Closed terrariums are basically tropical rainforest generators. They allow us to grow all kinds of exotic plant species (and live our destination dreams) from the comfort of our own homes.
Amazingly for us, there’s a large and diverse number of tropical species that thrive in sealed terrarium environments. The real challenge is finding those that fit…
In fact, picking the right closed terrarium plants can pose a challenge. So, I’ve made this list to be as comprehensive, but accessible as possible.
There really are no “best” closed terrarium plants and there are lots to choose from. Beauty is subjective – and every terrarium setup is different – but it’s helpful to understand where to look and have some strong contenders as a starting point.
So we’re covering many of the main plant genus’ and families that work in closed terrariums (so you can get a broad understanding of what plants work) but also some examples of good varieties and cultivars for you to start with.
They’re split into 4 categories for your easy browsing:
- “Not-So-Closed” Terrarium Plants
Ready? Let’s dig in.
Ferns are perfectly suited to life in closed terrariums. They love the consistent heat and humidity that sealed terrarium environments provide. Suitable terrarium ferns range from compact tropical ferns and tiny epiphytic species, to miniature varieties of common houseplants.
The Maidenhair ferns are beautifully delicate ferns, prized for their frilly foliage. Originating from the tropics, they make great houseplants but even better terrarium plants.
That’s because they have a bit of a reputation amongst houseplant owners for being super sensitive to drying out. Which is absolutely not an issue in closed terrariums where they can access constant moisture.
Most varieties tend to remain quite compact – making them great for terrariums of all sizes – but there are some extra small species too that really stand out.
- Adiantum microphyllum (Dwarf Maidenhair Fern)
- Adiantum raddianum (Delta Maidenhair Fern)
- Adiantum hispidulum (Rough Maidenhair Fern)
The Nephrolepis Sword Ferns may only be a small genus of 30 ferns, but they’re hard to ignore.
With their sword-shaped fronds in vibrant green they bring so much character to a terrarium. Though, they can actually be appear both sharp or soft depending on the species and variety of fern.
The Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) is a mainstay fern in many modern households, but it can get pretty big. Like several feet tall kind of big. Thankfully it does have a few dwarf varieties that are a much more manageable size (‘Marisa’ and ‘Fluffy Ruffles’) or some other species like N. cordifolia ‘Duffii’ are much more compact too.
- Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’ (Lemon Button Fern)
- Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ (Dwarf Sword Fern)
- Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Marisa’
Pteris ferns truly have a shape and appearance like no other.
Where other ferns are often soft and delicate, these are sharp and striking. If Nephrolepis are sword-like, Pteris must be trident-like… Characterised by forked, linear fronds – often with a white or creamy variegation down the centre – they really add a unique flair to a terrarium.
They tend to be quite slow to grow, but they’re easy to look after. As the fronds grow on the ends of long stems, their growth pattern tends to go “up and over” so to speak. So, the mature plants are better suited to taller terrariums, but they’ll take a long time to get there.
- Pteris cretica ‘Albolineata’
- Pteris dentata ‘Stramina’
- Pteris ensiformis ‘Evergemiensis’
Asplenium is a genus of epiphytic tree ferns native to SE Asia.
Over there you’ll find them growing in the crooks of tropical trees all over the place, but the varieties we’re familiar with are living very different lives as popular houseplants in the West.
Bird’s Nest Ferns in particular (and to a lesser extent the Dragon’s Tail Fern) are commonly grown as houseplants, but they really thrive in humid terrarium conditions that match their native tropical homes.
Though don’t worry about trying to recreate their typical tree homes, they’ll grow terrestrially in a terrarium just fine.
- Asplenium difforme
- Asplenium nidus ‘Crispy Wave’ (Bird’s Nest Fern).
- Asplenium x ebenoides
I like to call Davallia the family of “Footed” ferns.
Rabbit’s Foot, Deer’s Foot, Hare’s Foot – you get the idea.
Named for their fluffy rhizome “feet” that spill out from the base of the fern, Davallia are often found growing epiphytically in nature. They use those thick, fibrous rhizome feet of theirs to grip branches and to seek out moisture.
Their beautiful, finely divided (but very dense) fronds that provide lots of texture to a terrarium. They really are gorgeous.
They can eventually grow reasonably large, so may need cutting back a few times a year.
- Davallia fejeensis (Rabbit’s Foot Fern)
- Davallia trichomanoides (Black Rabbit’s Foot Fern)
- Davallia heterophylla (Edit: I think this was reclassified to Humata)
Microsorum is a diverse genus of ferns that’s weirdly also full of unique animal names.
Whether it’s the thick, scaly leaves of the Crocodile Fern, or the rounded paw-like digits of the Kangaroo Fern, Microsorum has some interesting shapes to bring to the terrarium world.
Generally full of larger plant species, they’re a better fit for larger terrariums that can give them the space to fully grow out their unique fronds.
- Microsorum pustulatum (Kangaroo Fern)
- Microsorum mussifolium (Crocodile Fern)
- Microsorum diversifolium
Pyrrosia are a genus of epiphytic tree ferns hailing from the SE Asian tropics.
