The Fern family is enormous and contains species that are minute to those that are gargantuan. Ferns come from all over the world and are one of the oldest groups of plants on our planet. Because of the immense variation of species I will only mention a few that I have had personal experience with.
I break ferns down into 2 groups, rhizomatous types (often called Footed Ferns) and self headers. There are species in both groups that make excellent terrarium subjects. For the rhizomatous types, the genera Pyrrosia and Microgramma both contain many suitable species as well as many other genera. A few notable species are P. nummularifolia, P. piloselloides, almost any Selaginella species, Microgramma percussa, M. heterophylla, Lemmaphyllum microphylla, Davallia heterophylla and D. tyermannii.
There are a few self heading types that I’ve had good experiences with. These include, Heart Fern (Hemionitis arifolia), Autumn Fern, Upside Down Fern and Korean Rock Fern. There are many others that will work. Sometimes these ferns will go through a brief acclimation period once placed in the terrarium so one should not worry too much if a newly planted fern drops its foliage. Keep an eye out b/c it will most likely start to shoot new growth within a week or so.
A special note on a certain self heading fern… Maiden Hair Fern. The common species that is usually seen for sale makes a very bad terrarium plant for the average terrarium. Yes, these plants come from rainforests and yes they enjoy moisture but they require very decent air flow to thrive. In the average terrarium, these plants do not dry out fast enough and more often than not, succumb to rot.
In general, all the ferns mentioned here will grow nicely with the average fluorescent lighting and should be able to withstand the moisture. The rhizomatous species should be allowed to dry slightly however.
Upside Down Fern
Bromeliads are probably one of the most sought after plants for terrarium keepers. This is not only b/c they are beautiful and exist in myriad colors and sizes but many of them are useful for breeding thumbnail and pumilio dart frogs. The bromeliad family consists of 52 genera and thousands of species. All bromeliads are from the New World and come from the southern United States all the way to South America. Many are epiphytes and many are terrestrials. Some are from the rainforest while others are from arid regions. While many of these species are obtainable and in cultivation, only a small handful of them make good terrarium plants. There are a few notable genera including Neoregelia, Aechmea, Billbergia, Vriesea and Tillandsia.
By far, the most common (and in my opinion, BEST) genus of bromeliads used in terrariums are those from the genus Neoregelia. Neos come from Brazil and are, in general, tank type broms. This means that they grow in a manner which allows them to hold water. Neos are grown for their foliage colors b/c their flowers bloom within the center axil of the bromeliad and aren’t as showy as other genera. There are many suitable and non suitable species and hybrids in this genus. The suitable species and cultivars are those which stay small and have lots of leaf cups for water holding. Some notable species are Neo. fireball, Neo. ampullacea, Neo. compacta, Neo. rubrifolia and Neo. olens. There are by far more hybrids/cultivars than species and many of these also make excellent terrariums subjects. These include but are not limited to, Neo. June Night (my personal favorite), Neo. Echo (holds LOTS of water), Neo. Wee Willy, Neo. Superball, Neo. Rien’s Pride, Neo. Angelface and so many more.
Aechmea is a genus of plants that come mainly from Central America and South America. They are characterized by their erect inflorescences and thick, rough, spiny foliage. Aechmea exist in a wide array of colors and there are some suitable species and hybrids for the terrarium. Most hold water and could be used for thumbs and pums. Some notable species are Aechmea aculeatosepala, smaller growing A. nudicaulis clones, A. gamosepala and A. organensis (small form). I have personally not used any Aechmea hybrids myself but I’m sure there are a few that would work.
Billbergia are very similar to Aechmea except that they grow in a more tubular upright fashion. Their inflorescences usually are pendant and hang down beside or below the plant. There are many species and hybrids in cultivation but not all would make good terrarium plants. Billbergia amoena (stolonifera) is a smaller growing species that would make a decent terrarium plant. There are a number of medium sized hybrids that could work for taller terrariums like B. Poquito Mas and B. Poquito Blanco.
