Using “live”, or living plants inside an enclosure or vivarium for your reptile or amphibian is rapidly growing in popularity, and there are both many different species and types of plants which may be used, as well as materials and methods by which it can be done. Live plants often make for great additions to many different enclosures and setups for a variety of reasons, including greatly improving the enclosure or vivarium’s aesthetics, or otherwise improving its beauty and naturalistic appearance. There are, however, several considerations to keep in mind prior to purchasing and planting live plants in a terrarium, including the selection of the right plants (each species will have its own heating/lighting, temperature, humidity, and water level requirements that should be compatible with the husbandry requirements for your animal). Other considerations to keep in mind can include where and how the plants that you use are purchased or acquired, the health and conditions of the prospective plants, what kind of biome setup one desires (desert, temperate, tropical, etc.) and the biology and natural history of the species of reptile or amphibian they are intended to be used for.
Regarding these considerations further, live or potted plants can be purchased or acquired from a number of hardware and/or garden centers and their wholesalers/suppliers, as well as sometimes from reptile/exotic pet specialty stores or shows. When purchasing a plant from any of these sources, always ensure they (as well as the potting soil/mixture they are planted in) are free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer residues, or other chemicals that may potentially harm your animal. Plants should also be inspected and examined for their overall health and condition, and be free of a variety of plant or household pests such as aphids, mealy bugs, mites, snails and slugs, or other pest species. Lastly, it is important to consider the biology and habits of the species the plants are intended for. Live plants can work well for many reptile and amphibian species, including geckos, chameleons, other lizards, smaller snakes, and many amphibians such as dart frogs and mantellas, but many herbivorous to omnivorous species (such as tortoises, iguanas, bearded dragons, some skinks, and other lizards) may try to eat plants planted in the vivarium. Ensure that the plants selected for these animals are either planted or installed out of reach for the animal and/or are too tough and fibrous, or distasteful (but not toxic) to be preferentially eaten by the inhabitants, such as some larger bromeliads. Some other animals such as monitors, tegus, and other larger or heavier snakes, tortoises, and lizards will usually burrow and uproot or crush/trample live plants in the enclosure, and if they are to be used with these animals, should be very firmly planted or potted.
Benefits of Live Plants in a Bioactive Enclosure
By definition, a “bioactive” enclosure or setup is one in which natural, biological effects and processes can take place fully. In a vivarium, plants can very often serve as natural forms of waste management and buildup/accumulation of nitrogens caused by animal wastes, particularly from smaller or “micro” species in which wastes may be difficult to detect and/or remove. The nitrogen cycle is an important and relevant process that takes place, where wastes are broken down by bacteria into ammonia, and then nitrite and nitrates. A buildup of any of these over time can become toxic and unhealthy for your animal, and may even be fatal, unless conditions are regularly maintained or improved. Plants are often “end users” in the nitrogen cycle in that they will use and absorb all forms of nitrogen to live and grow in the enclosure. Furthermore, live planted plants help remove carbon dioxide from the air, and add and maintain valuable oxygen and humidity to the surrounding conditions via the carbon cycle.
Plants also provide many other direct and indirect benefits for all life, including acting as food sources for many, as well as shelter and refuge. Arboreal species of reptiles and amphibians (such as many species of frogs, geckos, other lizards and many snakes) spend considerable time climbing, basking and foraging among trees/plants and their stems, cavities, and trunks. Many terrestrial (ground dwelling), fossorial (burrowing), and aquatic species will also use plants and their root systems as cover as well. Many species are dependent on plants for all or parts of their reproduction. For instance, tadpoles and larvae of many Amazonian species of frogs and toads grow and develop in small standing pools provided by bromeliads and hollow tree cavities. Even fallen, downed, or dying plants and debris such as leaf litter, fallen bark, logs, hollow stumps, and fallen branches and brush piles can serves as habitat for numerous other plants and animals. This is why it is important to know the biology and natural history and lifestyles of the reptile or amphibian species you select, and select the appropriate complementing plants with relation to how all or portions of the plants may be utilized by the animal or species as a whole. Overall, when adding plants to a bioactive vivarium, it is important to replicate the species’ natural conditions as closely as possible. In fact, using the appropriate live plants for many species may very well further our knowledge and developments towards successfully being able to keep and reproduce additional species in captivity for future generations to see, enjoy, and learn more about.
