25 best terrarium plants for beginners

Best plants for a terrarium. Sarah Cuttle

What are terrarium plants?

A terrarium is a house plant display grown in a container, which is usually sealable and made of glass, such as a large bottle with a cork stopper. The plants are arranged as a miniature garden, with conditions inside the container providing a very different growing environment to outside. Most terrariums are sealed or ‘closed’, creating a warm, humid environment. However terrariums can also be ‘open’, which creates much drier conditions. Terrarium plants are therefore plants most suitable for growing in a terrarium, but which plants you choose will depend on whether that terrarium is open or closed.

As well as being suitable for the open or closed terrarium habitat, terrarium plants should be low maintenance, slow-growing and compact, so they don’t require much attention after you’ve planted them and they don’t outgrow their space.

Which plants are suitable for a terrarium?

A closed terrarium acts as a miniature tropical climate, with plenty of warmth and humidity, but relatively low light. The best plants for this environment are therefore tropical plants that thrive in moist habitats with indirect sunlight, but that are compact and easy to care for.

An open terrarium has none of the humidity of a closed terrarium, and is basically an attractive or differently shaped plant pot. However, due to the shape of the vessel it may be difficult to water the plants growing in it, so the best option here are desert plants that thrive in arid environments, and don’t need much care. As with closed terrarium plants, those chosen for open terrariums should be low-growing and easy to maintain. Cacti and succulents are therefore best for growing in an open terrarium.


25 best terrarium plants

Closed terrarium plants

 

Fittonia (nerve plant)

Nerve plant growing with ferns and moss in a terrarium. Getty Images
Nerve plant growing with ferns and moss in a terrarium. Getty Images

Nerve plant (Fittonia) is an excellent plant for a closed terrarium. Bearing colourful and patterned foliage in a variety of shades, it fits in with many planting schemes and wider colour-co-ordinated displays. Nerve plant is easy to care for, compact and slow growing, and thrives in a humid environment with low light levels. This makes it one of the very best plants for a closed terrarium.

 

Asparagus fern, Asparagus setaceus

Asparagus fern in a terrarium
Asparagus fern in a terrarium

Asparagus setaceus has all the qualities of a great terrarium plant, as it thrives in humidity and has an elegant, tree-like structure that lends itself to the miniature garden look of some terrarium designs. Bear in mind that asparagus ferns are mildly toxic to humans and pets. It’s also worth knowing that the plant stems have tiny thorns, which can scratch your skin, and if it’s handled too much its leaves can turn brown.

 

Moss

Mulching with moss. Sarah Cuttle
Mulching with moss. Sarah Cuttle

A closed terrarium is the perfect habitat for moss, which needs constant moisture and indirect sunlight to thrive. Moss also acts as the perfect foil for other plants – drape it around stones or use it to cover compost. You can buy different types of moss from terrarium specialist suppliers, including cushion moss and sheet moss, or simply use lawn moss raked up from your garden.

 

Peperomia

Closeup of Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles). Getty Images
Closeup of Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles). Getty Images

The Peperomia genus is huge and nearly all species thrive in humid conditions in indirect light, making them perfect for beginner terrarium growers. There are roughly three types of peperomia to choose from: trailing peperomias like Peperomia ‘Pepperspot’ and Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles), large-leaved peperomias including Peperomia obtusfolia (Mini Rubber Plant) and Peperomia polybotrya (raindrop peperomia), and foliage peperomias like Peperomia argyreia (watermelon peperomia).

 

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes Phyllostachya)

Polka dot plant in a pot with maidenhair fern and anthurium. Sarah Cuttle
Polka dot plant in a pot with maidenhair fern and anthurium. Sarah Cuttle

There are many varieties of polka dot plant, with leaves in shades of pink, purple, red, or white and green. They thrive in warmth and humidity, and are compact and slow growing, making them another perfect choice for a closed terrarium. Bear in mind that polka dot plant needs bright but indirect light, so may grow towards light and ruin your display if it’s too dark where you’ve positioned your terrarium.

 

Pilea

Pilea peperomioides, Chinese money plant. Getty Images.
Pilea peperomioides, Chinese money plant. Getty Images.

Nearly all plants in the Pilea genus work in closed terrariums as they thrive in a warm, humid environment and don’t need direct sunlight. The genus is quite varied and includes the friendship plant (Pilea peperomioides), baby tears (Pilea depressa) and artillery fern (Pilea microphylla), among others. A standout pilea to try in a terrarium is the moon valley pilea (Pilea mollis), which makes a beautiful statement plant with its textured green leaves with burgundy veins. Baby tears and silver sparkle pileas work as accent plants that add a bit of texture to the surrounding display, as well as providing a foil for more colourful foliage. Friendship plant is a larger type of pilea and works in larger terrariums.

