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A Guide to Popular Terrarium Plants
By Antone Jones​


Part 1

The information presented here is a general overview of a handful of commonly used safe terrarium plants. The comments here are based on experiences I personally have had. Some of my experiences may be different from your own or others but I will attempt to be as accurate as I can be.

The info given for the various plants is based on the average terrarium size of 20 gals with typical fluorescent lighting and little to no airflow. While there are many people who have larger (or smaller) terrariums with high lighting and airflow, the average hobbyist will not have the best possible setup.

There are many plants that are suited for terrarium use. They span many genera and come mainly from tropical and subtropical areas of the world. These include Peperomia, Begonia, Gesneriads, Bromeliads, Aroids, Orchids, Ferns and many others.

An important note… One should ALWAYS wash their plants and cuttings before using them. Many places use chemicals to keep away bugs and disease which could pose harm to your terrarium inhabitants, plants and animals alike.


Peperomia

Peperomia are mostly tropical plants that are predominantly from the New World. They range from vines to self headers and can be epiphytic, lithophytic (growing on rocks) or terrestrial. Some are even succulents that come from drier areas. This genus is MASSIVE and there are many species that do not exist in cultivation that would probably make excellent terrariums plants.

Many of the suitable terrarium species are the tropical vines and creepers. These include Peperomia prostrata, P. trifolia, P. hoffmanii, P. serpens, P. quadrangularis and many many more. There are a few decent self heading types as well. One of my favorites is P. caperata.

Peperomia seem to do best introduced to the terrarium as cuttings or leaves. They appreciate humidity and moisture but don’t like to be constantly wet. They can handle a wide range of light levels. Once rooted, these plants spread quickly.

Pep. prostrata





Pep. sp. Trinidad





Begonia

The Begonia genus is another very large group of plants. These come from all over the world. They range from epiphytes to tuberous species. Many are vines while many others are self heading types.

Some of the more commonly found Begonia, in my experience, make very bad terrarium plants. These include many of the Rex types. These types often have very large leaves that melt and rot when wet and kept humid with little air flow. Some of the smaller Rex varieties could probably work if started from leaves.

The smaller vining and/or rhizomatous type Begonia do best for me. These include many of the hybrids like Tiger Kitten, Rhinestone Jeans and species like B. bowerae nigramargra, B. listada, B. rajah, B. thelmae and the African species, B. prismatocarpa.

Begonia that are terrarium suitable are often from the tropical understory around the world so they can handle the typical lighting that the average hobbyist has. These are usually best introduced as rhizome cuttings or as leaves. If planting a rooted specimen, you should expect the plant to go through an acclimation period where the foliage and stems will all rot away. After a few days or so, you will see fresh new growth that is better adjusted to the terrarium environment.

Begonia hydrocotylafolia





Begonia listada







Gesneriads

The Gesneriad family represents an immense amount of plants, many of which are great terrarium subjects. These plants are found all over the world and range from vines to self headers and epiphytes to terrestrials. Many Gesneriads have amazing flowers while others have extremely flashy foliage.

Some of the genera that I have experimented with include Columnea, Codonanthe, Aeschynanthus, Episcia and Nematanthus. Other genera that are commonly used include Saintpaulia (African Violets), Sinningia, Streptocarpa and many more.

Columnea are mostly trailing vines. They are all New World species. They make excellent terrarium plants. Some good species include C. arguta, C. microphylla, C. gloriosa and so many more. There are also many great hybrids that work like, Light Prince or Orange Sherbert. This genus has so many suitable species and hybrids that anything that appears small enough to grow in a terrarium is probably okay to use.

Codonanthe is a small genus of epiphytic vines from the New World. They typically have small white flowers. Every Codonanthe I’ve tried has made a great terrarium plant. Some notable species include C. carnosa, C. devosiana and C. serrulata.

Episcia are soft leaved plants that are sort of self heading but often grow on rhizomes that stretch across the surface. These plants exist in a rainbow of foliage and flower colors. My favorite species is E. lilacina which has large purple (lilac) flowers and dark brown and green foliage.