Vivarium Plant Care and Maintenance
Many types of planted plants, once planted inside the terrarium or vivarium, will require little to no maintenance. Each species has their own lighting/heating, temperature, humidity, and watering requirements that won’t be discussed in detail here, but many other forms of information and resources are available. In general, good lighting (including access to natural sunlight when possible), as well as a good substrate mixture, and sometimes pruning, if required, are typically most, if not all that is required in maintaining these components to a bioactive enclosure.
Listing of Vivarium Plant Species
Below is an alphabetical listing (by no means intended to be all inclusive) of many of the different plants and their suitability for the terrarium and any brief care requirements or considerations when selecting them. There are of course many more plants than what are listed below, and using many of them in vivarium is still rather experimental. If you see or have any questions about a plant not listed below, feel free to contact or email us, and we will either let you know or find out to the best of our knowledge and ability whether or not it is safe to use.
Abelia: Suitable to use.
Acalphya (copperleafs, chenille plants): Suitable to use.
Acokanthera: Do not use. All parts toxic except ripe fruit.
Adiantum aetheopicum (Native Maidenhair): Suitable to use.
Adiantum fragrans (Common Maidenhair): Suitable to use.
Adiantum fulvum (New Zealand Maidenhair): Suitable to use.
Adiantum ‘Pacific Maid’ (Compact Maidenhaor): Suitable to use.
Aechmea fasciata (Urm Plant/Silver Vase Bromeliad): A bromeliad. Suitable to use, but requires partial shade and well-drained soil.
Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreens): Suitable to use. Does well in low light.
Alocasia (Elephant Ears): Suitable to use. Require warm and moist conditions. Over 80 species.
Amaryllis: Toxic/irritating. Do not use.
Anubias: Suitable to use. Aquatic to emergent aquatic.
Areca (Palms): Suitable to use.
Asparagus Fern (Asperagus setaceus): Suitable to use.
Artemisia: Suitable to use. Dryer conditions.
Asplenium bulbiferum (Chicken/Hen Fern): Suitable to use.
Asplenium flabellifolium (Necklace Fern): Suitable to use.
Asplenium nidus (Bird Nest Fern): Suitable to use.
Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart’s Tongue Fern): Suitable to use.
Bamboo (Live or Dry): Suitable to use. Grows very quickly.
Beaucarnea recurvata (Ponytail Palms): Suitable to use.
Begonias: Roots and potentially other parts are toxic. Use with caution or avoid.
Billbergia nutans (Queens Tears): Suitable to use, but best as a hanging plant. Durable, can tolerate bright light to partial shade.
Boxus: Do not use.
Buckthorns (Karwinskia humboldtiana and related spp.): Do not use. Toxic and irritating. Some can be invasive.
Buttercups (Ranunculus spp.): Do not use.
Cactaceae (Cacti): Some with fewer/no spines or bristles can be suitable to use. Use some with caution. Avoid sharp spined cacti. Some can be toxic or irritating.
Calidium: Do not use.
Calathea zebrina (Zebra Plant): Suitable to use. Moderate, moist temperatures and moderate light.
Camillias: Suitable to use.
Ceropegia woodii (Rosary Vine, Hearts Entangled, String of Hearts): Suitable to use. Must be watered thoroughly and allowed to dry in between waterings.
Chlorophytum (Spider Plants): Suitable to use. Require average humidity, moderate light, and dry before watering.
Cissus: Woody vines with over 300 species. Suitable to use. Does not tolerate prolonged wet conditions.
Codiaeum variegatum: Suitable to use.
Coleus: Suitable to use.
Crassula ovata – (Jade Plant, Friendship Tree or Money Plant): Suitable to use.
Croton: Potentially toxic. Use with caution or avoid.
Cryptanthus zonatus (Earth Stars): Suitable to use. Enjoys frequent misting and moisture, but not wet or heavy soil.
Cryptanthus: Suitable to use.
Cryptocoryne: Suitable to use. Aquatic.
Cyrtomium – (Holly Ferns): Suitable to use.
Daffodils (Narcissus tazetta): Do not use.
Dieffenbachia (Dumbcane): Do not use. All parts of these plants are toxic.
Dracaena (Dragon Plants): Suitable to use.
Dracunculus vulgaris (Arum dracunculus, Voodoo Lily): Roots and other parts are toxic. Do not use.
Echeveria: Suitable to use. Dryer conditions; succulents.
Ficus (Rubber Trees, Ornamental Figs): Sap can be toxic or irritating. Use with caution.
Fuschia: Suitable to use.
Guzmania lingulata: Suitable to use. Requires bright, indirect light and must be allowed to dry between watering. Soil should also be porous.
Gynura aurantiaca (Purple Passion): Suitable to use. Requires medium light, good drainage. Can be delicate.
