release.

Add your botanicals gradually to your tank, starting with a few pieces at a time, and observe how they affect your water quality and fish behavior.


Here are some tips on how to set up your own botanical aquarium.

(Photo via Tannin Aquatic's 'The Botanical- Style Aquarium' )

First, you need to choose the right tank size and shape for your project.

Botanical aquariums look best in long and shallow tanks that mimic the natural habitats of many fish species. You also need to consider the lighting, filtration, and heating requirements of your tank.

  • For lighting, you want to use a low to medium intensity light that will not cause algae growth or burn the plants.
  • For filtration, you want to use a gentle filter that will not disturb the botanicals or create too much water movement.
  • For heating, you want to keep the temperature stable and within the range of your fish preferences.

Next, you need to choose the right substrate for your botanical aquarium.

Substrate is the material that covers the bottom of your tank and provides a base for the plants and botanicals.

You can use sand, gravel, soil, or a mix of them depending on your preference and the type of plants you want to grow. Some plants need a nutrient-rich substrate to thrive, while others can grow on inert substrates. You can also add some peat moss or sphagnum moss to lower the pH and soften the water if you have acidic-loving fish.

Then, you need to choose the right plants for your botanical aquarium.

Plants are essential for creating a natural and balanced ecosystem in your tank. They provide oxygen, shelter, food, and beauty for your fish and other inhabitants.

You can use aquatic plants such as java fern, anubias, crypts, mosses, and floating plants that can grow on or near the surface of the water.

You can also use terrarium plants such as pothos, philodendron, spider plants, or Ivy that can grow out of the water and create a nice contrast with the underwater scene.

Finally, you need to choose the right botanicals for your botanical aquarium.

Botanicals are natural materials such as leaves, pods, bark, and wood that add texture, color, and interest to your tank. They also release tannins and humic acids that create a tea-colored water that mimics the natural conditions of many tropical fish habitats. You can use botanicals such as catappa leaves, alder cones, guava leaves, magnolia pods, oak bark, mopani wood, and driftwood to decorate your tank. You can either boil them or soak them in hot water before adding them to your tank to remove any dirt or pests and speed up the sinking process.

But wait! There's more!

You also need to take good care of your botanical aquarium to keep it looking fresh and healthy. Here are some tips on how to maintain your botanical aquarium.


✅ Do regular water changes every week or two depending on the size of your tank and the bioload of your fish. This will help remove any excess nutrients or waste that may accumulate in your tank and cause algae or disease problems.

✅Monitor the water parameters such as pH, hardness, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and temperature using a test kit or a digital meter. This will help you adjust the water conditions if needed and prevent any stress or harm to your fish.

✅Prune any dead or dying leaves or stems from your plants using scissors or tweezers. This will prevent them from rotting in your tank and affecting the water quality.

✅Replace any decomposed or disintegrated botanicals with new ones every few months or as needed. This will keep your tank looking fresh and natural.

✅Enjoy watching your fish swim among the plants and botanicals and observe their behavior and interactions.

But before you go ahead and start creating your own botanical aquarium, let me warn you about some common mistakes that beginners often make when setting up their tanks.

❎Don't overstock your tank with too many fish or plants. This will create an imbalance in your tank's ecosystem and lead to overcrowding, aggression, disease, or nutrient deficiency issues.

❎Don't add too many botanicals at once or without preparing them properly. This will cause a sudden drop in pH and oxygen levels in your tank and shock or harm your fish.

❎Don't use tap water without dechlorinating it first. Chlorine and chloramine are harmful chemicals that are added to tap water to kill bacteria and make it safe for human consumption. However, they are also toxic to fish and plants and can damage their gills, skin, and leaves.

❎Don't neglect the cycling process of your tank. Cycling is the process of establishing a colony of beneficial bacteria in your tank that will break down the ammonia and nitrite produced by your fish's waste into less harmful nitrate. This will prevent ammonia and nitrite poisoning, which can be fatal to your fish.

❎Don't forget to quarantine any new fish or plants before adding them to your main tank. Quarantining is the process of isolating any new arrivals in a separate tank for a few weeks to observe their health and behavior and treat any diseases or parasites they may have. This will prevent the spread of any infections or pests to your main tank and its inhabitants.

Now that you know what to do and what not to do when making a botanical aquarium, let me introduce you to some common fish that are suitable for this type of tank.

👍 Tetras: Tetras are small, colorful, and peaceful fish that are great for schooling in a botanical aquarium. They come in many varieties such as neon tetras, ember tetras, cardinal tetras, and rummynose tetras. They prefer soft and acidic water with low to medium lighting and plenty of plants and botanicals to hide and explore.

👍 Rasboras: Rasboras are another group of small, colorful, and peaceful fish that are great for schooling in a botanical aquarium. They also come in many varieties such as harlequin rasboras, chili rasboras, lambchop rasboras, and scissortail rasboras. They prefer soft and acidic water with low to medium lighting and plenty of plants and botanicals to hide and explore.

👍 Corydoras: Corydoras are bottom-dwelling catfish that are very popular among aquarists. They are friendly, active, and easy to care for. They come in many varieties such as bronze corys, panda corys, peppered corys, and pygmy corys. They prefer soft and slightly acidic water with sand or fine gravel substrate and plenty of plants and botanicals to scavenge and rest.

👍 Dwarf Cichlids: Dwarf cichlids are small, colorful, and intelligent fish that are great for adding some personality to your botanical aquarium. They come in many varieties such as apistogrammas, rams, kribensis, and nannacaras. They prefer soft and acidic water with low to medium lighting and plenty of plants and botanicals to claim territories and breed.

I hope you enjoyed this guide on how to make a botanical aquarium. If you follow these steps and avoid these mistakes, you will be able to create a stunning and healthy botanical aquarium that will bring you joy and satisfaction for years to come. 

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