Unlike many other ferns on this list, their leaves tend to be simple and full (often even fleshy).
In their native environment, you’ll often find them growing up tree trunks, but in terrariums they’ll do great on driftwood branches or mounted onto suitable backboards.
- Pyrrosia piloselloides (Dragon’s Scale Fern)
- Pyrrosia nummularifolia (Creeping Button Fern)
- Pyrrosia lingua (Tongue Fern)
Technically falling somewhere between a moss and a fern, Selaginella are an interesting genus of plant.
They thrive in warm and moist environments, but they’ll likely never outgrow a terrarium. Selaginella is a fantastic carpeting plant, and it’ll form a dense blanket of foliage along the ground of any terrarium it’s added to.
- Selaginella kraussiana ‘Aurea’
- Selaginella uncinata
- Selaginella emmeliana
Microgramma are another genus of miniature epiphytic ferns hailing from regions in South America and the Caribbean.
Sometimes called Snakeferns, they’re characterised mostly by beautiful lanceolate fronds with intricate venation (which presumably remind people of snakeskin).
They’re not a well known family of plants, but they’re definitely worth exploring in humid, closed terrarium projects that have plenty of hardscape items to cover.
- Microgramma heterophylla
- Microgramma piloselloides
- Microgramma lycopodioides
The list of terrarium vines includes a wide variety of trailing, climbing and creeping plants. Generally, anything that grows along the ground of a terrarium or climbs up the sides.
They’re typically sourced from rainforests where they’ll weave amongst the canopies and undergrowth – which is exactly what makes them such a great addition to terrariums. Not only do they thrive in that environment, but their random growth adds a degree of naturality.
Pilea are a diverse genus of plants containing everything from shrubs and bushy plants to creeping vines and the universally popular Chinese Money Plant (P. peperomioides). For terrariums, we are particularly interested in the vines because the beautiful small leaves add so much texture.
The likes of P. depressa and P. Glauca are both great choices for terrarium ground cover, and they’ll continue to wander over surfaces once they’ve formed a full mat. Also worth a mention, P. cadierei and P. involucrata (whilst not vines) grow beautiful foliage.
- Pilea depressa
- Pilea glauca ‘Aquamarine’
- Pilea repens
When most people hear of a Ficus, they think of the Ficus elastica houseplant (Rubber Plant) – I even have one myself – but the kinds of Ficus we use in terrariums are a variety of evergreen vines that thrive in bright, moist environments.
They’re a mainstay in naturalistic tropical terrariums because their small leaves and stems help create a great sense of scale, and their free, unrestrained growth brings in a more natural look.
- Ficus pumila ‘Minima’ (Creeping Fig)
- Ficus punctata ‘Panama’ (Lance-leaf Fig)
- Ficus radicans
Peperomia are a diverse genus of over 1700 species of tropical plant. With many of those being small in stature, tolerating less than bright lighting conditions, and thriving in a humid, tropical environment – there’s perhaps more suitable closed terrarium species than any other genus.
The leaves can range from thick and succulent to thin and tender, and can come in many colours from vibrant green to all kinds of marbled red and bronze variegation. So you can have a lot of fun experimenting with different Peperomia. Plus, they’re incredibly easy to propagate. Even planting a leaf cutting is often enough to grow a new plant.
- Peperomia prostrata (String of Turtles)
- Peperomia angulata
- Peperomia velutina
Pellionia are a lesser known trailing plant that truly thrive in humid closed terrarium conditions. They love to form dense mats, and their broader leaves really set Pellionia apart from other terrarium ground cover plants like Pilea that have plentiful, but much smaller foliage.
Most Pellionia will happily grow in a range of lighting conditions and are pretty easy to keep overall.
- Pellionia repens (Watermelon Vine)
- Pellionia argentea
- Pellionia pulchra
Marcgravia are a genus of “Shingling Vines” found in the Caribbean and Latin Americas,.
The shingling term probably comes from the way the vines form tight rows of overlapping leaves, which tend to grow up the sides of trees towards the light. Personally I think they look more like rattlesnake tails.
They’re fast growers, and will happily attach to hardwood branches in a terrarium with their aerial roots. Naturally at home in rainforest canopies, they’re a great fit for hot and humid sealed terrariums.
- Marcgravia umbellata
- Marcgravia rectiflora
Commonly known as Pothos, these beautiful aroids grow incredibly well in terrariums. In fact, arguably too well… I hesitated to include these in a “closed terrarium plant list” because whilst they thrive in a closed terrarium, they certainly don’t need it. If you’re struggling to grow other terrarium plants (e.g. maybe due to poor lighting) then Epipremnum is at least one you can rely on to thrive.
To be honest, they grow so fast and so wide, they’re really only suited to the largest of terrariums. But they are easily trimmed back – so if you’re happy to keep on top of their maintenance you can grow them in medium sized terrariums too. *Edit: I’ve finally found a miniature species called Epipremnum sp. ‘Pincushion’ and it’s perfect for smaller terrariums!