Hedera helix (Ivy/English Ivy): Non-toxic to birds and some other animals, but directly to indirectly toxic to others. Use with great caution or avoid.
Helxine soleirolii: Suitable to use.
Hemigraphis alternata (Purple Waffle): Can be irritating or potentially toxic to some animals. Use with caution.
Hibiscus: Suitable to use, but flowers and some other parts will be eaten by herbivorous species.
Irises: Do not use.
Hollies (Ilex aquifolium and related spp.): Do not use. Leaves and berries are toxic.
Hoya: Suitable to use.
Juniperus (Cedars, Junipers): Can be toxic or irritating. Use with caution or avoid.
Lavendula (Lavenders): Suitable to use.
Lavatera assurgentiflora (Tree Mallows): Suitable to use.
Liriope (Turf Lilies): Suitable to use.
Locoweed (Astragalus spp. and Oxytopis spp.): Do not use.
Lupines: Do not use.
Lycopersicon esculentum (Tomatoes): Do not use. Stems and leaves toxic.
Lycopodium/Club Mosses: Suitable to use.
Malus sp. (Apples): Do not use. Seeds, leaves, bark are toxic.
Mangroves (Rhizophora, Avicennia, Laguncularia): Suitable to use.
Maranta (Prayer Plant): Suitable to use. Requires warm temperatures and high humidity.
Marigolds (Calendula officinalis): Suitable to use.
Marijuana (Cannabis sativa): Do not use.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.): Do not use.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum): Do not use. Toxic and irritating.
Monolina primuliflora (Monolena): Suitable to use.
Nephrolepsis Ferns: Suitable to use.
Nidularium: Suitable to use. Prefers intermediate temperatures, shady light, and some moisture.
Parlor Palms (Chamaedorea elegans): Suitable to use.
Pelargonium (Geranium): Suitable to use.
Peperomia (Radiator Plant): Suitable to use. Some can be air plants or epiphytes.
Petunias: Suitable to use.
Philodendron: All parts are toxic. Do not use. Also double check for proper identification.
Phoenix Palms: Suitable to use.
Pilea cadieri: Suitable to use. Easy to grow with well drained conditions.
Pillow Mosses: Suitable to use. Likes shade and sandy soils, but can tolerate partial sun.
Pitcher Plants: Carnivorous plants. Many species can liv eon or in association with pitchers, but species should be chosen wisely and still use with caution with small animals that can fall in them or become trapped. Require lots of lighting. Can help control insect infestations.
Plectranthus australis (Swedish Ivy): Suitable to use.
Poppys (Papaver somniferum and related spp.): Do not use.
Primula (Primroses): Can be toxic. Use with caution or avoid.
Prunus (Plums, Cherries, Peaches, Apricots): Do not use. Pits, leaves, and bark are toxic.
Pteridophyta: Suitable to use.
Robinias (Locusts): Do not use. Toxic and irritating. Some can be invasive.
Sagittaria (Arrowheads): Suitable to use. Emergent aquatic.
Saintpaulia (African Violets): Suitable to use.
Salvia officinalis (Garden/Common Sages): Do not use.
Sanseveria (Snake Plants): Suitable to use.
Schefflera/Umbrella Plant: Suitable to use.
Scindapsus (Pothos): Suitable to use. Can be very hardy.
Solanum tuberosum (Potatoes): Do not use. Sprouts, leaves, berries, and green tubers toxic or distasteful.
Spathiphyllum (Peace Lilies): Toxic to some animals. Use with caution or avoid.
Staghorn Fern (Platycerium): Suitable to use.
Sundews (Drosera): Carnivorous plants. Require high light and high humidity. Can help control insect infestations in the enclosure. Use with caution with small animals that can become trapped by them.
Tillandsia: Suitable to use. Air plant that prefers warm and humid conditions.
Tobacco (Nicotiania spp.): Do not use.
Tradescantia (Wandering Jew/Spiderwort): Use with some caution. Can be fast growing and have some skin irritants.
Tulips (Tulipa sp.): Do not use.
Venus Flytraps: Carnivorous plants. Not the most suitable. Small and can be easily trampled. Can potentially trap small animals. Require a lot of lighting, and specific soil and water quality.
Viola/Violets: Suitable to use for low, temperate cover.
Virginia Creeper (Panthenocissus quinquefolia): Do not use.
Vrisea splendens (sword bromeliads): Suitable to use. Requires light shade.
Wandering Jew (Tradescantia albiflora): Suitable to use.
Yews (Taxus): Do not use.