 

Creeping fig (Ficus pumila)

Creeping fig, Ficus pumila
Creeping fig, Ficus pumila

Creeping fig is a delightful creeping plant with fresh green, heart-shaped leaves that will quickly act as ground cover in your terrarium before starting to climb – you may find it creeping up the sides of your terrarium glass. Creeping fig thrives in high humidity and is usually better off in a closed terrarium than grown as a regular house plant. It doesn’t need direct sunlight but it does need more light than other terrarium plants, and can become leggy in low light.

 

Arrowhead vine (Syngonium)

Syngonium 'Butterfly' plated with fittonia , Chlorophytum and peperomia. Sarah Cuttle
Syngonium ‘Butterfly’ plated with fittonia , Chlorophytum and peperomia. Sarah Cuttle

There’s a wide variety of arrowhead vines to choose from, with leaves in different colours and shapes. They are easy to care for and thrive in very low light, making them perfect for a beginner terrarium. Being vines, Syngonium will outgrow their space in time, but are easy to cut back into shape. Alternatively, seek out Syngonium ‘Pixie’, which is a more compact, terrarium-friendly form with cream-white and green leaves. A moisture-loving plant, grow with other plants that thrive in moist conditions, such as ferns.

 

Spike moss (Selaginella)

Spike moss (Selaginella wallichii). Getty Images
Spike moss (Selaginella wallichii). Getty Images

Spike moss has attractive branching foliage reminiscent of moss. It needs constant moisture so can be difficult to care for in a standard home environment, but is easy to care for in a closed terrarium. Use spike moss as an accent plant or groundcover to finish off your display, and keep the compost moist but not waterlogged. Protect from direct sunshine, which can scorch its leaves. For added interest, choose red-leaved Selaginella Ruby Red’.

 

Strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera)

Strawberry begonia leaves. Getty Images
Strawberry begonia leaves. Getty Images

Confusingly a saxifrage rather than a begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera is a creeping plant with round olive green leaves with silver spots along their veins. Also known as called mother of thousands, one plant quickly develops slender shoots, on which ‘baby’ plants grow along their length. It bears small, pink-white flowers with a delicate fragrance. Strawberry begonia makes a good terrarium plant as it has a compact growth habit but will quickly carpet the base of your display, providing a foil for other plants.

 

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Prayer plant. Getty Images
Prayer plant. Getty Images

Prayer plant is named after its habit of folding up its leaves at night, as if in prayer. Most varieties have beautiful midrib splotches and red veining on the leaves, making it a focal point of any display. It’s ideal for terrariums as it thrives in humidity, but if it’s not receiving enough light it won’t open its leaves during the day. Growing to a maximum height of 30cm, prayer plant is best for larger terrariums – keep near a window where it receives bright, indirect light, and you should have no problems.

 

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

Pothos cuttings. Paul Debois
Pothos cuttings. Paul Debois

Pothos is a virtually indestructible house plant, and therefore perfect for a beginner terrarium grower. It thrives in low light, doesn’t need much watering and does well in a humid environment – so far, so good. It does, however, grow quickly, so will need regular pruning back to maintain a terrarium-worthy size. Green leaves with cream variegation provide the perfect foil for other plants, and will look good for years.

 

African violet (Streptocarpus)

Pink African violet. Jason Ingram
Pink African violet. Jason Ingram

African violets thrive in free-draining compost, bright but indirect light and high humidity, making them an excellent choice for a closed terrarium. However their leaves must not touch the edge of the glass as they can trap moisture and develop mould. Therefore, for best results, make sure you have plenty of room in your terrarium for the African violet to grow, and consider planting it in the middle of the display, with other plants around it, to minimise the chances of its leaves growing into the glass.

 

Earth star plant (Cryptanthus bivittatus)

Earth star plant. Getty Images
Earth star plant. Getty Images

Earth star plant is a bromeliad native to the Brazilian forest floor, bearing a flat rosette of lush foliage in a variety of colours, including shades of green, red and purple. Its outward growth habitat makes it perfect for a terrarium display as it will gradually cover the substrate or compost, rather than growing upwards and outgrowing the available space. Like all plants suitable for a closed terrarium environment, earth star plant thrives in bright but indirect sunlight, warmth and humidity.

 

Jewel orchid (Ludisia discolor)

Jew orchid and bun moss terrarium. Sarah Cuttle
Jew orchid and bun moss terrarium. Sarah Cuttle

There are many types of jewel orchid but Ludisia discolor is the easiest to grow. A beautiful plant that will stand out in a terrarium display, it has dark green leaves with striking pink striped veining, and reddish-tinged leaf stems. As well as beautiful foliage, Ludisia discolor bears a single white flower spike once a year. Ludisia discolor thrives in moist compost, high humidity and medium to low light – if your terrarium is close to a window then consider this jewel orchid for the understory of your display so it won’t be exposed to too bright conditions, which can cause the leaves to fade to a light pink-red.

Open terrarium plants

 

Air plants (Tillandsia)

Air plant in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle
Air plant in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle

Air plants (Tillandsia) are fascinating plants that don’t need soil to live. In the wild they are epiphytes, attaching themselves to a host such as a tree, and absorbing water and nutrients through their leaves. Air plants therefore make excellent low-maintenance plants for an open terrarium and are perfect for beginners.