I won’t get into all of them here but will say that this group of plants probably has one of the highest amounts of terrarium compatible species that are easily obtainable by the average collector/hobbyist. These plants are often best introduced as cuttings. They, on average, like high humidity and decent light and once rooted will prosper quite well.

Columnea arguta



Columnea allenii




Episcia lilacina



Codonanthe luteola




Aroids


Aroids are probably the most commonly used plants in terrariums. This gargantuan group of plants contains vines to self headers, epiphytes to terrestrials and even aquatic species.

The most frequently used plant in terrariums is most likely the common “Pothos” which is actually Epipremnum aureum. This species is nearly impossible to kill and can grow from a single node to filling up a terrarium in a matter of months. This species works great as an egg laying site for the smaller thumbnail species of Dart Frog.

Some other good species are Philodendron scandens, Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, Monstera siltepecana, Syngonium rayii and Scindapsus aureus. Many of the smaller growing self heading types like Alocasia rugosa, A. infernalis, Philodendron wend-imbe, P. “Red Empress Mini” and Anthurium bessae also work.

For the most part, these plants are indestructible in terrariums. The vines are best introduced as cuttings. The self headers can be planted but you may experience some initial die-off as the plant acclimates. They can handle a wide range of lighting and moisture levels. These are great plants and probably the best group of plants for terrariums.

Philo. Red Empress Mini



Philo. grazielae



Spathicarpus hastifolia



Orchids

The Orchid family has over 30,000 species that come from nearly every continent on this planet. They range from epiphytes to terrestrials and vines to bushes. There are even subterranean species! In general, orchids are grown for their flowers but some like, Jewel Orchids, are grown for their foliage.

There are a lot of suitable terrarium orchids but I will only touch on a few here. In general, the Pleurothallids contain some of the best species to be used in terrariums. Many of them are small and make excellent plants for mounting on sticks or back walls. These include those from Pleurothallis, Restrepia, Lepanthes and Masdevallia.

I personally have had pretty good luck with the smaller Bulbophyllum species as well. B. monoliforme is a miniature from SE Asia that grows as a clumping/creeping group of pseudobulbs. It rarely produces leaves and has tiny flowers that are striped in orange. B. alagense (both large and small form) are great terrarium subjects as well.

Jewel Orchids are terrestrial orchids that are grown for their foliage. The more commonly used types come from the humid tropical understory where they grow amongst the leaf litter. Because of this, they make excellent terrarium plants. Some great ones include Macodes petola, Ludisia discolor and Anoechtochilus roxburghii. There are also some nice hybrids that are excellent as well.

There are hundreds of others that would probably work and one should not be afraid to experiment if they have an extra piece of a species they are interested in.

These are usually best introduced as bare root clumps or cuttings. Since there are so many, it’s hard to recommend moisture and light levels. It would be wise to research those things before you make a choice of species you’d like to grow.

Bulbophyllum alagense Small Form



Lepanthes calodictyon


Macodes petola


 

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Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
Part 2

Ferns

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.

Pyrrosia piloselloides






Selaginella kraussiana




Upside Down Fern




Bromeliads

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. Echo




Neo. June Night





Vriesea corcovadensis






Tillandsia ionantha var. vanhyningii





Others

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





Dischidia hirsuta




Pilea sp.







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.

-Antone
Spring Valley Tropicals
 

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Nicely done!
 

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Fantastic effort! Now if I could only find any of these plants (other than a few of the broms and the ficus) up North. Oh well at least I know what to ask Santa for now!
 

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Hey Antone,

Very nice post and very well put together. What would be really nice is if there was a thread where people could post a name and/or pics of a specific plant where people could answer with specifics on its care: How it should be mounted, where in the viv, what are its lighting and humidity demands, etc... And then, for this information to be added to a sticky on a continual basis which could be referenced.

Being able to click a sticky and get a "care sheet" on plants (like you've posted) with specific information for specific species would be great.

-Nish
 

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Okay ??? Can You say AWESOME. Thanks for the direction on obtaining plants that will thrive in my tanks. Great Thread!!!! Thanks for taking the time.
 
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