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Aquarium Driftwood: Decorating That Comes With Benefits

Last Updated August 27, 2021
Aquarium Driftwood

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Adding driftwood is a great way to get a natural look in your aquarium fish tank and help your fish feel more at home in the setup. 

Aquarium-safe wood can be found in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and there is a type for almost every biotope! Although adding pieces of driftwood can make your aquascape come alive, there are a few things to consider before running out to the store.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about using driftwood in your aquarium and some of the most common types you’re bound to come across in your local pet and aquarium stores. 

Why use driftwood in your aquarium?

Driftwood is one of the most popular decorations you can add to your aquarium. But why? What makes it better for allowing fish to hide and feel safe than any other structure? The answer is that driftwood is organic and natural

There are many other benefits to using driftwood in your freshwater aquarium, though it can become expensive for larger aquariums. However, it might not even fit the aesthetic you’re going for in your tank!

Appearance

If you dive into the shallows of a river, lake, or pond, you might expect to see a school of fish swim past you. While this might happen, it’s much more likely the fish are keeping close to an underwater structure, like fallen trees and branches.

This is what aquarium hobbyists try to recreate, as driftwood is a natural and important part of the aquatic ecosystem, so it only makes sense to bring it into the tank, too. 

Of course, over the years hobbyists have taken some of that natural effect out and replaced it with better aquascaping methods for a more contained system. Regardless, there is nothing like seeing a tank filled with aquatic plants and structured with tasteful pieces of driftwood! 

pH and Tannins

An aquarium enthusiast may enjoy the aesthetic qualities a piece of driftwood can bring into the tank and let it work for them to make a biotope ecosystem.

When aquarium driftwood pieces are submerged, they begin to release acidic tannins that are very helpful for fish immunity but stain the tank water an unwanted brown color.

At the same time, the tannins also lower the pH, which makes for an acidic environment. This is actually preferred by many fish, and driftwood is a cheaper and more natural method of achieving this effect. The brown tint, on the other hand, is often undesirable to hobbyists.

Because of this, many aquarium owners treat their driftwood before introducing it into their tanks. This can easily be done through a few methods, like boiling the pieces or letting them soak for extended periods of time. Water changes and carbon can also be added to the aquarium and should clear up the tea color after a few weeks of regular maintenance. 

Bacteria and food

Last but not least, driftwood is a great place for essential bacteria to grow.

If you’re not familiar with what bacteria does in the aquarium, try to get a better understanding of the nitrogen cycle before adding fish to your aquarium.

In short, bacteria help detoxify fish waste and turn it into more useable forms for plants while keeping your fish safe. A good population of bacteria will stabilize tanks and lead to a more mature system.

That means any piece of wood you add to your aquarium will only be helping with the nitrogen cycle in your tank, leading to more ideal water parameters! 

It should also be said that some species of fish, like plecos, actually ingest wood as a fiber supplement. This greatly helps with their digestion, keeping your fish more healthy.

How to use driftwood in the aquarium

Now that you know all the benefits of using driftwood in the aquarium, what’s the best way to add it to your own fish tank? Luckily, it’s a very easy process and you only need to do it once!

Once you’ve decided on a piece of driftwood for your aquascape, it can be very tempting to try to add it to your fish tank right away. Do that, however, and you’ll usually find the wood floating at the top of the tank, as driftwood usually can’t be added to an aquarium without a bit of preparation. 

Preparing driftwood

Because even pre-washed pieces of wood can still contain dirt or loose particles, giving your driftwood a thorough scrub is always a good idea.

An old dish brush and hot water will work great for this, especially if you’re working with larger pieces. Some hobbyists rinse the wood with boiling water to make sure anything harmful on the exterior of the wood has also been neutralized. 

To get rid of most tannins, it is recommended to boil the wood for a couple of hours over low heat; the water should be changed once it starts to get dark. This will also help the wood become waterlogged. 

If you find that your driftwood is still floating after scrubbing and boiling, then you will need to take an extra step to make sure the wood sinks. 

Getting driftwood to stay down

New driftwood is almost always buoyant until it has been submerged for a while, so if you don’t want it floating around the aquarium, you can put it in a bucket with water for a few days until it’s waterlogged.

If you don’t want any tannins from the wood to leak into your aquarium water and the piece is too big to boil, try soaking it a bit longer and changing the water whenever it becomes a dark color. Remember that tannins can be good for your aquarium!

