The Cambridge dictionary defines a terrarium as “a glass container in which plants are grown.”
Although the definition is essentially right, the real-life terrariums hold much more aesthetic value that this sentence can convey.
In short, terrariums are complete, enclosed miniature plant ecosystems. By creating a terrarium, you get a miniature glasshouse, or a small biosphere, right there on your tabletop.
However, not all plants are suitable to be grown in every terrarium. Closed terrarium plants need to endure specific conditions - high humidity, low airflow, and limited space.
Unfortunately, many nice images we can see online can be misleading since they create a false idea of what a sustainable, long-lasting terrarium setup can look like.
Let’s take a look at plants you can really grow in your open or closed terrarium.
For easier navigation, I have divided the “classic”, tropical terrarium plants according to their size. Also, I designated some space for exciting, unusual groups that may not be your first association when you think about terrarium plants, but can help you create some awesome, completely unique setups.
Let’s dig in!
Small and Tiny Terrarium Plants
Small terrarium plants are the ones that you can include in a classic, closed, jar-type terrarium, but also in many other types of terrarium setups. Their lighting requirements tend to vary, so pay attention to that particular aspect when planning.
Mosses are everyone’s choice for first experiments with terrariums, but also a keeper for many experienced terrarium designers.
Besides the fact that they are free and easy to find outdoors, mosses have a unique visual appeal. Also, they are virtually care-free and can be left in a closed terrarium for years with no interventions. They are also the most tolerant to low-light conditions.
Mosses are primitive, non-vascular plants that reproduce by spores. Although we often use the term “moss” as a singular, there are at least 12,000 moss species around the world. Obviously, not all of them live in your backyard, but you will surely be able to find several species with different textures and shades of green. That variety will add depth and playfulness to your terrarium moss patch.
Nerve plant (Fittonia)
Low growth, small leaf size, love for moisture and attractive nervature makes Fittonia one of terrarium favorites.
The main feature of Fittonias is the leaves’ nerves, which come in three colors - red, pink, and white. All varieties are beautiful in their own way. You can combine the two to create stunning terrarium landscapes.
Nerve plants are native to tropical rainforests, so they thrive in conditions similar to the rainforest floor - soft, indirect light, and high humidity.
Pinch back regularly to keep the plant compact.
Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)
If you prefer dots and irregular shapes in place of straight lines, “polka dot” is a plant for you. It can grow to be 12-20 inches tall. If circumstances are favorable, it will also produce interesting, tiny lilac flowers in the summer.
Unlike many other terrarium-friendly plants, it prefers bright light - in low light conditions, its leaves will turn dull green. That is why the polka dot plant is especially valuable to consider if you plan to have your terrarium in partial sun.
The drawback - especially for should-be long-lasting terrarium setups - is that H. phyllostachya withers away quickly after flowering. Even if you prevent the plant from flowering by removing the emerging flower stem, it will get leggy with age and will eventually need to be replaced. Pinching to keep the plant compact extends its lifetime a bit.
Luckily, the cuttings can be easily rooted to create new plants to replace the old one. You can just stick a cutting into the moist substrate. If you let the plant complete its lifecycle, you can also propagate it by seeds.
There is a decent number of polka dot cultivars, with leaves that are green, white, pink, and/or carmine. The colors can appear in the form of dots, stains or streaks. Shades of green can also vary.
Starfish plant (Cryptanthus bivittatus)
Starfish plant, also known as Earth Star, is an attractive little Brasilian plant with humble needs. The main reason Starfish plant is an all-time terrarium favorite is its shape, and also its vivid coloration. Its average height is only 6 inches, which makes it great for small terrariums, and ideal to take foreground position.
Starfish plants like humidity and prefer bright to moderate light. The brighter the light, the more expressed are its colors.
Be careful when planting your starfish - each of its 10 to 12 leaves has a series of tiny spikes on the edges. They don’t break off and can’t get stuck in your skin, but still, they can give you an uncomfortable surprise if you are not careful.
Baby Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Baby tears is a plant known for its ability to form mats of tiny, vividly green, bean-shaped leaves that will spread over everything and “spill” over the sides of a pot. In a terrarium, they are ideal to fill out empty spots.
