Wabi-Kusa Forest Terrarium

I have created a terrarium inspired by the wabi-kusa concept. Wabi-kusa terrariums are influenced by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces the beauty of imperfection and transience in nature and art.

Growing up on islands in the Caribbean surrounded by dense tropical rains forest and streams filled with unique fish and amphibians, I developed an appreciation for nature. My Uncle Clifford often took the family on adventures into the jungle1.

I started creating freshwater aquariums as a hobby during my childhood and continued into adulthood. It started with a small 1-gallon glass aquarium that Dad bought for me and added guppies caught from a local stream. But soon after that, I owned larger planted aquariums and multiple species aquariums and taught myself the art of freshwater fish breeding. I was always attracted to the planted aquarium.

In the mid-1990s, I discovered the aquarium designs of photographer and aquarist Takashi Amano. Takashi-san was the author of Nature Aquarium World (TFH Publications, 1994), a three-book series on aquascaping (underwater gardening) freshwater plants and aquarium fish. I bought all of his books. Takashi-san's designs had a distinctive style of plant layout which utilised Japanese gardening concepts such as wabi-sabi and Zen rock arrangements. His tank compositions aspired to mimic nature in their appearance.

I was inspired to create several planted freshwater aquariums focused on creating a biotype environment suitable to discus (Symphysodon) and angelfish (Pterophyllum). I enjoyed planting the tank and watching the fish, but Bhavna keenly watched my hobby's cost. It was expensive to recreate and maintain specific ecosystems of fish and plants within the confines of a "glass box".

Takashi Amano's interest in aquaria led him to create the Japanese company Aqua Design Amano (ADA). While perusing the ADA website, I learned about wabi-kusa terrarium.

Wabi-kusa terrariums are influenced by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces the beauty of imperfection and transience in nature and art.

The concept of wabi-sabi comprises two interconnected aesthetic principles: wabi, meaning "subdued, austere beauty," and sabi, referring to "rustic patina." It draws inspiration from the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, suffering, and the absence of self-nature. The characteristics of wabi-sabi include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and an appreciation for natural objects and the forces of nature.

Wabi-kusa, in turn, draws inspiration from wabi-sabi. The term "kusa" means grass. Over time, wabi-sabi has come to symbolise "wisdom in natural simplicity" in Japan and is often referred to as "imperfect beauty" in art. Wabi-kusa combines these ideas and embodies the appreciation of simple, natural, and imperfect beauty.

In wabi-kusa, various aquatic plants in their emersed form are planted into small soil balls. Takashi Amano and his company, Aqua Design Amano (ADA), popularised this technique. Amano used wabi-kusas to efficiently plant larger aquarium tanks by placing pre-cultivated soil balls in the tank instead of individually planting each aquatic plant. Over time, the plants transition to their submersed form and establish roots in the substrate. However, wabi-kusas are not limited to aquarium use. They are also commonly displayed in beautiful vases or bowls made of glass, either emersed or above the water line, as independent and aesthetically pleasing design objects.

So that led me down a rabbit hole of links to articles that led me to the DOOA Terra Base, a new product from Aqua Design Amano (ADA). Aqua Design Amano (ADA) have taken the wabi-kusa concept further by developing a method to grow tiny epiphytic orchids and ferns on small moss mats instead of soil balls. These moss mats are then attached to the surface of a porous stone cylinder called a DOOA Terra Base using delicate strings. The TERRA BASE has a hollow centre where water is poured, and throughout the day, the moss slowly absorbs moisture from the stone, nourishing the epiphytes. The moss also acts as an anchor, allowing the epiphytes to cling to the sides of the TERRA BASE. The appeal of the TERRA BASE lies in its ability to simulate the natural habitat of mosses, ferns, and orchids, resembling a decaying tree trunk in a tropical forest.

As soon as I saw it, I was hooked and wanted to create a TERRA BASE terrarium inspired by the wabi-kusa concept. The most significant decision I had to make was which size I wanted.

The DOOA Terra Base is available in three sizes. To keep the costs as low as possible, I purchased a basic kit: the small DOOA Terra Base, the DOOA Terra Line, the small DOOA Neo Glass Air, and the DOOA Neo Glass Cover for Neo Glass Air.

I enclosed the wabi-kusa setup in a Neo Glass AIR aquarium tank with a glass top to complete my terrarium. The tank is lit using a full-spectrum LED light for approximately 12 hours daily. Additionally, I spray the TERRA BASE with a liquid "mist" fertiliser, DOOA Wabi-Kusa Mist, once a day to provide essential nutrients to the plants. The mist also enhances the colour of the leaves and has some repellent effect on pests.

This is what my initial creation looked like in October of last year.

Monday 31 October 2022 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF27mmF2.8 R WR

I spent a total of US$233 on this bit of kit. It feels expensive. It is expensive. But I enjoyed creating this slice of nature inside my home. It reconnects me to the tropical rainforests I explored growing up in the West Indies. Observing the plants as they grow is a joy and provides a respite from the grey doldrums of winter.