Once your driftwood is clean, waterlogged, and tannin-free, you can incorporate it into your aquascape without any floating problems or tea-colored water.Shrimp and Plecostomus species will be the first ones to check out the new additions! 

How long does driftwood last in an aquarium?

There is no telling how long driftwood will last in your aquarium; some hobbyists have been using the same pieces for 20 years! In general, you can expect most types of driftwood to last five to 10 years without having to be replaced. 

How long your driftwood will last is mostly up to the type of driftwood, but you should note that because wood is organic, it will start to disintegrate after a while, no matter the type or quality you use.  

If you’re using harder woods, like Malaysian driftwood or Mopani wood, then they will probably withstand the test of time or longer. Soft wood, on the other hand, might start to chip away and fall apart after a few years. 

The lifespan of your driftwood can also be affected by any potential livestock that uses it for food or if it has ever been scrubbed for something like algae. 

If your driftwood does start to disintegrate, it will not affect your fish or invertebrates. However, it can become unsightly over time and may start to leach more tannins. 

How do you keep driftwood from rotting? 

Unfortunately, there is no way to keep driftwood from rotting away. As mentioned, driftwood is organic and anything organic has a lifespan.

However, you may find a different kind of rot the first few weeks after you place your driftwood into your aquarium. You may start to notice a brown or white slimy film start to develop on your pieces of driftwood. Don’t worry; this is completely normal, no matter what type of driftwood you have or how you cured it. This is actually a temporary and harmless fungus that develops on new wood. 

While it might be ugly, there is not much you can do about it. If you try to scrape it away, it will probably grow back within a few days. If you try to remove it with chemicals, you run the risk of introducing those back into your aquarium.

It’s much easier and safer to just let this fungus run its course. It should be fully gone within a month of adding the new driftwood; fish and invertebrates usually love to eat it too, so let them do all the work!

Adding driftwood to your aquarium

So, you’ve decided a piece of driftwood is a perfect choice for new aquarium decoration? Great! But how do you know what type of wood to get and which pieces will look best in your display? And how do you integrate driftwood care into your aquarium keeping routine? 

Biotopes

A biotope tank tries to recreate a natural environment in every way possible. This means this kind of aquascaping scene only includes plant, fish, and invertebrate species that are found in that specific habitat.

These biotopes can be as niche as a specific pond in a country, or more general, like blackwater conditions.

Whichever scope you decide to go with, you will want to research which driftwood is typically found in that location. For example, use Mangrove roots for a crab paludarium or Savanna root for a killifish setup!

Maintenance

Maintaining driftwood is very easy; you only need to rinse or boil it, then waterlog it before placing it in the aquarium. You can treat tannins before or after the wood’s placed in the tank. 

As discussed, you might have to deal with a white fuzzy fungus, but it should go away on its own after a while. 

Alternatives

If cleaning and soaking driftwood is too much work for you, try to find a realistic-looking piece of faux driftwood! You can always use other aquarium-safe decorations as well, like castles and bridges. 

Things to Avoid with Driftwood

While driftwood makes an easy addition to your aquarium setup, there are a few other things you’ll want to think over, too. Specifically, there are things you’ll want to avoid when perusing the wide variety of woods on the market. 

Natural woods

Because driftwood can be expensive, it’s very easy to be tempted to add a piece of wood you picked up outside to your aquarium.

For the most part, this is completely possible to do, as long as you look for good wood with no signs of rot and that comes from an unpolluted area. Simply remove the bark and treat it as you would with any other driftwood.

The problem with this is that there’s no way to know if your wood is contaminated or rotting from the inside. This is a chance some hobbyists are willing to take, though the price is often worth the security with store-bought pieces. 

Woods to avoid

Don’t use soft types of wood, like cedar, in your aquarium, as they easily break down and can even release sap into the water. All driftwood should be hard wood to prevent rot and leaching of resin, which can potentially be very harmful.

It should also be noted that driftwood that’s made for reptiles isn’t suitable for aquarium use. 

Tannins

Don’t be afraid of tannins! It may be a bit of a shock to see your aquarium water turn tea-colored after adding your driftwood, but it’s no reason to avoid it, remove it, or go crazy dosing it with chemicals.

If you keep fish that like soft water and come from a natural habitat with naturally dark-colored water, such as bettas, the tannins are good for them.

