Driftwood for Plecos – All You Need to Know

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Many aquarists use driftwood as a decorative element without realizing how important driftwood is for the environment as a whole.

The situation also changes drastically when discussing plecos, as these fish actually use driftwood for more than just its aesthetics.

Today, we’ll discuss the relationship between plecos and driftwood, as it can get more complex than you might have suspected.

Do Plecos Need Driftwood?

Yes, they do, but not all of them. Some plecos use driftwood as a food source, common bristlenose plecos being some of them. Other species show little interest in driftwood, as is the case with the zebra pleco.

This being said, plecos can survive just fine without driftwood in their environment. The presence of driftwood is beneficial overall, but it’s not a matter of absolute life or death.

Benefits of Driftwood for Plecos

Let’s check the overall benefits to consider.

Good Food Source

It’s not that plecos eat driftwood intentionally because they’re not meant to do that. Plecos have sucker mouths, so they can’t bite or chew driftwood.

That said, they use driftwood for grazing purposes, as plecos are opportunistic scavengers, eating almost anything they can find.

This means they will consume detritus, algae, and microorganisms that thrive on decorations like driftwood.

In the process, the pleco will also ingest driftwood fibers which aid in digestion. It’s also worth noting that driftwood acts as a breeding ground for various microorganisms populating the tank.

This explains why so many pleco species dwell near the driftwood for the most part.

Helps with Digestion

The fibers present in the driftwood help plecos with their digestion. The added fibers prevent constipation and compaction and help plecos break down their food easier.

This also means that your plecos will produce more waste and be in need of more frequent tank cleaning.

At least your plecos will be happier with their diet. As a side note, plecos have a longer digestive system compared to other fish species.

This allows them to break down even fibers, whereas other fish cannot. As a result, driftwood fibers do more for plecos than just aid in digestion.

They actually provide the catfish with a plus of nutrients, boosting its immune system and keeping it full for longer.

Provides Hiding Places

Plecos being shy and docile is nothing new, but did you know that they can get stressed if they have nowhere to hide?

You should always provide your pleco with various hiding spots for when the fish gets rattled or needs rest. Driftwood is great in this sense because it’s also readily available in the pleco’s natural habitat.

The catfish will use it as a hiding spot in case any of its tankmates get too intimate and either nip, bully, or straight-up attack the pleco.

Plecos also appreciate darker resting areas with low light levels; the driftwood is perfect for that.

Just make sure your driftwood decoration is only one of the many hiding spots available to your pleco.

Get some nice cave structures as well to provide your plecos with plenty of environmental variation.

Imitate Natural Environment

Plecos, and all fish in general, feel more comfortable in environments that imitate their natural habitat.

That’s because fish only feel comfortable and safe in their natural setup, where their species has been dwelling for generations.

Plecos live in lush ecosystems with a variety of plants, rocks, driftwood, and plenty of other elements that create layout diversity.

Such a setup provides plecos with plenty of exploration opportunities and keeps them busy and physically and mentally engaged.

The diverse layout also offers more feeding opportunities, as the tank’s microfauna has more areas to cover.

Help with Water Chemistry

Driftwood accomplishes this via 3 different means:

  1. Tannin release – Tannins increase the environmental oxygen and act as poison for various dangerous pathogens, keeping the water clean and healthy. These beneficial chemicals also color the tank water, giving in a whiskey-like nuance if that’s something you fancy. If not, you can boil the driftwood prior to using it to eliminate the tannins.
  2. Bacterial growth – Driftwood serves as a breeding ground for denitrifying bacteria, which are essential in combating ammonia and nitrites. These bacterial organisms will spread everywhere, including the filtration system, but prefer driftwood and other similar spongy structures.
  3. Decreasing the water pH – This is a vital benefit, given that plecos prefer a specific pH range and less alkaline water. The ideal parameters for plecos include a pH range of 7.0-8.0 and water hardness between 3 and 10 dKH. The presence of the driftwood will regulate these values, dropping the water’s alkalinity and keeping plecos in a safer and more comfortable environment.

Best Wood Types for Plecos

Now that you know why plecos need driftwood, let’s look into the various types of wood available for your pleco tank.

Depending on the wood type and the pleco species in question, some driftwood types are better than others.

Mopani Wood

This is a tree-sourced type of wood with a knot-like structure. It has no sharp or narrow branches that could hurt your pleco, so you can use it any way you please.

This type will alter the water’s pH and contains a lot of tannins if that’s something you need for your aquarium.

The main problems to consider are the presence of sap (sometimes in large quantities) and the increased density and hardness. The latter means that your plecos won’t be able to nibble on it.

Regarding the sap, this substance is generally poisonous for most aquatic animals. To prevent any problems, boil and sandblast your Mopani wood before using it for your aquarium.

This will eliminate much of the tannins in the wood, but it’s better than dealing with sap.