You can pop an air plant in a terrarium on its own or mount it on a stone or piece of wood, or jazz up the display with other plants, pebbles or even fairy lights. Just make sure you remove the air plant once a week and water it by misting or dunking it into a bowl of water, before returning it to its terrarium.

 

Echeve

ria

Echeveria and other succulents in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle
Echeveria and other succulents in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle

Echeveria is an extremely common succulent plant that comes in such a wide variety of colours and shapes it’s no surprise that it’s a popular choice for an open terrarium. Its fleshy leaves make it drought tolerant so it grows well with other succulents and cacti, and is relatively slow growing. When conditions are right for them, echeverias bear pretty flowers on long stems, which add to the beauty of your terrarium display.

 

Cacti

Cacti and other succulents in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle
Cacti and other succulents in an open terrarium. Sarah Cuttle

Slow-growing cacti require virtually no care at all, making them perfect for open terrariums. Use a variety of cacti types and mulch with sand to create  a desert landscape, or mix with succulents for a softer look. Bear in mind that cacti can’t survive in a humid environment so ensure your open terrarium has a large opening and plenty of airflow to ensure your display lasts.

 

Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)

Crassula ovata. Getty Images
Crassula ovata. Getty Images

Jade plants work well in open terrariums, but bear in mind they need watering regularly so don’t mix them with cacti. If you’re skilled in the art of bonsai you might want to shape your jade plant so it grows into a miniature tree, otherwise use a young specimen and swap it out when it gets too big for the space.

For an interesting look, Crassula ovata ‘Hobbit’ has trumpet-shaped leaves.

 

Button fern (Pallaea rotundifolia)

Close up of button fern. Sarah Cuttle
Close up of button fern. Sarah Cuttle

Called button fern due to its round button-like leaves, Pallaea rotundifolia is an easy care fern that’s more drought-tolerant than other ferns, although it does require more humidity than succulents and cacti. Slow-growing, it has compact growth and evergreen, leathery leaves that make it a well-behaved choice for open terrariums.

 

Haworthias

Zebra plant, Haworthia fasciata. Getty Images
Zebra plant, Haworthia fasciata. Getty Images

Haworthias make excellent plants for an open terrarium as they are slow growing and require very little watering. What’s more, they come in a huge variety of shapes and colours and make a great focal point for a terrarium display. Good varieties to choose include Haworthia fasciata, which has zebra-like dark green leaves with white stripes, Haworthia tessellata, which has triangular leaves with square patterning, and Haworthia trunacata, which has unusually shaped leaves in rows. Position your terrarium near a window where it will receive bright but indirect light, and your haworthias will thrive.

 

Mexican snowball (Echeveria elegans)

Closeup shot of a green Echeveria elegans. Getty Images
Closeup shot of a green Echeveria elegans. Getty Images

Mexican snowball is one of many echeverias you can grow in an open terrarium. Perfect for paring with other succulents and cacti, Echeveria elegans has pale, green-blue foliage and will gradually spread to produce a small colony of rosettes. If happy it will send out attractive yellow flowers on long stems (you can trim these off if you’d prefer to focus your display on the foliage). Grow in free-draining substrate near a window where it can receive plenty of light. Water sparingly. For a particularly lovely display, seek out Echeveria ‘Blue Frills’.

 

Ox tongue (Gasteria batesiana) 

Gasteria batesiana. Torie Chugg
Gasteria batesiana. Torie Chugg

Gasterias have paired, smooth leaves that look a bit like tongues, hence their common name. They can be paired with other succulents as part of a wider display, and work well in terrariums with other items, such as stones. Gasteria batesiana needs bright but indirect light but can cope with lower light than other succulents. It needs a free draining compost or substrate but does need watering regularly, ideally just before the soil dries out.

 

Crassula ’Buddha’s Temple’

Crassula 'Buddha's Temple'. Sarah Cuttle
Crassula ‘Buddha’s Temple’. Sarah Cuttle

This unusual, eye-catching succulent has upward facing leaves that resemble a Chinese temple, making it a perfect choice for a focal point in an open terrarium. Choose a sunny spot for this terrarium, and water sparingly. Apply a light liquid feed every fortnight during the growing season. If growing ‘Buddha’s Temple’ with other succulents you may consider keeping it in its original pot which you then conceal beneath terrarium substrate, so when you feed it you don’t affect the other plants in the display.

 

Burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum)

Burro's tail, Sedum morganianum. Sarah Cuttle
Burro’s tail, Sedum morganianum. Sarah Cuttle

Burro’s tail forms an impressive string of succulent leaves, reminiscent of a donkey’s tail (hence its name). Left to its own devices burro’s tail will eventually form a long string that can grow out of the terrarium, but if kept in shape it can add complexity to the display thanks to its differently shaped growth habit. Use burro’s tail with any other succulents or cacti, in a free-draining potting mix in a warm, well-lit location.

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