As most bioactive habitats are going to be forest based, this guide will be covering the species that are easiest to acclimatise and use in a wetter type of environment. All of the following plants have been used by us with success in setups of various size, so with suitable lighting you should be able to achieve a jungle effect in no time!
Remember that if plants are purchased from a garden centre they should be washed under running water to remove pesticide and herbicide residues, and also have the soil removed from around the roots and the roots themselves gently rinsed with clean running water. They can be used in the terrarium straight away, but in this case no animals should be introduced for around six weeks.
We use the term ‘epiphyte’ to describe some of the following plants, or say that a plant can be grown ‘epiphytically’. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant but is not a parasite; for instance, a fern growing on a branch is an epiphyte, but mistletoe is a parasite. Many mosses and ferns, most bromeliads and a large number of orchids are epiphytes, and any plant that has aerial roots can often be grown in such a fashion.
Pothos (Epipremnum sp.)
A plant with many common names, you will see this plant listed as Pothos, Devil’s Ivy, Epipremnum or Scindapsis. There are several different individual species often offered for sale, but all will do very well in a bioactive setting. They are a perennial tropical climber that relies heavily on aerial roots which will attach firmly to most surfaces, and are a recommended houseplant for air purification. They are available in several different leaf colours including variegated and golden, and mature plants produce large, oval shaped leaves that are sturdy enough for all but the largest reptiles to stand on.
This plant is very easy to propagate from cuttings, and grows very well in the vivarium. It can either be planted in the base substrate and allowed to twine up the decor, or can be grown as an epiphyte with the roots tucked into a pocket of moss and soil in a hollow section of log. Don’t be afraid to cut it back – hard, if necessary – because this plant can grow very large and take over the vivarium. Pop the cuttings into a container of water, and they will root without any further intervention.
Ideal for chameleon, tropical gecko and water dragon enclosures but if you are going to plant it straight in to the substrate it’s worth letting it get established first; however, as long as it is secured against the decor this plant is tough enough to use as soon as you get it home.
We use this plant a lot in bioactive setups, as it’s so adaptable to just about any condition and as tough as old boots!
Spathiphyllum (Spathiphyllum sp)
Also known as Peace Lily, this is another tall plant that can make a very showy display. Tall, spear shaped glossy green leaves can get up to 60cm long, so ideal for making a vertical statement! This plant seems able to survive both with its toes in water and more on the drier side, although it should never be allowed to dry out. It will happily flower in a terrarium, provided it has enough light and isn’t waterlogged.
This plant should not be used with herbivorous animals as it contains calcium oxalate crystals, which can cause skin irritation as well as bladder problems and kidney stones.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Even non gardeners can recognise this plant with its arching sprays of variegated leaves and long trails of miniature versions of itself. It is available in a plain green, and some very closely related plants are brightly patterned with yellow and pale green. Native to tropical and southern Africa, it’s a popular houseplant worldwide and is very happy in a vivarium situation.
It can either be grown as an epiphyte in a planting pocket or in a soil filled cavity of a log, or in the substrate itself although it doesn’t like to be sitting in permanently wet soil. It develops white, fleshy roots that can store a certain amount of water, which is at least partly why it does so well in a hanging basket – it can even be grown outdoors in the UK in the summer.
Spider plants like bright light but don’t need to be in the brightest spot; dappled sunlight around the edges of the enclosure work just fine.
This plant is fine to use with herbivorous reptiles, and can be a source of environmental enrichment if planted above a tortoise table with the leaves allowed to trail down into the enclosure.
Tradescantia (Tradescantia sp)
You have probably encountered this plant at some point under one of its many common names: inch plant, wandering jew, spiderwort, moses-in-the-basket, purple heart, or Indian paint. Like most of our terrarium and house plants, this one is a range of species rather than just one although care requirements are very similar across the whole group.
With fleshy stems that easily root whenever they touch a suitable surface this plant spreads easily and makes a good trailing vine rather than a climber. It likes medium to bright light, although the more red and purple pigments in the leaves the more light it likes, and in common with most plants with this sort of stem it will rot at the base if kept with its feet in the water.
It’s a native of the new world between southern Canada and northern Argentina, so as well as the tropical forms that are suitable for the terrarium there are species that will grow in your garden!
If you’re lucky, it will even flower in the terrarium.
This is ok to use with herbivorous reptiles.
Philodendron (Philodendron scandens)
Another tropical climber, this plant is a little more delicate than the cast iron Pothos but its large, glossy dark green heart shaped leaves make an impressive display in the larger terrarium. There are species that do not climb, and these can work very well in a terrestrial setting, or even a woodland or semi-arid. The classic Philodendron provides good cover for shy species, and is robust enough for larger species to climb on as well.
Can be planted in substrate or grown in a planting pocket. Not suitable for herbivorous reptiles as it contains calcium oxalate.
More commonly known as weeping fig, in its natural habitat it’s a tree that can reach thirty metres tall! It’s a plant that can be a little difficult when grown as a houseplant, as dry air will cause it to drop its leaves. When kept in the humidity of a tropical terrarium it thrives, and if carefully trained can develop stems robust enough for larger geckos and chameleons to walk on.