While waiting for the Terra Base to arrive, I learned as much as possible about how to keep suitable mosses, ferns, orchids and other plants to create my forest terrarium. Glassbox Tropical sells several plants amenable to the Wabi-kusa style of terrarium. I am especially drawn to the miniature ferns in the genus Microgramma. Regions and countries include Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America (including Argentina and Brazil), tropical Africa, southern Africa, and western Indian Ocean islands. They are also found in Asia. I ordered a Microgramma piloselloides from specimen Glassbox Tropical and carefully wrapped it around the small DOOA Terra Base.

Terrabase after 9 months · Wednesday 10 May 2023 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR

I ordered some Christmas moss, some anubias nana, a Microgramma piloselloides fern, a Microgramma heterophylla fern, and a Lepanthes telipogoniflora orchid. The only plants on this list I already had experience with were the anubias nana and the Christmas moss. Both plants were used for aquascaping my nano betta tank with excellent success.

Anubias Nana is a popular aquatic plant known for its easy growth and adaptability to various water conditions. It belongs to the Araceae family and originates from West Africa. This plant can thrive in both aquariums and terrariums, whether submerged or emersed. It is best attached to hard surfaces like wood or stones using its rhizome. Anubias Nana has low to medium light requirements and benefits from regular fertilisation. It grows to 3-5 inches. It is commonly used in planted tanks and is recommended for beginners, which is one of the reasons I chose to use it for this terrarium. But my experience with the anubias in the aquarium did help me with the terrarium. After a few weeks, the anubias nana wilted, turned brown and died.

Wednesday 10 May 2023 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR

Christmas Moss, also known as Xmas Moss or Vesicularia sp., is a freshwater aquarium moss that is easy to care for. The moss forms mats that create a textured look to the Terra Base. Christmas Moss can adapt to various conditions but thrives in cooler temperatures between 20ºC to 25ºC, and it prefers low to medium light levels. It is sold as loose portions measuring approximately 2 inches.

Lepanthes is a large genus of orchids with about 800–1000 species, distributed in the Antilles and from Mexico through Bolivia. Almost all the species in the genus are small and live in cloud forests. Lepanthes derives its generic name from the Greek lepis (scale) and anthos (flower), referring to the tiny flowers of many of the species in this genus. Lepanthes telipogoniflora is native to Colombia. It is an epiphytic species with small, green leaves. However, its flowers are striking, with large iridescent orange and yellow blooms that shimmer under certain lighting. It thrives in warm to hot temperatures and prefers medium to high moisture levels. Glass Box Tropicals rates its care difficulty as a 7 out of 10. My Lepanthes telipogoniflora specimen was about the size of a thumbnail and had one flower on it when it arrived, but it has not flowered since "planting".

Wednesday 10 May 2023 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR

I set up my NEO Terra Base with a layer of moss using the DOOA Terra Line to wrap it around the top and mid-section. I then added a few anubias to the middle of the base. Lastly, I attached the Lepanthes telipogoniflora from Glassbox Tropicals near the top of the Terra Base. For lighting, I bought an inexpensive plant light from Amazon, but after a few months, I realised it might not provide enough light, so I purchased a DOOA Magnetic Light G. I also realised that the Christmas moss might not do well under the new lighting. I removed the Christmas moss and replaced it with Peacock moss.

Peacock moss is an aquatic moss species. It is commonly known as "Peacock moss" because it resembles a peacock's fan tail when well-grown. It has a softer texture compared to Christmas moss. Peacock moss originates from Southeast Asia and has a medium growth rate. It typically reaches a length of 4-6 cm. It requires low to medium light and moderate CO2 levels for optimal growth. It thrives best in water temperatures below 25.5ºC (78ºF).

wab-kusa, Microgramma piloselloides
Microgramma piloselloides · Wednesday 10 May 2023 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR

Given the difficulty rating and that this was my first terrarium project, I was concerned that the whole thing would fail, but I diligently maintained the proper balance of light and moisture. It’s been almost a year since I started Lepanthes telipogoniflora, and Microgramma piloselloides have done quite well. What you see in the photographs are the results of several months of patience and diligence. It has taken this long for the plants to adapt and for me to learn the proper balance of light and humidity.

I am happy with the results, but I am already preparing to work on something more ambitious; a 64 L planted fish tank or another wabi-kusa terrarium using lava rock and the 8 cm tall DOOA Neo Glass Air.

  1. The word jungle originates from the Sanskrit word jangala, meaning "forest". 

Author: Khürt Williams

I work in application security architecture and I live in Montgomery Township, New Jersey with my wife Bhavna. Passionate about photography, you’ll find me writing about cybersecurity, tropical aquariums, terrariums, hiking, craft breweries, and capturing birds on camera. My prose is like a caffeinated squirrel—fast, unpredictable, and occasionally insightful.

6 thoughts on “Wabi-Kusa Forest Terrarium”

  1. @khurtwilliams This is beautiful. There's something about moss that's irresistable. I like the soft, diffuse light you used here.

    It's been awhile since I had moss living in my cabin amongst my many plants. I think seeing this it's time to bring some back in. I'm fortunate to be living in the woods, surrounded by moss. A fall project to look forward too, thanks for the inspiration!

    1. @Denny You know what I've been dreaming about? Transforming my backyard by replacing the grass with moss (near the tree line) or meadow. But honestly, the HOA would object. Still, it's fun to imagine.

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