A Guide to Popular Terrarium Plants
By Antone Jones
Part 1The 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 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. sp. Trinidad
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.
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.
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
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