The Dramatic Design of Driftwood
Author: Mike Tuccinardi
Over the past 50 years, much has changed in aquarist culture when it comes to developing an aquarium’s milieu. The art of decorating the inside of our home aquariums has evolved considerably, reflecting not only personal taste, but current trends and cultural backgrounds as well. Recently, the predominant trend has been toward creating a more natural look, as aquarium owners seek to capture a little slice of nature in their living rooms. This shift has brought about an enormous interest in natural décor—in particular, with something common to many freshwater habitats worldwide: driftwood.
Décor with Purpose
Unlike artificial plants, resin ornaments, or natural stone, real driftwood can present a number of challenges to the aquarist. However, when done well, a driftwood-dominated aquascape is one of the best ways to create a natural habitat for fish, while also providing an awe-inspiring display for the home.
One of the most interesting properties of driftwood is that its benefits in the aquarium extend beyond mere decoration. It can serve many useful functions, including water conditioning; acting as a substrate for biofilm, algae, and mosses; and providing a source of food for a number of fish. In this regard, it is almost like a living thing that will change over time while interacting with your tank’s water, filtration, and inhabitants.
In this article, I’ll be looking at various types of commercially available driftwood and their relative benefits, as well as providing some insight on utilizing them in the aquarium.
Although it may seem obvious, it is important to note that aquarium keepers—and the general public—often have a very different concept of what driftwood is. In its broader use, the term tends to refer to the heavily weathered and eroded pieces of dead wood (ranging from small branches to entire trees) that wash up on shorelines from time to time. Steeped in salts and generally floating, this wood has no place in a freshwater aquarium.
When aquarists talk about driftwood, we are generally referring to minimally weathered, branching pieces of hardwood with very specific qualities that render them safe for use in our home tanks. Often, this wood doesn’t even originate from an aquatic environment—and never from saline or brackish water areas. These important criteria, which are detailed below, largely determine how useful or desirable the various commercially available types of driftwood are.
Driftwood must be nontoxic, which should be obvious. Wood is capable of leaching all kinds of chemical compounds into water. For example, many conifers produce copious amounts of sap, which can wreak havoc in an aquarium. Likewise, the bark of many trees contains compounds that can have a detrimental effect to your tank in a number of ways.
Proper preparation can help alleviate these issues, but it is very important to thoroughly research (and often, carefully test) any unknown wood before adding it to an aquarium. Of course, all of the commercially available driftwoods I’ll be discussing are nontoxic.
Though it may also seem rather obvious, driftwood generally can’t be bobbing at the surface if it’s going to achieve its desired effect in the aquarium. Some woods perform much better than others, but there are a few fairly simple workarounds to get even stubbornly buoyant pieces to sink. How quickly it will sink—or if it submerges at all—is largely a function of its density.
Inert and Durable
Perhaps less obvious than the prior two criteria, but equally as important, is the rate of decomposition. Driftwood is dead, organic matter. When placed in a warm, wet environment, it will begin to decompose. This is a natural process and can be a beneficial one, as it fosters the growth of a healthy community of microbes and, occasionally, multicellular organisms—which can be a great source of food for small fish and fry. But for aesthetic purposes, few of us would like to see the centerpiece of our tank fall apart over the course of just a few months.
Furthermore, any wood that will begin to rapidly decompose when first placed in the tank can trigger bacterial blooms, algae, and fungus growth. Therefore, it is best to seek out wood that will take years (not weeks) to break down, and won’t cause an organic explosion when first introduced.
The majority of driftwood purchased for aquarium use is exported in large numbers from Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Durable, dense, generally sinking, and rich in texture and character, Malaysian driftwood is popular in the hobby for a reason. It also tends to be the most reasonably priced of the commercially available types, adding to its appeal.
This driftwood tends to be dark in color and comes in a variety of shapes, most commonly in small, stump-like pieces and root masses. It does not tend to occur in branching pieces, although you may occasionally come across a larger piece with these features.
In terms of aquarium use, it is one of the easiest to handle with regard to required preparation. Like all wood, it will leach a substantial amount of tannins into the water, staining it yellowish or almost tea-brown. If this is undesirable for aesthetic purposes, it must be soaked before placement in the aquarium to remove the bulk of its tannic acid.
I’ve found that heavy, dense pieces will leach tannins for much longer periods of time than more light or slender pieces. Generally, a week’s soak in warm water in a 5-gallon (19-liter) bucket will suffice (or a 30-gallon [114-liter] plastic trash barrel, if you’re soaking larger pieces). If possible, spend some time rinsing off the driftwood under hot water before soaking to remove any dirt or debris from the exterior. A coarse brush can be helpful for this task.
If the driftwood is causing discoloration in the water even after a thorough soak, a few water changes and the addition (or replacement) of activated carbon or other chemical filtration should do the trick.
African Root Wood
Also sometimes referred to as Mopani wood, African root wood is exported—as the name implies—from Africa, where it is harvested from the gnarled root masses of a few species of hardwood trees. One of its most distinctive features is that pieces tend to have a notable dual color scheme—the smooth exterior is a light tan, while the heavily textured interior surfaces are a dark mahogany. This contrast makes it especially eye-catching when used for aquascaping.
African root wood is very dense and often quite heavy. In terms of shape, it tends to look a lot like the roots of a tree, with many interesting whorls and knots. It’s not uncommon to find pieces that create natural caves, which many fish will appreciate. One downside, however, is that it tends to fill horizontal space as opposed to vertical, so it may not be the best choice for a tall aquarium. On a positive note, due to its density, this wood will generally sink immediately even without soaking.
