Terrarium Plants 101

plant combo

What should I put in my terrarium? We’ve heard this question thousands of times, so perhaps this document might be useful to you. To select the proper plants, you need to ask yourself a few questions first.

First, what climate are you trying to imitate? More importantly, if you are going to put animals in your terrarium, what conditions do those animals require? Most people think of a terrarium as a jungle environment, always warm, wet and humid. This is one of the easiest climates to replicate. Most of the commonly available dart frogs would do well in this environment. If you are raising reptiles, you may want an environment that is more arid, with little humidity. Other animals may require seasonal temperature variation or changes in moisture levels at different seasons. These factors should guide your plant selection.

Second, how much light do you have? In general, terrariums should be lit with artificial sources of light. A sealed terrarium can easily cook in direct sunlight. If you use artificial light, you can control the duration and intensity of the light. Choosing the perfect light is the subject of a future document, it can be a complicated subject. If you already have a light you are going to use, install it in its final location above the terrarium and turn it on. Place your hand at different levels in the terrarium and look at the shadow you cast. A sharp edged shadow means the location is receiving ‘bright’ light. A soft edged shadow will indicate ‘medium’ light, a fuzzy shadow is low light. If you don’t see much of a shadow, it is going to be very difficult to find a plant for that spot. You can always add larger lights or more lights, but for planning purposes remember that a plant placed high in the terrarium is going to provide shade to plants below it.

Third, just how much variety to you really need? Some people are happy with just a few plant types or even just one rambling specimen that covers ground rapidly. Some people want dozens of different plants. Themes are popular, such as all bromeliads or all orchids. It is up to you. If you are just starting, a good mix for a dart frog terrarium can be found with our basic terrarium package. We suggest a few small to medium sized bromeliads (bromeliads hold water and provide hiding spots for frogs), some vining plants that can drape down your background, a couple of ferns, and some assorted tropical plants.

Be aware that highly toxic pesticides are often used in large scale foliage plant production. When you purchase plants, purchase them from a reputable supplier that uses animal safe techniques. If you do buy plants you aren’t sure of, consider growing them outside of your frog tanks for a few weeks or a month. This is plenty of time for pesticide levels to decrease to safe levels. Some people worry about fertilizer as well. It is virtually impossible to grow plants without at least some added fertilizer (plants need food to grow!). A little fertilizer will not hurt, but a good practice is to soak new plants in clean water for a few hours and rinse off extra soil or potting mix.

Plant selection:

For purposes of this discussion, I’ll assume we are building a terrarium to house dart frogs. That means high humidity and even moisture and temperature. There are many plants that will do well in this environment. Here are some sure winners:

1. Pothos. This is an impossible plant to kill, it will grow from even the smallest cutting and rapidly fill a tank. It is a good choice for tree frogs. If you want to grow a wide variety of plants, you may wish to avoid pothos, as it grows so rapidly it can easily crowd out a terrarium. Be prepared to prune it aggressively. There are several different color varieties of pothos to choose from, including green, gold, and variegated forms. Will grow at almost any light level.

2. Wandering Jew (tradescantia) – there are dozens of easily available varieties and probably hundreds of total varieties. This is also a very easy plant, and can be very aggressive. Some varieties include ‘Red’, ‘Burgundy’ (which has red underneath and green on top), and ‘Bolivian’ with its small leaves and rampant growth habit. You can easily find varieties in many different colors. Medium to low light. Be prepared to trim wandering jews frequently.

3. Peperomia species. There are countless species in this genus, and most will be great in a terrarium. They range from tiny leaves (‘Little Red Tree’) to large leaves (Pep. glabella), compact forms or vining. A very versatile genus, you could easily fill a terrarium with just different forms of peperomia. These usually grow in low light, but you will get more compact growth with medium light.

4. Pilea species. Like peperomia, hundreds of different species and varieties to choose from. They are easy growers and easy to propagate by cuttings. Small leaf vining forms include ‘Red Stem Tears’, ‘Baby Tears’, and ‘Tiny Tears’. ‘Creeping Charlie’ is a larger leaf vining form, which can easily fill a tank. Choose ‘Moon Valley’ (green) or ‘Friendship’ (purple) if you want a short bush. If your plant gets too out of control, simply clip it back to size.

5. Bromeliads. In the wild, many species of bromeliads form ‘ponds’ high up in the tree canopy. Frogs can use these water sources to rear tadpoles, and other animals and insects use them as well. With these ponds high in the trees, many animals never come down to the ground! The most common genus of bromeliad used in terraria is Neoregelia. They flower, but the flowers are usually held well within the ‘cup’, you might never see them. Bromeliads are true epiphytes (air plants) and will grow just fine stuck into the background or on a stick. They are very adaptable, and you can also plant them in soil or moss at the base of your tank. Try to place them such that they are not sitting in water, and they will do well. Be sure to select varieties of Neoregelia that stay compact. I particularly like ‘Fireball’, ‘Zoe’, or ‘Donger’, all of which are inexpensive and widely available, although any small growing neoregelia will do. For a little extra interest, try another genus of bromeliad like Billbergia with its deep, tubular water holding cups. I avoid most tillandsias, if they have a powdery silver coating on the leaves they will not do well. If your bromeliads lose their bright colors, they are not receiving enough light. They grow OK in medium light, but the best color and form is found when you give them very bright light.

6. Orchids. Consider an orchid or two in your next terrarium. It is a special touch. As a rule, most orchids are epiphytes that do not like to have soggy wet roots. Mount them on the background or plant them in a place where they won’t stay constantly wet. Some orchids to consider are jewel orchids, like Ludisia discolor or Macodes petola, which have beautiful foliage and do well in fairly low light. Restrepias have boring leaves but can bloom almost non-stop in a terrarium, the flowers look like a cross between a boat and a bug. Many masdevallias are good to grow in terrariums. Small bulbophyllums are excellent terrarium plants. These are just a few suggestions. There are more than 25,000 species of orchids! A quick online search will give you some valuable information about species that you are unsure of. Avoid plants that get too large, have tall flower spikes, or require special conditions to bloom. An example of a plant to avoid is Catasetum. They require a long dry rest, which is not possible in most terrariums. If you aren’t sure, ask the grower.

It is impossible to list all of the plants that will do well in a tropical terrarium. Don’t hesitate to try species that you are unsure of.