- Epipremnum sp. ‘Pincushion’
- Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Cebu Blue’
- Epipremnum aureum ‘Neon’
Syngonium are a genus of stunning tropical plants with distinctive arrowhead shaped leaves and often beautiful variegation. Syngonium podophyllum in particular is super popular as a houseplant these days, but it’s larger than most terrariums. Thankfully for us, S. podophyllum also has some great dwarf varieties – the ‘Pixie’ and ‘Super Pixie’ – which are super compact but equally beautiful.
Though, Syngonium species tend to stay more in their immature form when constrained to terrarium environments, so you might find they adapt to fit the space quite well.
- Syngonium podophyllum ‘Pixie’
- Syngonium erythrophyllum
- Syngonium rayii
Dischidia are the often overlooked cousins of the more popular trailing Hoya houseplants. They’re tolerant of a range of conditions, but they are grown commonly in Thailand where they do great in hot and humid conditions (just like a closed terrarium)..
They’re a fantastic cascading species of plant (which isn’t always easy to find for terrariums) so they’re best mounted epiphytically at the top terrariums and allowed to grow down.
- Dischidia ovata (Watermelon Dischidia)
- Dischidia sp.‘Geri’
- Dischidia hirsuta
“Foliage” isn’t an exact plant category, but it’s a useful way to group plants that are prized for their stunning leafage rather than their flowers. Think broader, more vibrant or unique leaves. So, this group includes a lot of different plant types from lush tropical greenery, to shrubs and palm-like plants.
Begonias come in many forms, and when choosing them for use in terrariums, it’s important to understand what type(s) you’re looking for.
Even though several groups of them are known for their beautiful flowers, Begonias are in this foliage section because the types that we tend to use in terrariums are non-flowering. What we’re interested in are Rex Begonias and other rhizomatous Begonias. These come with foliage in such a wonderful variety of colours, shapes and textures.
- Begonia prismatocarpa
- Begonia foliosa ‘Miniata’
- Begonia thelmae
Nerve plants are a truly classic terrarium plant.
They’re tropical evergreen perennials with delicately veined leaves in a variety of beautiful colours from pink, white and green. They’ll typically only grow to about 6 inches high, but they like to spread wider.
They occasionally flower with reddish spikes, but some people prefer to pluck them to keep the plants looking clean.
- Fittonia albivenis Verschaffeltii
- Fittonia albivenis Argyroneura
Maranta are another popular houseplant, that can be used in terrarium if you can find a small enough species.
Often called Prayer Plants, their beautifully ornate leaves close at night in a way that resembles a “prayer position”. The oval shaped leaves develop in colour as the plant matures, making it an exciting addition to any terrarium.
- Maranta leuconeura ‘Repens’
- Maranta leuconeura ‘Fascinator’
- Maranta leuconeura ‘Kerchoveana’
The Polka Dot Plant is another classic closed terrarium plant with striking foliage and an aggressive growth pattern.
This little shrub comes in a dizzying array of vivid colours from bright white to pink. To me, they look more ornamental than natural, but they make a strong feature plant in a terrarium.
One thing to note, Hypoestes don’t live all that long. Once they’ve flowered, they’ll live Just for a years or so before the foliage inevitably dies out.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the beloved houseplant family that is Philodendron.
With their lush, glossy foliage, they’re a fan favourite for many people. But until now they’ve all been too big for terrariums. Thanks to the power of science (and intrepid explores) we now have some new smaller cultivars that can fit in regular terrariums!
Which I’m obviously very excited about.
Unless you have a very large terrarium or you’re prepared to regularly prune them back, I’d stick to the varieties laid out below.
- Philodendron ‘Wend-imbe’
- Philodendron ‘Mini Santiago’
- Philodendron verrucosum ‘Mini’
Alocasia are another popular aroid found in homes around the world. Often called Elephant Ear plants, they’re full of broad leaves in fascinating shapes and textures. Sadly, the large leaves are typically on the end of thick, long stems – often making them too big for terrariums – but there are some smaller cultivars that’ll do the trick.
- Alocasia ‘Dwarf Amazonica’
- Alocasia ‘Tiny Dancers’
- Alocasia ‘Bambino’
“Not-so-Closed” Terrarium Plants
So, there are lots of plants that thrive in the hot and humid environment of a closed terrarium but that also require good airflow to survive.
Something hard to come by in a sealed container…
These plants are all susceptible to rot if water isn’t able to evaporate off their leaves. So, the plants in this list can be grown in closed terrariums, but only if your container has built-in ventilation (e.g. a typical vivarium setup with fans) or if you’re prepared to regularly open up your closed terrarium.
- Cryptanthus (Earth Stars)
- Macodes (Jewel Orchids)
- Some Tillandsia (Air Plants)
Closed Terrarium Plant FAQ
Tropical plants that thrive in high heat and humidity tend to make the best closed terrarium plants.
Many of the classic terrarium plants are very easy to look after. Fittonia and Hypoestes are both very forgiving, though the Pothos in this list are almost unkillable if you can fit them in your terrarium.
Pilea, Peperomia, Pellionia and Ficus are all great options for terrarium ground cover. These creeping vines all like to form dense mats of foliage.