Keep in mind that African root wood has a tendency to release a lot of tannins into the water and will continue doing so for some time. As of this writing, I’ve been watching a newly introduced piece turn a 15-gallon (57-liter) tank’s water tea-colored over the course of a few days. For my purposes, this is exactly what I wanted, but many aquarists (and some fish) prefer clearer water for their display tanks, which is perfectly understandable.
I recommend a thorough rinse in hot water before an extended soak of approximately one to three weeks. If at all possible, boiling can help speed up the tannin removal substantially.
It is not uncommon for African root wood to develop a certain amount of “fuzz” during the preparation process, which may continue even after being placed in the aquarium. This is largely harmless, although it can be unsightly. It is simply a result of opportunistic bacteria and fungi decomposing organic matter off the surface, which will dissipate on its own in time.
To expedite the process, rinse it under very hot water and thoroughly scrub it with a toothbrush or other coarse brush. This may need to be repeated a few times before the fuzz finally disappears.
Red Spider Wood
A relative newcomer to the aquarium driftwood scene, red spider wood (sometimes called Indian spider wood or rosewood) is fast becoming enormously popular among aquascapers. It is branchy, gnarly, colorful, and has undeniable character.
Spider wood varies widely in shape and overall form, from branches to stumps to mini trees. I’ve come across some genuinely bizarre-looking pieces that would delight any creative aquascaper. It tends to be on the larger side, and it is one of the most effective types of driftwood for scaping a very large aquarium.
Unfortunately, for all of its positive attributes, it does come with a few drawbacks. First and foremost, almost all spider wood will float when placed in water. It can take some time (up to a month for some “stubborn” pieces) to completely sink and will require some effort to do so.
Prepping Spider Wood
I have found that the best method for soaking, sinking, and prepping spider wood is to use a 30-gallon (76-liter) plastic trash barrel filled with very hot water. With all the pieces being prepped placed inside, put a heavy, inert object (a paving stone or large piece of slate works well) on top of the stack so that it submerges and is held in place. A water change with hot water once or twice weekly over the course of two to four weeks will ensure the wood is thoroughly soaked and will sink when placed in the aquarium.
Alternatively, I have used a “shortcut” method that involves attaching the wood to a slate base. Use a masonry bit to drill a small hole into a sufficiently heavy piece of slate. Then, drill an appropriately-sized screw through that hole and into the base of the driftwood. It will sink immediately, and the slate can be hidden by substrate. However, it is important to keep in mind that the wood will continue to leach a substantial amount of tannins into the aquarium for some time.
Spider Wood and Loricariids
Spider wood is a particular favorite of some of the xylophagic (wood eating) loricariids, which will also find shelter in its fine branches and crevices. Some loricariids, especially the royal types of the genus Panaque, will chew right through entire branches. Over the course of a few months, one of my L330 watermelon plecos (Panaque cf. nigrolineatus) has significantly worn down a beautiful piece with its rasping teeth. It has a strong preference for the small branches of spider wood, even when offered other food.
Not quite as readily available as the preceding options—but still obtainable for the persistent hobbyist—manzanita driftwood is like no other type of wood out there. Faint in color and extremely lightweight, it is the very fine, spindly, twig-like branches that make manzanita stand out in the aquarium.
Like spider wood, a certain amount of ease of use must be sacrificed for aesthetics—manzanita doesn’t sink, and it is very prone to developing fuzz or slime when first introduced.
In my experience, the best preparation for it is a thorough soak (weighted down if need be), with repeated scrubbing under hot water throughout. I usually use an old toothbrush to clean off areas where a noticeable amount of slime or fuzz has built up, afterwards returning the piece to a bucket to continue soaking. After three to four weeks, even the more stubborn pieces will have sunk and should be finished sprouting patches of fuzz along their surfaces.
Manzanita’s light white color is quite striking when first added to an aquarium, but unfortunately it will tend to darken over time. Having algae eaters in the tank—such as shrimp, flying foxes, or a pleco or two—will help keep the surface free of algal build-up or detritus.
Watch for Sharp Edges
It’s also important to keep in mind that manzanita branches can have some sharp edges. If you keep large or very active fish in your aquarium, they could potentially injure themselves against these branches. Usually, injuries are minor and can heal without special care, but I try to keep the swimming patterns of the tanks’ inhabitants in mind when using it. Allowing plenty of open space and breaking off or dulling any particularly sharp points will help reduce the risk of any problems.
There are, of course, many other types of driftwood available, though they are rarely marketed for aquarium use. Grapevine—widely available for terrarium use—is not suitable for aquariums because it will rapidly decompose when wet.
Ghost wood, another terrarium favorite, can be adapted for aquarium use but requires an extended soak before it will sink. This wood is useful in a riparium-style setup (only a partially filled tank with plants emerging from the water’s surface) because it has a tendency to grow a coating of moss in a humid setting.
Some aquarists even use natural driftwood they collect outside from ponds, streams, or vernal pools. This is certainly a feasible (and free) option, though care must be taken not to introduce anything potentially dangerous into the aquarium. Be sure to dry any driftwood from the wild for some time before using it.
Whether you are looking to create a striking aquascape or desire to replicate a specific aquatic habitat in detail, driftwood offers endless possibilities for creating an aquascape that is both aesthetically pleasing and distinctly natural. It also supplies benefits beyond just aesthetics—driftwood provides cover for some species, a grazing area for others, and even a surface on which to grow aquatic plants and mosses. It is also dynamic, changing in color and shape over time as it erodes and gradually decomposes, just as it would in the aquatic habitats from which our fish originate.
While not without its challenges, this is a great way to transform an otherwise uninspired glass box into a living patch of nature in your home. Each piece is a unique creation, and with the wide variety available for aquarists, it is no surprise that this form of aquarium décor is growing in popularity.