If you’re worried the tannins will block out light for your plants or if you keep fish that prefer hard water, pre-soak your driftwood until most have leached out. Do some extra water changes and try temporarily using some activated carbon in your filter to quickly remove the color.

Buying on impulse

Don’t buy driftwood before figuring out what you want your aquascape to look like.

You don’t want to end up with a beautiful but useless piece of wood that doesn’t have the required shape or size! Also, think about how you are going to treat the wood before adding it to your tank.

Do you have room for the wood to stay in a bucket or the sun until it’s ready to be put in your aquarium? Are you able to lift the piece of waterlogged driftwood into your aquarium?

Aquarium Driftwood Types

Now that you know how and why aquarium driftwood is used in the aquarium, it’s time to pick out which popular driftwood might be best for your display.  

What type of aquarium driftwood is best for your aquarium? 

There are many kinds of driftwood for sale, often sold in aquascaping stores under varying names.

The type of driftwood you choose is entirely up to you, as there is little difference between the varieties; some may leach more tannins than others and offer more structure for aquascaping, but if you’re happy with the piece, then that’s all that matters!

We’ve given a general overview of the most common driftwoods to come across in the aquarium hobby below. 

Malaysian driftwood

Malaysian driftwood is one of the most common types of aquarium driftwood.

It’s usually quite pointy with sharp edges and leaches a decent amount of brown tannins! Many hobbyists like to use it as a foundation for other driftwood, as the color and finish can be bland. 

Mopani driftwood

Mopani is a close second to Malaysian driftwood, and it’s very easy to find in stores as well. 

This hard wood is usually two-toned in color with smooth edges and elongated branches. Hobbyists find that Mopani releases above-average amounts of tannins that can be difficult to remove. 

Spiderwood

Spiderwood has a rather spidery appearance with longer, twisted branches, making it a very popular choice for aquascapers that want a unique and attractive-looking aquarium setup.

Spiderwood leaches fewer tannins than other driftwoods, but be aware it can take a while to sink! 

Cholla driftwood

Cholla wood is actually cactus wood, and it isn’t widely used because of its appearance and limited lifespan.

Cholla wood will decay after about a year, but this is not harmful; it can even add a very natural bit of broken-down beauty to aquariums if that’s what you desire. 

Cholla wood is often recommended for shrimp tanks, as it offers plenty of room for hiding and foraging.

Manzanita driftwood 

Manzanita wood is naturally found in parts of North America and usually has long thin branches.

It produces fewer tannins than other driftwoods but can take a little longer to sink than usual.

Savanna root

Savanna root is less common to come across and might be categorized under other names.

In general, savanna root has rounded edges and a lighter color. It leaches fewer tannins and usually sinks quite easily.

Conclusion 

Driftwood is one of the best ways you can decorate your aquarium. It’s fully organic, offers structure for aquascaping, lasts a long time, and releases beneficial tannins into the water for pH and aquatic life. 

If you have any more questions about using driftwood in your freshwater aquarium, another type of wood, or if you have experience curing your own driftwood, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

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6 Comments

  • Reply theaquatic September 23, 2021 at 1:13 pm

    Great article, I’ve learnt how to shop for the ideal driftwood that I can use in my aquarium. Aside from saving a lot of money, I can also spare myself from having to deal with the loss of countless numbers of fish.

  • Reply Bella Smith October 28, 2020 at 2:54 am

    Thank you so much for your answer!

  • Reply Bella Smith October 26, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    Do I need to boil or soak driftwood before placing in the tank?

    • Reply Jennifer Doll October 26, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      Hi again!
      Some people boil/soak their driftwood in order to lessen the number of tannins that are released once you put it in your main display; it should be noted that boiling may cause the driftwood to deteriorate faster over time. I personally like the appearance and added benefits that tannins provide, and if you ever change your mind about it you could always just do a water change.
      That being said, some hobbyists like to prepare their driftwood by thoroughly washing the pieces off and even leaving them in the sun to kill any pathogens. Some driftwood will also try to float for a few weeks, but this can be solved by just weighing it down with a rock. Otherwise, a quick rinse and something heavy, and you can put the driftwood right in the tank without soaking/boiling.

  • Reply Warren December 17, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    Where to buy red moorwood for the aquarium
    Online, stores in the US

    • Reply Mari December 17, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      I’m not from the US so I don’t know, sorry! Any other readers that do know feel free to chime in.

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