Updated/Fact-Chacked on January 30, 2022 by John
Last year I made my first closed terrarium and it’s been thriving now for months. I have opened it a couple of times to mist it, but generally, it’s been left to its own devices.
I have a couple of friends wanting to build their own after admiring mine but were unsure what plants work best in a closed terrarium. This article outlines all the plants that can be used. If you do further research into these plants, most pages will not talk about them being used in a closed terrarium environment, they are either grown outdoors, in greenhouses or used as indoor plants.
This article categorizes closed terrarium plants into mosses, ferns, vines and foliage plants – all of which give your terrarium a unique look and feel.
Main rules of plant selection
Don’t choose a plant that is going to grow large, read the labels. Double-check with the supplier that it will not outgrow your container and see if cutting back foliage will damage the plant. When carrying out plant research for my closed terrarium I found so much misinformation – one site (I won’t name names!) recommended using Cryptanthus Bromeliads (Earth Stars) – but this can grow to 3 FT wide!
Moses sit on top of your substrate or any pieces of wood you have added, they create a carpet of colour and cover any bare patches. You can create an entire closed terrarium just with different mosses which can look amazing. Mosses provides great texture and contrast to your other plants and are a must-have addition.
Mosses or ‘bryophyte’ are non-vascular plants that absorb water through direct contact with the air, they don’t have a root system which means they don’t compete with other plants for nutrients. Mosses love high humidity and will thrive in a closed terrarium.
There are over 20,000 discovered mosses and the list is still growing. Mosses are broken down into two types: Acrocarpous (Clump-forming) and Pleurocarpous (sheet forming) – you will need to choose the type according to your terrarium design. Acrocarpous is best for creating your landscape, while Pleurocarpous is used for cover. The best place to buy mosses is probably Etsy, lots of sellers have unique varieties. Here’s a breakdown of some common mosses with their scientific names so you can see how they will grow:
Leucobryum glaucum, Dicranum scoparium, Polytrichum commune, Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, Campylopus introflexus, Leucobryum glaucum, Aulacomnium palustre, Syntrichia latifolia, Polytrichum juniperinum, Thuidium tamariscinum, Atrichum undulatum, Pogonatum aloides, Didymodon rigidulus
Pleurocarpous moss varieties:
Climacium americanum, Bryoandersonia illecebra, Plagiomnium cuspidatum, Dicranum scoparium, Entodon seductrix, Ptilium crista-castrensis, Hylocomium splendens, Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus
Miniature/Dwarf Ferns (Polypodiopsida, Polypodiophyta, Monilophytes)
Ferns have been around for millions of years and over 10 million types have been discovered. Although ferns are closely related to mosses, ferns are vascular with their leaves (megaphylls) extending upwards – giving them great architectural qualities in a terrarium. Ferns love damp, shaded conditions and do well in closed terrariums that are not in direct sunlight.
Ferns can be grown in aquariums, vivariums and terrariums, some don’t need any substrate at all to survive. For a closed terrarium, we want Epiphytes and Oxylophytes that grow above ground in damp conditions.
For a closed terrarium, you specifically need miniature varieties as they could totally take over your container.
Heart Fern (Hemionitis Arifolia)– a common household plant that does well in a terrarium
Dwarf holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) – Easy to grow dwarf fern which is slow-growing and low maintenance
Button Fern (Pellaea Rotundifolia) – great for a dry terrarium, with a desert landscape feel.
Silver Ribbon Fern (Pteris Cretica) – variegated leaves add great contrast to other plants
Delta Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum Raddianum) – very slow growth rate to suit small spaces
Boston Fern (Nephrolepis Exaltata) – another common house plant, easy to grow and maintain in a closed terrarium
Autumn Fern (Dryopteris Erythrosora) – This fern grows a little faster and can reach 25 inches tall, you may have to regularly trim this to keep it maintained.