Malaysian Blackwood

This is another special driftwood entry, as Malaysian driftwood is one of the densest and most impactful pieces you can get for your tank.

This species lowers the water’s pH and will sink with ease. It’s also darker than other driftwood species, making it great for plecos and other bottom dwellers in need of a shadier habitat.

Malaysian driftwood grows up to 12 inches, but you can find it in smaller pieces, depending on your needs.

If I were to mention some relevant problems with this species, that would be the tannins and the rot sensitivity.

Malaysian blackwood releases impressive amounts of tannins, which isn’t exactly ideal if you don’t need them.

This type of driftwood also ranks as hardwood which speaks about the wood’s density. So, your Malaysian blackwood will sink with ease but also decay with time, often sooner than other species.

You should always check your wood’s integrity and remove it once it begins to break down.

Cholla Wood

I would say that the Cholla wood is the best piece you can get for your plecos. The main reason is the wood’s appearance and customizable power.

Cholla wood can come in sizes up to 36 inches, but you can customize your piece depending on your needs. The wood’s structure is heavily porous, with a lot of holes and cracks everywhere.

This makes Cholla wood great for bacterial growth once the wood ages.

Most Cholla pieces come in the form of Swiss-cheese-like tunnels, providing your plecos with both food and plenty of exploration opportunities. Fortunately, Cholla wood won’t produce excess tannins.

Unfortunately, it will decay over time, so you must regularly check its integrity. This species also floats when dry due to the wood’s low density.

So, you should presoak your Cholla wood before use. You may also need to secure it with a heavier anchor to make sure it doesn’t rise to the water’s surface.

Saba Wood

Saba wood works great for both small, vertical aquariums and ones with a lot of horizontal space.

This type of driftwood grows vertically for the most part and comes with a wider base to provide stability even on soft substrates.

Saba wood is generally dense, with multiple short branches and a clean base. It’s usually darker in color and seeps tannins into the water tank gradually.

This makes it a great option for pleco tanks, especially in the long run, as the wood gets covered by moss, algae, and various organisms.

The only problem is that Saba wood’s structure isn’t ideal for eating. Your plecos will have difficulties collecting algae and detritus from the numerous crevices and indentations.

That being said, this is a good piece nonetheless, as it provides your plecos with layout diversity and some good exploration opportunities.

Spider Wood

Spider wood is basically Saba wood with attitude. This type of driftwood comes with a variety of spiraling branches that usually form quite an impressive crown.

Spider wood has the most aesthetic value among all of the options on today’s list, especially when algae and plants use it as support.

This type of driftwood doesn’t affect the water’s pH too much and only contains a small amount of tannins.

It is also lightweight and comes in various sizes, allowing you to customize your tank environment the way you see fit.

Be careful about choosing the right spider wood for your pleco tank. Some pieces have sharp branches that could cut or puncture your fish by mistake.

You should always prepare the wood before adding it to the ecosystem by cutting some branches or smoothening their tips to prevent accidents.

Spider wood decays over time, so remember to assess its integrity occasionally.

Tips for Using Driftwood in Fish Tank

If you’ve decided to include driftwood in your pleco’s ecosystem, consider the following:

  • Always account for the tannins – Tannins are generally beneficial for your aquatic ecosystem, but you may not like the new aesthetics. Tannins change the water’s color quite consistently at times, depending on the concentration present in the driftwood piece you’re using. If you don’t like the whiskey-like look, consider boiling the driftwood before use to eliminate all or some of the tannins.
  • Sterilization – If you’re unsure of the driftwood’s source, I recommend boiling it before use anyway. This will eliminate the tannins, so if that’s not what you intended, tough luck. It’s still a better alternative to infecting the ecosystem with bacteria, parasites, fungi, or who knows what other pathogens.
  • Have an activated carbon filter – This type of filtration is necessary if you plan to keep the water clean of any tannins whatsoever. Boiling the driftwood will eliminate much of the tannins but not all. The activated carbon will do the rest of the job, sucking in the tannins completely and keeping the water clear.
  • Choose the right piece – Consider the piece of driftwood you’re getting carefully. You want to avoid pieces with sharp branches that could hurt your pleco or other fish. Also, keep in mind that driftwood varies wildly in terms of density, appearance, tannin content, etc. Choose the pieces that fit your aquatic habitat the best, including in terms of size and shape.
  • Consider the degradation time – All types of driftwood degrade with time; some sooner than others. In most cases, driftwood begins to break down approximately 2 years after being submerged. A typical piece of driftwood requires replacement 5 years down the line. Always inform yourself about the type of driftwood you’re getting to make sure you understand its profile.

Finally, choose the piece that fits your aesthetic goals the best while remaining safe and beneficial to your plecos along the way.


Driftwood makes for an awesome addition to any aquatic setup and is great for plecos thanks to its nutritional value and environmental impact.

Make sure you choose your driftwood carefully so that plecos can make the most of it.

Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.
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