Choosing plants for your terrarium is one of the most difficult and exciting parts of the design process. There a millions of species of plants around the world, but not all of them will thrive in a small closed environment. Fortunately for you, a huge portion of them will do quite well, and some of them might even be plant species you wouldn’t expect! We’ll take a quick look at the various different categories of plants that grow best in terrarium environments to help you decide and design your miniature garden. Each type of plant also has its own page that goes more into details about the best species for planting in terrariums and how to care for them properly; here, we’re just trying to give you an overall sense of the possibilities.
One of the most popular and common types of plants to include in a terrarium is mosses. Mosses are one of the most primitive types of plants still alive on the planet today, and with good reason. They’re remarkably simple to grow, when given the right conditions. Technically known as ‘briophytes’, mosses are not plants in the traditional sense. Instead of reproducing via seeds or cuttings or cloning, they reproduce via spores, similar to the way mushrooms and other fungi reproduce. They come in a wide variety of colors and styles, in all different types of greens and in different shapes. For the adventurous, it’s even possible to incorporate some kind of hanging moss such as sphagnum moss or Irish moss. Finding specimens is easy, but always remember to be careful when transplanting from the wild into your terrarium, since you might bring along some uninvited guests. Sometimes they can be beneficial, but it’s usually best to grow from seed – or in this case, spores – whenever possible. Learn more about growing mosses in your terrarium on our Moss Overview page.
Ferns are another of the popular plants to include in a terrarium, although this may be problematic depending on the size of your container. Ferns favor a moist environment with good rich soil, so be sure to take that into considering when planning your terrarium. There are several varieties of fern you might want to consider, but our personal favorite here is the Japanese Painted Fern. These can grow quite large, but if you’re lucky they will be bounded by the size of the container and not grow too large.
Grasses are another of the plants that only work in specific terrarium shapes. Almost any terrarium could include normal lawn grass, but there isn’t much fun in growing a lawn in a terrarium (although I guess it might be funny to watch someone trying to mow a lawn inside a jar). Ornamental grasses normally grow quite large, depending on the species they can range up to 13 feet high or more. This presents an interesting opportunity for those of you working with a tall narrow container, but might not be really useful for anyone using an old aquarium. For more on the multi-level terrarium, visit our DIY terrarium ideas page.
Flowers aren’t a very common inclusion in terrariums, but we’d like to change that by telling you that in most cases, small flowering plants will do just as well in a terrarium as they will in your front garden. Obviously, you’re going to have some trouble trying to grow tulips in a bottle (although check out our DIY terrariums page for a unique flower-based spin on the two-level grasses idea). It would be possible to include some smaller flowers, however, such as bluebells or crocuses – usually the first flowers seen while the snows of the previous winter are still melting. If you plan your flower selections carefully, you should be able to create a garden that is capable of blooming any time in the year! Our Planting Flowers in a Terrarium page will give you even more ideas!
Next we come to a type of plant that many people don’t even know exists: epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that act almost as parasites; the seeds attach themselves to the upper branches of trees, and the plants spend their entire lifecycle above the ground. They tend to grow only in tropical areas with moist, warm climates, which means that they will work best inside a closed-style terrarium, where you can control the humidity and warmth levels very carefully (even if the A/C is on full-blast, you can just move it outside!) Many epiphytes come with unusual and beautiful color patterns and gradations, so choose carefully.
Cacti might not seem like it, but they’re almost perfect plants for terrariums. They require very little maintenance and most of them grow quite slowly, although many also produce beautifully unexpected flowers at certain points of the year. Depending on the variety, they may benefit from a sandier soil than most plants usually enjoy, so it would be wise to plan out the possible plant combinations very carefully to make sure that all the difference species will thrive. Additionally, as with epiphytes, the closed-style of terrarium might be best for cacti, allowing you to control how dry the air becomes. For more on creating desert environments and the special challenges they create, be sure to see our DIY Deserts page.
Last, but definitely not least, we get to carnivorous plants. This type of plant includes the infamous venus fly trap, pitcher plants, and sundews. Typically found in wetlands and rainforests, these plants make for some of the most exciting and dynamic terrariums. If you choose to add these plants to an open-style terrarium, make sure to keep the environment moist, without drowning their root systems. As a bonus, they’ll probably catch any flies and other insects that wander into your house during the warmer months. If you plant them in a closed-style terrarium, it’s possible to simple offer them any of the insects from your home or garden – but not strictly necessary. Try not to feed them pieces of meat, however, as this is definitely not what they were designed for and it may have serious negative effects (ie: killing your plants). We’ve devoted special attention to carnivorous plants, so you can read all about the different species in-depth on the appropriate species pages! Enjoy!