Lemon Button Fern (Nephrolepis Cordifolia ‘Duffii’) – Related to the Boston fern, a great dwarf fern easy to maintain
Polka Dot Plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya)
Polka Dot Plants are mainly found in South East Asia and parts of Africa with humid conditions. This plant works well in closed terrariums due to its variegated leaves which contrast well with other plants like ferns and mosses. There are hundreds of varieties of Hypoestes phyllostachya, many being used as common household plants. For closed terrariums you want a variety that does not grow too tall; ‘Confetti’ and ‘Camina’ varieties only reach 8″ which is ideal for most containers. If your foliage does get out of control, simply trim it back with your long terrariums snippers.
Nerve Plants (Fittonia albivenis)
This plant is found in the Rainforests of South America, a small plant with striking white veins. Sometimes called a ‘mosaic plant’, the Nerve plant loves damp humid conditions and only grows to around 6″ tall. Note, this is a psychedelic plant as used by some tribes in the Amazon.
Pilea plants are native to South and Central America and love a warm tropical climate, perfect for a closed terrarium. The most common pilea is the Pilea peperomioides, also known as the money plant, commonly used as a beginners house plant. For a closed terrarium, you want a pilea variety that prefers a higher humidity like the Pilea Involucrata. Pilea Involucrata has highly textured leaves and works well next to plants with smooth foliage to create some contrast. This variety likes indirect sunlight and a temperature of 16-25 degrees. Other good pilea varieties include Pilea cadierei, Pilea depressa, Pilea microphylla.
Peperomia Plants (Radiator Plants)
Another plant from South and Central America with over 1600 recorded varieties. Most varieties are compact and only grow to around 12″ tall, perfect for medium-sized closed terrariums. The varieties vary greatly in appearance, so choose one that is compatible with your terrarium design and landscape idea.
Here’s a few from Wikipedia that has a full gallery of different varieties.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
This is a flowering plant found in southern Africa and used as a common house plant for its handsome variegated leaves and air purification qualities. Spider plants can grow to around 25″ and can become quite bushy; either use a large terrarium container or regularly trim back foliage to keep it in check.
Varieties include: Chlorophytum comosum ‘Bonnie’, Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittatum’, Chlorophytum laxum ‘Zebra’, Chlorophytum Comosum ‘Variegatum’, Chlorophytum viridescens ‘Hawaiian’, Chlorophytum comosum ‘Bonnie Variegated’
The ‘Bonnie’ variety is the smallest spider plant in the range, but can still grow to 18″.
Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila)
This is a climbing plant that will give you trails of foliage and add a dramatic jungle look to a closed terrarium. Originally from South East Asia, the plant loves warm humid conditions. This plant is fast-growing and easy to grow, though will require regular pruning as can get out of hand in a small container and take over.
Baby’s Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
This ground creeping plant is a tropical perennial that is great to add texture to a terrarium; hundreds of tiny leaves fill the ground space and sit wonderfully against moss. Like the creeping fig above, Soleirolia soleirolii can grow quickly and requires regular pruning – don’t use it if you want to make a small closed terrarium that you never open. This plant does well in partial light and damp conditions and can be a thirsty plant.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia) (Formally called the Wandering Jew)
The spiderwort is commonly used as a house plant and originates from Central and South America, I saw this plant a lot during my 3-months backpacking in Mexico. There are over 100 different varieties in the Tradescantia genus but some of them will not flower, check with your supplier if they bloom and the colours.
Common Tradescantia include: Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart, TradescantiaZebrina pendula, Tradescantia Callisia, Tradescantia fluminensis, Tradescantia blossfeldiana, Tradescantia Sillamontana, Tradescantia spathacea, Tradescantia virginiana, Tradescantia chrysophylla,
Mini English Ivy (Hedera helix)
You will see this ivy in hanging baskets with its twisting vines and small foliage. The common English Ivy used outdoors can grow to 3ft tall with an infinite spread over time. You are looking for a miniature variety like the Hedera Helix ‘Abundance’, which can be found online.
John Green is a 46-year-old graphic designer living in Durham. John is RHS level 3 certified and owns an allotment in Durham.