Aquarium driftwood is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also provides several benefits for the inhabitants of your tank.
Besides providing hiding spots for shy fish and invertebrates, the right kinds of aquarium driftwood also serve ideal surfaces for attaching rhizomatic plants.
Aquarium driftwood also provides a place for beneficial bacteria to colonize, helping keep your tank’s water conditions stable and healthy.
In this quick guide, I’ll walk through some of my favorite types of aquarium driftwood and why you might want to choose one type over another.
Before we get into the types of aquarium driftwood, let me explain what aquarium driftwood is (hint: it’s not the kind you find on the beach).
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What is Aquarium Driftwood?
Aquarium safe driftwood is essentially wood that has been aged, or submerged in water, over a long period of time.
In general, the older a piece of driftwood is, the safer it is because any chemicals and/or decay within the wood have had time to break down and dissipate.
Aquarium driftwood with bark attached is rare, so if you see a piece that does have bark make sure it isn’t a newly cut piece of wood, which can contain resins and other chemicals.
Benefits of Aquarium Driftwood
There are several benefits to adding driftwood to your aquarium.
Besides enhancing the aesthetics, aquarium driftwood provides hiding places and surfaces for fish to rest on (especially algae eaters like otocinclus).
As mentioned above, aquarium driftwood also benefits your tank’s water chemistry by providing an ideal area for beneficial, nitrifying bacteria to colonize.
Pieces of aquarium driftwood also release tannins into the water, which can help lower the pH, which is helpful if you are keeping fish that prefer slightly acidic water.
Types of Driftwood
As a kid, I remember going to a local fish store with my dad and being told by an employee that we should add driftwood to our tank.
My immediate thought was that he was suggesting that we could collect driftwood from the beach and place it in our freshwater aquarium.
Of course, that is not what he meant.
Rather, the fish store employee was using the term “driftwood” to refer to a handful of wood varieties that are safe to use in aquariums and commonly used in aquascapes and planted tanks.
So, what are the types of driftwood that can be safely placed in a freshwater aquarium?
Let’s get into it.
Malaysian driftwood is one of the most popular types of aquarium driftwood.
It is typically denser than other driftwoods and will sink without needing to be soaked for hours (or even days).
Malaysian driftwood is available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Its rich, dark brown color complements the deep green leaves of many types of aquarium plants.
Malaysian driftwood often has beds and twists that add lots of character, but individual pieces vary greatly.
Malaysian driftwood is a somewhat heavy releaser of tannins, making it ideal for blackwater tanks or for fish species that like a little more acidity in their water.
Also known as African driftwood, Mopani wood is another favorite among aquascapers and planted tank enthusiasts.
Mopani wood has an attractive two-tone color and is usually available in a big chunk. Unlike more delicate woods, like Spiderwood, Mopani is a dense and usually lacks branches.
Compared to other aquarium driftwoods, Mopani wood is more like a rock, and is often available as a big chunk.
Because it’s a dense wood, it usually doesn’t have a problem with sinking when placed in an aquarium, but it does release a large amount of tannins (more than Malaysian driftwood in my experience).
Like the other woods on this list, Mopani wood is prone to developing a white, mold-like substance that surrounds the wood.
While it looks concerning, this white cloud is harmless to fish and shrimo and is actually created by sugar consuming bacteria that are feeding off the wood sugars present in the Mopani.
Once those sugars are consumed, the white, mold-like cloud will disappear.
Compared to other driftwoods, Mopani wood is one of the more widely available woods in fish stores and pet shops likely because reptile keepers use it too.
Again, if you want to set up a black water tank, or you don’t mind your water having a slightly brown color (even after multiple water changes), then Mopani is a great choice.
Spiderwood, or more specifically, Rhododendron roots or Azalea roots, is named after its intricate, spindly root structures that resemble spider webs, or spider legs.
