The Best Plants for your Terrarium
Arguably the best part of owning or building a terrarium is watching the plants thrive. No-one purposefully wants to watch their plants die, especially if they’ve forked out a small fortune to own a fancy glass terrarium. Often this results in a fancy looking glass container with no plants. You could add a candle in memory of the plants that were, but that doesn’t change the fact that you spent money on something that no longer serves its purpose. Many of the people I meet at markets would love to own a terrarium but are too scared to buy one for this exact reason. At Ana Arium we create both closed and open terrariums, and we only select the plants that we have tested and researched ourselves. Some of these plants are listed below, and although they might seem different they all have one thing in common, they enjoy the terrarium environment.
Fittonias are a personal favourite of mine. The striking white or red veins add that little bit of colour to any terrarium. Native to the rainforests of Peru, it’s not surprising that these plants crave high humidity and filtered light. Be careful to not to deprive the plant of too much light or you’ll lose the contrasting colours as the plant will revert back to green. Fittonia’s are best used as a striking groundcover in a terrarium and require very little water. For a terrarium-bound Fittonia, less is always more.
I’m seeing more and more varieties of Peperomia cropping up in Cape Town nurseries. Initially I could only find Caperata and Zorro varieties but I have just recently found some Peperomia napoli nights that I just can’t get enough of. Peperomia are compact, sub-tropical plants that typically clump together with their foliage radiating outwards to protect their delicate stems. If you’ve held a Peperomia plant at the stem you’ll understand what I mean. The stems snap off easily, and often display some succulent properties which is why you need to be careful when watering a Peperomia plant. If you place a healthy Peperomia in a closed terrarium without any water, you might be surprised to find condensation droplets on the inside of the glass after 24hrs. This condensation suggests that the plant holds water reserves so water these plants sparingly to avoid root rot.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that ferns love terrariums. They are the number one go to plant for any beginner terrarium enthusiast. The ferns that we love at Ana Arium include the Rabbit foot fern (Davallia species), the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) and the Asparagus fern (which I have just recently found is not actually a true fern). These ferns adjust quickly to the terrarium environment and almost immediately start uncurling new fronds revealing a near perfect display of symmetry. No terrarium is complete without a fern as they provide the single most common hallmark of a tropical forest, the canopy of green foliage. Trim your ferns to prevent them from taking over and turning your terrarium into a scene from Jurassic Park (unless that’s what you’re going for).
The Cryptanthus belongs to the Bromeliaceae family but unlike its family members it can be grown in soil, and for this reason, relies on its root system for water. As the plant is native to the rainforests of Brazil the Cryptanthus prefers high humidity and bright indirect light. Just like the Fittonia, Cryptanthus needs bright filtered light in order to maintain its bright colourand variegation. Insufficient light will result in the leaves losing colour and variegation and we don’t want that, now do we? Interestingly in my own experience, drastically changing the Cryptanthus growing conditions may shock the plant to the point where it would lose colour and variegation. This isn’t permanent and in time the plant will return to its bright colour once it has adapted to its new environment. Over time the Cryptanthus will reward you with new “pups” which can easily be picked off and replanted. Cryptanthus is truly the gift that keeps giving.
Moss varieties form dense green clumps which are perfect for creating the illusion of lush green fields in you terrarium. Moss prefers a damp environment with low light and can easily be overwatered so be careful. If you are able to find the right moisture balance moss will thrive in a closed terrarium environment. Sadly, moss is probably one of the hardest organisms to keep alive in Cape Town. Yes, I know that they can be found just about everywhere, but I challenge you to move that moss indoors and maintain its growth. Its not easy, believe me I have tried! Despite my continued failure I continue to look for avenues to propagate moss as nothing can compare to the impact factor of healthy looking moss in a terrarium. In Malaysia, some companies have made a thriving global business out of live moss and preserved moss terrariums. While we would love for all of our terrariums to sport lush moss we cannot find a reliable source but this doesn’t mean that we won’t stop trying because, I mean… well have you seen some of these terrariums???
Succulents and Cacti
To some Cacti and Succulents are just plain boring, but to others they are arguably the most reliable terrarium plants. You are more likely to find succulents in a terrarium than any other type of plant and for good reason too. Pick the right selection of plants and they’ll happily be on their way, not requiring too much effort to stay alive. Rosette shaped succulents like Echeveria are beautiful but if left in a poorly lit indoor area they will elongate into a hardly distinguishable, leggy version of what they used to be. The smarter choice for terrariums would be picking from the various Crassula species or the Mammilaria cacti, as they require very little water and light, and are by far the most forgiving. Dress them up with desert stone and reindeer moss to add colour and texture and you’ll be delightfully surprised at how good they look. Don’t forget to add some Lithops or Living Stones to your terrarium. They come in a wide array of colours, don’t require too much fuss and make a great point of interest when placed among pebbles. I love pointing them out in terrariums and seeing people’s reaction to this strange but very much indigenous plant.
Whatever you decide to add to your terrarium always be prepared for anything. Observe, observe, observe! Check the moisture content daily to get comfortable adjusting the delicate balance in your terrarium. This means lifting the lid off an overly moist closed terrarium or watering a dry open terrarium. Watch your plants to see how they fair. Remove dead or decaying plant matter immediately and don’t become despondent if you lose a plant. Part of the journey is taking in the lessons learned and building on from that. Not all terrariums will live long lives. Trust me I know. But there are a few that with the right conditions and the right plants, will surprise you. Check out our terrarium friendly plants currently available in store.
My closed Conservatory terrarium pictured below was built in September 2019 and is still going strong despite me watering it only lightly once a month, if I can remember (I may have skipped a month). It only required the removal of some dead leaves, and the Irish moss (Sagina Subulata) because it needed way more light than I could provide. I open the lid maybe once a month for watering and don’t touch it at all in between so it doesn’t get much fresh air and look at it now. It’s not something I can explain. All I can do is quote the wise words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic park where he states “Life finds a way”. He’s not wrong.