This plant thrives in high humidity. Keep them out of direct sunlight and by all means, prevent dry conditions. Also, do not handle the plant roughly, as the little branches are brittle and the plant can be damaged relatively easily during improper handling.
The Aluminum Plant (Pilea cadierei)
Another plant with exquisite-looking decorative little leaves is the aluminum plant or Watermelon pilea. This Vietnamese jewel got its name for the fact that the silvery raised patches on the leaves resemble aluminum foil. Also, when viewed as a whole, the leaves look like tiny watermelons.
The aluminum plant is a typical modest tropical plant that prefers low to medium light and is adapted to warm temperatures.
You will need to pinch it back from time to time to promote bushy growth. The plant grows quickly, so there is no need to be scared of pinching back for that reason. It roots easily, so you can use the pinched parts to create new plants.
Medium-to-Large Sized Terrarium Plants
Larger terrarium plants are suitable for large jars and terrariums. After a while, you will probably have to report them or prune them to prevent them from growing out of the terrarium. Another option is to let them grow in a half-open terrarium.
All this extra work and planning may seem like a drag, but the fact that these species are highly attractive makes up for the effort. Terrarium setups that feature large terrarium plants are ideal to make you stand out at expos, competitions, and make an extraordinary gift that is rarely seen even among terrarium enthusiasts.
Button Fern (Pellaea rotundifolia)
Ferns give any space a fresh, forest-y feel. Unlike many large ones, Button fern is a terrarium-friendly fern since it is small enough to fit into one.
Like all ferns, this New Zealand native likes, humidity and shade. It is surprisingly drought-tolerant for a water-loving plant and can be watered only weekly.
Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
Although golden pothos is a quite mediocre house plant, it makes a highly attractive terrarium centerpiece or background plant because of its glossy, light-green-and-yellow variegated leaves. Golden pothos loves moisture and will thrive in terrariums, and bright rooms with indirect light. Expect it to grow vigorously. Pruning is essential, and you can use cuttings to make new plants.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Adult spider plants are too large for most terrariums, but “baby” Chlorophytums - shoots that the mother plants regularly produce are excellent additions to the terrarium world.
You can use a terrarium to propagate Chlorophytum plants, making the baby plants its temporary tenants. After 6 months to a year, when they grow too large - repot them outside of the terrarium and put new baby spider plants in their spot.
Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura)
Prayer plant got its name because it folds up the leaves every night, which reminded first observers of folding hands in prayer. Prayer plant, or Maranta, has highly attractive variegated leaves with red veins, and can grow to be 12 inches tall, with each leaf around 6 inches - you should be aware of this when choosing the size of your terrarium.
It needs medium light; however, if the plant is not getting enough, you will easily know this since it will not open its leaves, even during the daytime.
Native to tropical Central and South America and West Indies, Maranta loves warmth and humidity. Ensure regular watering in spring and summer, but you can decrease the amount in autumn and winter.
Carnivorous plants for terrarium
Coming from warm bogs, marshes, and wetlands, carnivorous plants will thrive in the humid conditions of a terrarium. However, there are a couple of special requirements:
The terrarium has to be an open one, for two main reasons. First - there needs to be a way for insects your plant will eat to get into the terrarium. Second - carnivorous plants enjoy direct sun exposure, and there is a chance they could overheat in a closed terrarium. Also, diseases and fungi are less likely to strike when there is some air circulation. A fishbowl-type of dish will work perfectly fine.
The terrarium substrate has to be adjusted for carnivorous plants, as they prefer acidic conditions and like to grow on peat. However, this depends on the species.
Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
is probably the most famous carnivorous plant in the world. Because of its representation in popular culture, it is a favorite with kids, although adults are definitely not immune to its charm.
It’s “hunting style” is the most proactive of all carnivorous plants. As soon as a fly touches Venus flytrap special sensory hairs on a venus flytrap’s leaf, it will close its two segments like a pair of jaws. The teeth at the tips prevent the prey from escaping while the plant releases its digestive enzymes.
Venus flytrap will do great in damp terrarium conditions. It likes to have “wet feet” meaning that the root zone should be well-saturated with water. The water needs to be pH neutral with no minerals - by all means, avoid using hard tap water. Distilled water and (clean) rainwater are both excellent options. In fact, any terrarium will benefit from using soft or distilled water since it prevents the formation of limescale on glass and on plant leaves.
