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Driftwood in Fish Aquariums

driftwood-fish-tank

You’ve spent hours picking out great aquariums, kits and stands—and now it’s time to decorate. Driftwood can be a gorgeous centerpiece for your aquarium, a conversation starter, a playground for your aquatic life, a base for live plants, a food source and more. Its low-maintenance requirements can make it a great option for beginners and experienced aquarists alike.  

Table of Contents:

What is driftwood?

Driftwood is a general term that refers to any wood that has washed up on the shore of a beach, lake or riverbank. Driftwood has typically spent some time in the water before being washed ashore by wind, tide or waves. Planted aquariums with driftwood are especially popular, as live plants and wood can cohabitate nicely and lend the habitat a beautiful, natural look.  

Benefits of driftwood

Driftwood can be very good for aquariums when used properly. It naturally releases tannins into the water, which can help boost natural immune systems in aquatic life to lower your pH and is especially helpful if your water is alkaline. You’ll likely see these  effects within the first few weeks, but you’ll need a long-term solution if your pH remains high. Tannins can also increase the amount of oxygen in the water.  

Aquarium wood can also promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, helping to balance the ecosystem. Beneficial bacteria love to grow on the added surface area of driftwood, and these colonies can help break down waste. It isn’t just bacteria that benefits from driftwood—aquatic life love it, too. It likely exists in their natural habitat in some form, providing them with a place to hide, breed and explore. And for algae eaters, it can provide an excellent food source.  

Types of driftwood 

There are many types of aquarium wood and logs, including synthetic options and combinations that also include rocks or plants. The most important thing to look for in aquarium driftwood is that it has no chemicals, preservatives or dyes. Here are a few of the most common types of driftwood you can find. 

Bogwood:

Bogwood has been preserved in a peat bog, sometimes over hundreds or thousands of years. The anaerobic conditions and tannins—plus the type of tree it comes from—give it interesting color patterns. Pine will be colored reddish-brown, yew trees are dark brown and oak trees create bogwood that is jet black. Real bogwood can be difficult to find—today, most woods are dried outside rather than undergoing the long process of anaerobic preservation.  

Mopani wood:

Mopani wood is one of the hardest types of wood for aquariums and is heavy enough that it might not even float when you add it to your habitat. It comes from sub-Saharan Africa’s mopane trees and has a fascinating, gnarled appearance that looks like something from a spooky movie. The interesting texture and contrasting, two-tone bark make mopani wood a stunning addition to many aquariums.  

Malaysian driftwood:

This is one of the most common types of aquarium wood. Like mopani wood, it’s very dense and typically won’t float when you add it to your aquarium. It has natural, rugged good looks and is extremely versatile. Moss and live plants take well to it, and it comes in many shapes and sizes—from long and flat to taller, gnarled pieces. It also has a slow decay rate, and many aquarium enthusiasts love that it is long-lasting.  

Cholla wood:

Cholla wood is one of the more interesting-looking types of driftwood for aquariums. It has a hollow cylinder shape punctuated by many holes, giving it a lattice-like appearance. Cholla wood doesn’t actually come from trees—it’s the inner frame of the Cylindropuntia cactus. With cholla wood’s unique look and porous texture, small freshwater fish, algae-eaters and shrimp especially love it—and it’s a great conversation piece.  

Spider wood:

Speaking of unique looks, spider wood is one of the most fascinating aquarium woods. It truly does look like a spider, with a thick base that shoots out spiny “legs” in all directions, adding visual interest to any aquarium. And like cholla wood, spider wood doesn’t come from the branches or trunk of a tree—it comes from the roots of Asian rhododendrons. It’s available in many different colors, from red and reddish-brown to beige. Spider wood is also commonly quite large but can be trimmed to fit any size aquarium. Because it is a root, spider wood is very light and will need to soak for a long time before it sinks. Spider wood also does not leach as many tannins as other species of driftwood.

How do I prepare driftwood for an aquarium?

Whether you get your aquarium wood from a store or your local pond, river or lake, you must properly clean, sterilize and soak it before adding it to your habitat. Here’s how.  

Clean:

First, use a clean, dry brush to wipe off dirt or dust. Then add clean, plain water and scrub the wood to remove anything else on it. Always use a brush that has never been used before—an unused toothbrush should work well—and ensure your water and the bucket you put it in are also clean and free of any cleaning solutions or soap.  

Sterilize:

You can sterilize driftwood by boiling it in water. The length of time depends on the size of the piece and the type of wood but can range from 30 minutes for smaller, softer woods to several hours for large, hard pieces of wood. If you need to boil the wood for a long time, add water as it evaporates to keep the entire portion of wood submerged.  

Boiling is the recommended way to sterilize driftwood, but what if you have a very large piece that won’t fit in a stovetop pot? You can also soak it in a solution of 2–3 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water for about 24–48 hours. Make sure your bleach solution isn’t too strong, and after soaking your driftwood, place it in another bucket of clean water and a dechlorinator for around a day to get rid of the bleach before you add it to your aquarium.  

Curing:

Curing is the process of removing some of the tannins from your driftwood and weighing it down. You don’t necessarily have to cure driftwood for aquariums, but it has several benefits. First, it will help your driftwood sink to the bottom rather than float on the top, which is especially important for lighter woods like cholla wood and spider wood. Second, allowing some pre-leaching  of the tannins can help keep your water clearer. Without leaching, most driftwood can cause the water to become yellow or brown. This is fine for aquatic life (and even beneficial), but most aquatic parents prefer clear water and clear views. 

To cure your aquarium wood, all you have to do is soak it in plain, clean water. Choose a container that can completely submerge the wood, and change the water every day. How long will it take? That depends on the size and type of wood, but typically about 1–2 weeks. Continue changing the water daily until it is clear and you’re ready to add it to your aquarium.  

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Reviewed by Don Spaeth, Petco’s National Aquatic Care, Education and Programs Manager

Don is Petco’s National Aquatic Care, Education and Programs Manager. He is an avid aquarist who has worked with and cared for freshwater and marine aquatic life for over 40 years. Throughout his 27+ years with Petco, Don has actively been involved with our aquatic vendor partners and worked to promote aquatic education both in store and company-wide.