If you use Spiderwood in yoru aquarium, expect to see a white mold-like jello develop around it. No matter how many times I boil it, my Spiderwood always develops a layer of white, mold-like jello within a week or two of adding it to my tank .
Thankfully, the mold-like substance is completely harmless to fish and invertebrates (who sometimes enjoy snacking on it).
Spider Wood is my favorite type of aquarium wood for nano tanks, and small desktop aquariums, because its thin branches take up less space while still providing a tree root or jungle type aesthetic.
Some fun applications are vertically positioning pieces to look like trees or bushes, or placing multiple pieces of wood together to create arches that fish can swim through.
But, unlike some of the other driftwoods on this list, Spiderwood is not a very dense wood and will float for hours, or even days, before finally retaining enough water to sink.
I’ve created entire aquascapes, only to forget to soak/boil my Spiderwood beforehand, leading to workarounds, like wedging it between big pieces of Seiryu stone.
Manzanita wood, like Spiderwood, is an aquarium-safe, with a branching structure, making it ideal for aquascaping and planted tanks where the hardscape is the central focal point.
With it’s bark on, Manzanita wood is a dark, reddish brown, but sandblasted pieces (with the bark completely removed) are often sold at pet stores, and these pieces are pale or yellowish in color.
Manzanita wood is a less dense than other types of wood and will likely require boiling and hours of soaking to get it to sink (depending on the size of your piece).
Tannin release is also minimal compared to other woods, so get some Manzanita wood if that matters to you.
Although not technically a type of driftwood, Cholla wood deserves mention in this article.
Cholla wood is actually the remnants of a cactus.
It’s cylindrical and hollowed out shape provides an ideal hiding place for shy fish and aquarium shrimp.
Like other aquarium-safe woods, Cholla wood provides a place for bacteria to colonize, creating biofilms that invertebrates love feasting on.
In fact, I rarely see Cholla wood used in aquascapes, but it is often used in shrimp tanks because it provides shrimp a perfect place to congregate and graze; I also believe shrimp tend to breed more readily with Cholla wood in the tank.
Preparing Driftwood for Your Aquarium
Regardless of the type of driftwood, I perform a few key steps before placing the wood in my tank.
First, I like to boil my driftwood, or at least bathe it in very hot water.
If you have a relatively large piece of wood, you may not be able to boil it on your stovetop.
But, you may be able to soak larger pieces of wood in warm water using a large metal container (like this tub).
The goal is to purge the wood of any chemicals or nasty things that may have attached to the wood before you got it.
After the wood soaks for a few hours (boiled or not), I like to pour out the old water and soak it again in new, clean water.
This helps cleanse the wood and get it waterlogged, ensuring that it will sink when you add it to your aquarium.
Maintenance of Aquarium Driftwood
Over time, your driftwood will become a magnet for algae.
Depending on the type of algae (hair algae is very annoying), you may need to remove it from your tank and boil it again.
Other types of algae can be controlled by adding aquarium shrimp and snails to your tank, or algae eaters, like otocinclus.
Driftwood and Aquascaping
Aquascaping is the art of arranging aquatic plants, stones, and driftwood in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Aquarium driftwood is a key component of many types of aquascapes, especially jungle style scapes.
It can be used to create a sense of scale and perspective, mimic natural landscapes, or serve as the skeleton for moss trees and other artistic plant arrangements.
Driftwood and Tannins
As mentioned earlier, driftwoods leach tannins into the water. Tannins are naturally occurring chemical compounds called polyphenols.
Tannins create a tea-like color and lower the pH of water.
While beneficial for many species of tropical fish and invertebrates, many aquarists do not like seeing their tank water become increasingly brown over time.
Boiling the wood for longer before adding it to the tank can help, and doing frequent water changes in the first couple months helps reduce how many tannins are released from driftwood.
Collecting Your Own Driftwood
I get this question a lot, “can I collect my own driftwood?”
The answer is you can, but I avoid it for a couple reasons.