Doesn’t like to be sitting in water, so an effective drainage layer is a must for this plant. It’s architectural and handsome, and is very suitable to make a striking centrepiece for your terrarium.
A climbing fig that, if grown outside in tropical regions, can become incredibly invasive and even smother other trees and plants, as well as damaging any man made structures it scrambles over. The properties that make it invasive make it an ideal inhabitant of our bioactive setups, as it will tolerate humid or quite dry atmospheres, and is happy to grow in lightly damp or very soggy ground. It climbs with aerial roots that attach to anything, including glass.
We have found that when this plant is used, it seems to take a long time to establish. It sits and appears to do nothing, until you look in the terrarium one morning and it’s half way up the wall! Probably the best plant for covering multiple surfaces, but will sometimes need to be cut back hard. Each piece with an attached root can be used to propagate new specimens, but after you’ve got one of these established in your tank you won’t need to buy another one…ever. If grown in screen top enclosures it will squeeze out between the wires in an attempt to reach the light.
Is available as an attractive variegated form, but this must be kept under very bright light to keep the white portions of the leaves from turning green. If grown in darker conditions it goes all green, and needs exposure to bright light to restore the leaf markings.
Along with pothos, this is one of the failsafe terrarium plants.
Umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola)
Another one that will grow into a small tree if grown outside in tropical regions, this plant is sturdy and can either grow tall or be kept compact by pinching out the growing tips. It does use aerial roots to attach itself to decor – cork bark allows it to grip incredibly well – and if it looks to be getting too leggy, then cut the top off and stick it in a vase of water. Within a few weeks new root growth will have occurred, and the rooted crown can be planted back into the terrarium.
Variegated versions like brighter light and slightly higher temperatures than the all green version, and both will not tolerate having their roots permanently wet. Keeping humidity up will also deter the more common pests that are found on this species when it’s used as a houseplant – red spider mite and scale insect.
This is one of those plants that if it likes your setup will be tough and beautiful for years, but can be awkward if conditions are not to its liking.
Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus)
Not really a fern, but part of the lily family! This delicate looking plant is actually quite tough, and is a real survivor even if it’s not happy with conditions. The delicate sprays of foliage that spread out from the wiry stems hide small thorns, which is how it grips decor to climb. They are sharp, but as they are pointing backwards in order to aid climbing they aren’t a risk to most terrarium inhabitants. Be careful when putting your hand through a bunch of that light, ferny foliage!
We’ve grown this in planting pockets and above a water feature in a riparium and so far, it’s done very well. Too much bright light will cause the leaves to brown and scorch, and too little will cause them to go yellow. High humidity is much appreciated, and it’s an excellent plant for providing light shade and cover for nervous lizards.
If it’s really happy with its home it can flower and even produce small berries, which start out red and blacken with age. These should be removed from the plant as they are toxic.
English Ivy (Hedera helix)
When grown as an indoor plant this hardy native can make a tough terrarium inhabitant, especially suitable for snakes who can smother more delicate plants with very little effort. It doesn’t like too much heat, but if planted in a bright, cool corner it can flourish – we currently have one planted in a cork tube and it appears to be doing very well indeed.
Don’t allow the roots to get waterlogged and it will happily spread up and across any decor in its way. Not suitable for use with herbivorous reptiles.
No species name given as this is a large group of impressive foliage plants that are often sold for use in terraria, even though they can disappoint with short survival times.
The bromeliads – like airplants – have large, showy leaves (called bracts) surrounding their tiny flowers, and it’s for these brightly coloured bracts that most people will buy a bromeliad. Unfortunately, if you plant the bromeliad in the soil it will likely just rot from the base in a very short space of time.
Most bromeliads are epiphytes, and grow best when allowed to attach to a branch or be placed in a planting pocket on the walls of the terrarium. Wrap the roots of the bromeliad in moss and soil, then bind them in a crevice of a branch or against a knot hole in a piece of cork, and allow them to attach naturally. They hold water in the central ‘vase’ formed by their thick, waterproof leaves, and this is the only watering many bromeliads need.
When mounted like this, most bromeliads will keep their bright colours for longer than those just tucked in to substrate. Once the flowers are finished, the plant then pushes out miniature versions of itself called ‘pups’ as a way of propagating itself. These pups can either be removed to be planted elsewhere, or can be left to form a very natural looking clump within the terrarium.
Growing bromeliads like this really benefits animals such as dart frogs, who use them as a central part of their breeding strategy, and for day geckos who use these mini ponds as drinking vessels.
Common bromeliads that do best when grown epiphytically include Vrisea, Guzmania, Neoregelia, Nidularium and Tillandsia.
Cryptanthus – earth stars – are the exception to this rule, and produce an impressive spread of foliage that flushes pink in bright light when planted in well drained soil.
There are, of course, hundreds more plants that can be used within terraria whether naturalistic or bioactive. These are just a few that we have used and found to be successful nearly every time with the bare minimum of care.
We hope you’ll find this list useful, and would love to hear your observations on the various plants and how they’ve done for you in your terrariums, and what animals you keep with them.
Have fun, and happy growing!