Plants for Your Amphibian Terrariums
The benefits of having live plants are many. Whether you’re human, fish or frog. For example in a fish tank, the main reason for maintenance is to reduce the levels of nitrates - live plants use the nitrates to grow, so they reduce how often maintenance needs to take place. For your terrarium though, they’ll create oxygen for your inhabitants, they’ll provide shelter for them, they’ll provide a place to climb and, one of the best reasons to add live plants, they help maintain humidity levels! There’s loads of plants that you can include but first you need to work out which would thrive best, and which are best suited to your tank and its inhabitants.
First off is what type of climate are you needing? More specifically, what do your tank inhabitants need in terms of a climate? Most people imagine a little chunk of jungle environment or rainforest - always warm, always wet, humid. It’s actually one of the easiest ones to replicate, and dart frogs would absolutely love it! If you’re not going with frogs and you’ve got another reptile in mind, you may not need all that humidity. Especially if your reptile originates from a dry land - the humidity could be harmful for them. Some species need seasonal changes too, so you’ll have to customise the tank conditions at various points in the year. These factors should determine what type of plants you keep.
Another factor is how much light you can give your plants. In general you’ll want to light your terrarium with natural lighting - a sealed tank can easily get way too hot in direct light. Choosing the perfect light is a debate in itself and would be a whole other article, so if your tank comes with a light, just opt for that one for now. Place your hand at different levels under your light and look at the shadow your hand casts. If the shadow has a sharp edge, it’s getting bright light. A dull edge indicates a medium light and a fuzzy shadow indicates a low light level. If there isn’t much of a shadow then there’s little light there and it’ll be hard to find a plant that will thrive there.
If you need to, you can always add a larger light, or simply add more of them. But remember that a plant placed up high will create shadows that you won’t be able to place plants in underneath - structure plant layers carefully. You can always add larger lights or more lights, but for planning purposes remember that a plant placed high in the terrarium is going to provide shade to plants below it.
Lastly, consider how many variations of plants you want to add - some rapid growers can fill the space pretty quickly if that’s all your after. Others prefer slow growing plants, to keep maintenance to a minimum. The choice is ultimately up to you and what you want, be it some small variations of plants that grow slowly that you won’t have to prune back, or you may like the thought of constantly crafting and shaping a quick growing set of plants. For dart frogs, we’d recommend bromeliads, as they provide hiding spots for your frogs and also hold water well. Another good option is vining plants that can drape down your background to add texture and depth. These in addition to a couple of ferns and some assorted tropical plants will really make your terrarium look like a little chunk of rainforest.
Keep in mind that before you add any plants, you’ll need to add a fertiliser as part of the substrate. Another excellent addition to this is to make the substrate bioactive. By adding some tiny residents to your tank they can become a kind of clean up crew for your larger animals. One option here is springtails. They’ll live off of the waste of larger animals, then convert that waste into their own waste, which plants love to grow on. It keeps maintenance minimal and helps your plants grow!
Finally, let’s have a look at the types of plants you can keep, the first is Peperomia. There are countless species in this genus, and most will be great in a terrarium. Peperomia range from tiny leaves to large leaves, compact forms or vining. A very versatile genus, you could easily fill a terrarium with just different forms of peperomia. Peperomia usually grows in low light, but you will get more compact growth with medium light.
Next up is Philodendrons. This is an impossible plant to kill, it will grow from even the smallest cutting and rapidly fill a tank. It is a good choice for tree frogs. Philodendron tends to be a rapid, easy grower. Be prepared to prune Philodendrons aggressively if needed. There are several different varieties of Philodendron, and all of them are great candidates for a vivarium, terrarium, or houseplant. Philodendrons will grow at almost any light level, but show better color and more rapid growth in higher light conditions.
Bromeliads. In the wild, many species of bromeliads form ‘ponds’ high up in the tree canopy. Frogs can use these water sources to rear tadpoles, and other animals and insects use them as well. With these ponds high in the trees, many animals never come down to the ground! The most common genus of bromeliad used in terraria is Neoregelia.
Wandering Jew (tradescantia) – Wandering jew is also a very easy plant to grow, and can grow very quickly! Some varieties include ‘Red’, ‘Burgundy’ (which has red underneath and green on top), and ‘Bolivian’ with its small leaves and rampant growth habit. You can easily find varieties of wandering jew in many different colors. Medium to low light is preferred by this plant – otherwise it may turn green! Be prepared to trim wandering jews frequently.
Pilea. Like peperomia, hundreds of different species and varieties to choose from. They are easy growers and easy to propagate by cuttings. Small leaf vining forms include ‘Red Stem Tears’, ‘Baby Tears’, and ‘Tiny Tears’. ‘Creeping Charlie’ is a larger leaf vining form, which can easily fill a tank. Choose ‘Moon Valley’ (green) or ‘Friendship’ (purple) if you want a short bush. If your plant gets too out of control, simply clip it back to size.
Bromeliads are true epiphytes (air plants) and will grow just fine stuck into the background or on a stick. They are very adaptable, and you can also plant them in soil or moss at the base of your tank. Try to place them such that they are not sitting in water, and they will do well. Be sure to select varieties of Neoregelia that stay compact. I particularly like ‘Fireball’, ‘Zoe’, or ‘Donger’, all of which are inexpensive and widely available, although any small growing neoregelia will do. For a little extra interest, try another genus of bromeliad like Billbergia with its deep, tubular water holding cups. If your bromeliads lose their bright colors, they are not receiving enough light. They grow OK in medium light, but the best color and form is found when you give them very bright light. No tropical vivarium is complete without bromeliads!
Nothing portrays the image of a cool, damp forest like a fern. Great low light and high humidity plants, ferns are easy to grow, as long as their care needs are understood and followed. Many ferns not only have interesting fronds (leaves) – some also have visually arresting rhizomes (non-roots), such as the rabbit’s foot fern, which is fuzzy to the touch! Some ferns, such as staghorn fern, get quite large and make great display plants in a greenhouse, large vivarium, or hanging basket.