First, it’s hard to identify what type of wood you are collecting, especially if it’s from a river bank or lake shore.
Second, I worry about introducing microbes or pathogens to my aquarium from wood collected in the wild.
Yes, boiling and/or baking the wood kills many harmful things present in the wood, but there’s always a chance something survives and ends up killing some prized aquarium fish or shrimp later on.
So, while collecting your own aquarium-safe wood is certainly possible, I avoid it.
If you decide to gather your own driftwood, make sure you know what kind of wood you are collecting and have a process for sterilizing it.
Frequently Asked Questions About Aquarium Driftwood
Next, I’m going to go over some of the common questions I get about aquarium driftwood.
What’s the best driftwood for plecos?
Plecos are interesting aquarium fish in that they like to rasp against wood.
Rasping is how fish with sucker mouths (they function like suction cups) scrape algae and detritus off glass, rocks, and wood.
So, if you plan to have a pleco in your aquarium, the best wood for them would be types like Malaysian driftwood or Mopani wood, which have a relatively wide surface area for plecos to rasp on.
Spiderwood is less ideal for plecos because the branches tend to be thin and harder for a pleco to get a suction grip on, but for other algae eaters, like otocinclus, it’s great.
What’s the best driftwood for betta fish?
The best driftwood for betta fish depends on what kind of tank you are keeping your betta in.
If your betta fish is living in a 10 gallons, then all of the driftwood listed in this article are an option, as long as the piece of wood is moderately sized.
But, if your betta is in a tank between 3-5 gallons, then I highly recommend using smaller, thinner pieces of driftwood, giving the betta more space to swim.
Check out my 3 gallon betta fish bowl video if you want to see how driftwood can be used to hide a heater.
What’s the best moss for driftwood?
Most mosses available in the aquarium hobby are easily attached to driftwood and grow easily under a variety of conditions (including basic aquarium kit lights), so the best moss for driftwood is the one that looks aesthetically pleasing to you.
My favorite moss to attach to driftwood is Java moss because it’s widely available online and in fish stores.
I also like flame moss and weeping moss, which have a slightly different look.
What’s the best place to buy driftwood for aquarium?
The best place to buy aquarium driftwood depends on where you live.
Some of you have incredible local stores with decent prices on a variety of driftwoods, so that’s a great place to look for you next piece.
But, for those of you who don’t have a local fish store nearby, eBay is an excellent place to buy live aquarium plants.
What are the best aquarium plants for driftwood?
Besides aquatic mosses, the best plants for attaching to driftwood are rhizomatic plants, like Java fern and Anubias, which do not need soil to grow.
What’s the best glue for driftwood?
The best glue for attaching plants to driftwood is superglue.
What is the best driftwood for aquascaping?
The best driftwood for aquascaping depends on the type of aquascape you want to create.
Check out my article on the different types of aquascapes you can build if you want to learn more.
Wood to Avoid for Aquariums
In general, avoid woods that:
1. Have been treated with chemicals and/or oils.
2. Woods that have not been weathered or aged (newly cut or unaged wood contains toxins).
3. Woods that have a smell or scent (again, if it smells, it probably means the wood has been treated, is rotting, or is unaged and contains natural chemicals).
The internet is full of opinions about which woods are safe for fish and which are toxic.
Some claim that certain woods are toxic no matter what, while other aquarists claim that even toxic woods (like pine and cedar) can become safe with enough aging.
For the beginner aquarist, or those not interested in debating wood, I say stick with the types of driftwood that are known to be safe and are widely available (like the ones I mention in this article.
I hope this article gave you a better idea of which types of driftwood are best for use in aquariums and aquascapes.
Also, check out my articles on planted tanks and aquascaping tips if you want to learn more about creating stunning aquariums with live plants.
Or, check out my planted shrimp tank article and video if you are thinking about setting up a freshwater shrimp aquarium.
As always, stay zen.