Whether you’re someone who loves both plants and reptiles and wants to put the two together, or you’re a dedicated keeper who wants their reptile to experience the benefits of a bioactive or live-planted vivarium, it is important to make sure the plants you’ve selected for your set up are reptile-safe.
Before selecting plants, you should consider the diet of your reptile. If your reptile requires leafy greens as part of their diet, they may decide to sample some of the plants in the vivarium. In this case, it’s best to avoid any plants that could cause mouth irritation or worse. For example, pothos and philodendrons are frequently recommended as great plants for a terrarium, but they do contain calcium oxalates, which can cause burning in the reptile’s mouth, vomiting, or more serious harm if consumed in large amounts. Pothos can be a suitable choice for insectivores or frugivores (fruit-eating species), particularly arboreal reptiles or amphibians as its leaves can support the weight of the animal and offer more climbing opportunities.
For species that may be more likely to take a curious bite out of a plant, here are some safer choices for your vivarium:
· Calathea/Prayer Plant
· Parlor Palm
· Money Tree
· Spider Plant
· Tillandsia/Air Plants
Bromeliads are an excellent option for tropical terrarium setups. They are available in a wide variety of colours and sizes to add plenty of aesthetic appeal to the vivarium, but they also provide some extra functions for arboreal species. Their rosette collects water after the terrarium has been misted, providing reptiles and amphibians with opportunities to drink. If the bromeliad is large enough, your pet may enjoy sleeping inside the plant as well.
Plants that can work well in a vivarium but should be used with caution and consideration of the reptile’s diet include:
· Chinese Evergreen
· Schefflera/Umbrella Tree
· Snake Plant
· Jade Plant
Lilies are a plant that should not be included in a vivarium under any circumstance. While they are beautiful and could be tempting to add into a terrarium for a pop of colour, lilies in all their varieties can be extremely harmful to reptiles, as well as other household pets such as dogs and cats. They should be avoided as the pollen from these flowers can lead to severe kidney damage and other harmful effects. They are dangerous enough that if an animal drinks water from its leaves or water that is merely around a lily, it can result in kidney damage or failure (Ref 1). For this reason, lilies should not be included in or near a terrarium. Including something hibiscus or orchids are a much safer option, or even artificial flowers if you don’t have a green thumb.
The lists above are not exhaustive. If there is a plant you are considering including in your vivarium, it is always a good idea to first research whether they pose any possible risks to your reptile. Regardless of the plants selected, all plants should be quarantined before they are added to the enclosure in case of any pests, fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals that could be on the plant. To quarantine a plant, repotting them in an organic soil (or even a soil intended for reptiles) can help reduce the risk of exposing your reptile to any fertilizers that may still be in the plants system, while also allowing the plant to begin adjusting to the environment it will be exposed to in the enclosure. Once the quarantine period has been completed, the plant can be removed from the soil and have its roots and leaves gently rinsed. This will remove any residue that could be remaining on the plant’s leaves, and ensure the safety of your reptile.
Overall, adding live plants to a reptile’s enclosure can certainly allow them to engage in some natural behaviours, such as hiding or using the plant to drink from, while also purifying the air. As long as plants are responsibly chosen, your reptile will enjoy having an ever-changing habitat as the plant grows and expands in the enclosure.
1. Which lilies are toxic to pets? ASPCA. (2022, April 6). Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://www.aspca.org/news/which-lilies-are-toxic-pets