Vriesea is a large genus of bromeliads that consists of many tank type species. Vriesea are recognizable by their spineless foliage and erect and sometimes pendant, colorful inflorescences. These species (and hybrids) range in size from minute to monstrous. V. corcovadensis, V. guttata and V. erythrodactylon Mini are 3 species that are smaller growing and hold water that would make good terrarium plants. I’ve personally not encountered any suitable Vriesea hybrids for terrariums but I’m sure they exist.
Tillandsia is an extremely large genus of bromeliads most closely related to Vriesea. Often times they are indistinguishable by the average hobbyist. This genus contains the smallest bromeliad, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). I would say that 95% of the species and hybrids in this genus are NOT suitable for terrariums. This is b/c these plants often come from areas where they receive lots of air flow, lots of light and little moisture. Those that do receive moisture often dry out completely within a few hours. That being said, there are some smaller species that make decent terrarium plants. In general a good terrarium Tillandsia will not have any grey scales (looks like a dusty covering) on it. These scales are an adaptation to dry environments and are a good indicator that they would probably rot in the average terrarium.
All the genera mentioned thus far are epiphytic. The average terrarium would not make a good home for any terrestrial species b/c the soil stays far too wet for too long and would quickly rot. Furthermore, any of the species and hybrids listed here fair much better mounted to something rather than planted in the soil. If one has to plant any of these, its best to ensure that the base of the plant does not stay wet for too long or it will eventually rot.
These are best introduced as bare root pups so that they can acclimate and grow into the conditions of one’s terrarium. On average, they enjoy high light levels but care should be taken not to place these plants too high in the terrarium as the air in the upper regions will often be quite dry b/c of the lights. They should root somewhat quickly and adhere themselves to whatever they are mounted on. After reaching a certain age, most will pup and the pups can be cut off when they reach about half size of the adult and then mounted to another location.
Neo. June Night
Tillandsia ionantha var. vanhyningii
There are many other genera that contain plants which are suitable for terrarium use. I will mention a small handful here but will refrain from going into too much detail here as it would require a small book to accomplish. These include…
Ficus (Creeping Fig): Can’t kill this plant and it will quickly establish itself and take over a terrarium. Oak Leaf Creeping Fig is a slower growing clone that works well.
Dischidia: These epiphytic Asclepiads are from SE Asia. They make nice plants when mounted and kept humid.
Hoya: This is another predominantly epiphytic Asclepiad genus. The smaller growing species of this genus should make excellent terrarium plants, most notably H. microphylla.
Pellionia: P. pulchra and P. repens are excellent terrarium additions. Cuttings should be placed on the substrate. Once rooted, they will climb all over in an overlapping (imbricate) fashion.
Pilea: These self heading plants make excellent terrarium subjects. They can get leggy so frequent trimming may be required to keep them in check.
Maranta: These plants, often called, “Prayer Plants” make great terrarium subjects. There are a small handful of species suitable. Very easy to grow and propagate.
Calathea: The smaller growing species of this genus are also great for terrariums. C. undulata is notable for its size and leaf pattern.
Java Moss: This aquatic plant works quite well in very wet terrariums. Can take a while to adjust but does well once established.
Riccia: Often called Riccia Moss, it is actually a liverwort. This plant requires lots of light and moisture but does work well if those needs are met.
Tropical Mosses: These plants are often difficult to obtain. Most mosses used in terrariums are not tropical and often die b/c they require a dry, cool cycle. Actual tropical mosses can be spread about in the terrarium in small chunks. This increases the chances of the moss taking hold.
Ficus pumila var. quercifolia Oak Leaf Fig
I hope that this guide has been of some help. As mentioned earlier, the comments here are based on my personal experiences. Not everything I’ve said here is the only way to do something but these things have worked for me. Never be afraid to experiment if you have a plant you think will work and is replaceable, should it succumb to death. Good luck and have fun. Plants are an addictive and enjoyable hobby on their own.
Spring Valley Tropicals