Despite looking exotic, Venus flytrap is not a tropical plant. Hibernation is a must if you want to keep your plants alive for many years.
Let’s take a quick look at some other carnivorous plants you can grow in a terrarium.
These delicate plants possess tiny spines equipped with thick liquid substance (“the dew”) which attracts and traps unfortunate flies. It is the most diverse carnivorous plant genus. Some of the common species that are ideal for terrarium include Drosera spatulata and D. capensis. Since there are over 200 species in the genus, make sure to check the precise conditions your particular plant needs.
Although they look like innocent little succulents, don’t be fooled - butterworts are carnivorous to the core and are a “plant equivalent of flypaper”. Some require an exceptionally high humidity that can be achieved in a fish tank terrarium, but many can grow in simple ornamental terrariums. Like the Venus flytrap, butterworts also require a dormancy period.
Succulents are among the most popular modern houseplants. Their small size, slow growth, and interesting shapes and patterns make them a popular choice for terrariums. Although you will surely find many images of beautiful closed terrariums online, I strongly advise you against pursuing such projects.
Succulents are not good plants for closed terrariums. It will be a very short time before they start to rot. In a typical terrarium, setting, their beauty will only be short-lived and you will not be able to grow happy and healthy plants.
Fortunately, for those of you that are both succulent lovers and terrarium lovers, there are open glass terrariums that are just right for housing succulents. Succulents need to have a large central hole and additional holes to ensure really good airflow.
Here are some succulents that will look great in such a terrarium.
Stonecrop (Sedum sp.)
Because of their hardiness, small size and attractive leaves in various shades of green, succulents from the genus Sedum are perfect for terrariums. Morphology greatly varies with species, so even if you would limit yourself to Sedum plants only - you would have a great variety of plants to choose from. Go for the dwarf, low-growing, creeping stonecrops, or species such as Donkey tail (Sedum morganianum) or Jelly bean plant (Sedum rubrotinctum).
xCremnosedum is a hybrid genus, created by crossing Cremnophila and Sedum species. The first and most well-known cultivar is 'Little Gem' - and that is the one that is ideal for terrarium use because of its small size, decorative leaf clusters, and tiny yellow flowers
‘Little gem’ likes to be watered regularly, but the substrate needs to be well-draining.
Zebra Cactus (Haworthia attenuata)
One of the most popular small succulents can easily be incorporated in a terrarium setup. Its contrasting leaves can add liveliness and a bit of layering to setups containing lower creeping such as the aforementioned stonecrops. A nice specimen of Zebra cactus can easily serve as a centerpiece in your terrarium
Haworthia is very sensitive to low light and excess humidity, so ensure that your terrarium has two open sides if choosing this succulent.
Air plants (Tillandsia) For Terrariums
If you want a truly unique planted terrarium, you should know that Air Plants (Tillandsia) are among the strangest, the most otherworldly plants you can own. Because they are so unique, they require some special care as well.
Like the starfish plant, air plants belong to the Bromeliaceae family. However, unlike their stary cousin, they don’t require a substrate. In fact, many of them don’t even have roots. Amazingly, they can live only off of air, moisture and some light.
There are a couple of tips to keep your air plant terrarium healthy and marvelous. Both of them are related to watering
Interestingly, you shouldn’t water your air plants inside of the terrarium; you will have to take them out and soak them or mist them, and then let them dry completely before putting them back into the terrarium.
There should be condensation or any moisture whatsoever in your air plant terrarium.
What this also means is that you could completely rearrange your plants every time you take them out for a dip.
Also, you should always use an open terrarium to ensure air circulation. Air plants are ideal for tiny, hanging terrariums
Species ideal for a terrarium setting are Tillandsia bulbosa, T. stricta, T. tectorum, T. ionantha, and others.
As you had a chance to see, a planted terrariums can be much more than an all-green mossy jar setup. There is a great variety of terrarium types and a fair number of plants that will thrive under the conditions they provide.
I hope that this article has smashed the stereotypes about terrariums and has given you an idea of how varied and diverse terrarium flora can be.
What is your ideal terrarium setup? What plants have been the most successful to grow in terrariums in your experience? Share in the comments below and keep the conversation going!