Plants for Bearded Dragons
Many of you may know me from various reptile expos around the Pittsburgh area where I sell the plants and cleanup crew that you need to build your pet the best and most successful bioactive enclosure as possible! A bioactive enclosure is one that includes live plants, soil, and a cleanup crew, usually consisting of isopods and springtails. The cleanup crew will consume decaying plant matter, waste from your pet, and mold, as well as help to fertilize your plants naturally. The goal of a bioactive enclosure is to give your pet something that is as close to their natural habitat as possible. An added bonus of turning your enclosure bioactive is the maintenance level. They typically only need spot cleaned in the sense of cleaning the glass, cleaning up any droppings you see, and trimming plants as needed, as well as any other maintenance your pet would typically need. Trimming plants and aerating soil should be done on an as-needed basis. With the goal of properly recreating your pet's natural habitat, you have to learn about your pet's origin!
Bearded dragons are native across Australia, mainly staying in arid climates such as deserts, scrublands, dry woodlands, and savannas. Australia banned the exportation of bearded dragons in the 1960s, however, they have been captive bred in the pet trade for decades in the US. In the wild, they are especially drawn to rocky outcroppings to bask in to help regulate their body temperatures. Bearded dragons are one of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade. Occasionally, keepers have complained about their bearded dragons eating the plants included in the bioactive setup. Several trusted breeders have shared that if your dragon gets plenty of greens daily, they are significantly less likely to take a nibble on your live plants in the enclosure. If your dragons are fed ample amounts of greens, they may still take a few nibbles here and there, but not enough to do significant damage to the plants chosen for your bioactive enclosure. Now that we have gone over where your pet is from, let's begin to go over some great options to put in your enclosure! All of the following plants are frequently found on my table and are often at most reptile expos!
Before we begin to discuss plants that will do well in a bearded dragon enclosure, I want to go over one that is often put in the same section as succulents, but will not do well. These are air plants, or Tillandsia. Air plants, while some have adapted to the more arid regions of the world, are still tropical plants. They are not desert plants and will not survive well in your pet's enclosure without significant additional assistance. They require humidity that is too high for the dragon to tolerate. For more information on air plant care, visit the care sheet titled "Air Plants- Tillandsia."
It is also important to note that not every plant found in the succulent section will be safe for your beardie. Cacti and other plants with thorns pose a risk to your pet's safety and well-being. They can cut and puncture the animal's skin, despite its scales. There are also some plants that are not safe if broken open or eaten. The most common succulent to watch out for is actually a whole genus of succulents, Euphorbia. Anything in the Euphorbia genus has latex sap that is toxic to pets. Some species within this genus have spines that would automatically rule them out, such as African milk trees or dragon bones, but other species do not. Pencil cacti and firesticks are likely to be the two most common thornless species of Euphorbia that you may come across.
"Always Good" Plants
In the lists of plants for gargoyle and crested geckos, as well as dart frogs, I mentioned some "always good" plants. These plants are great for most enclosures and thrive in a variety of conditions. In the list for leopard geckos, I mentioned how they would not tolerate the desert conditions needed for that species of gecko. While this is true, bearded dragons come from a wide variety of habitats, including some that can have a bit more rainfall than what the leopard gecko's native range experiences. These plants will be able to survive, as well as grow quickly, so if your dragon decides to take a bite, it will not cause any significant damage! It is still a good idea to plant these plants near the water source, so they may be watered a little more frequently if your dragon takes a swim or spills its water.
Spider plants may be related to asparagus, but it certainly acts more like a grass. It tolerates a mow very similarly to grass does, so if the plant begins to outgrow the enclosure, a simple cut back will help to mitigate that. They come in solid green, variegated, and curly! Spider plants will eventually send out the iconic pups. If these pups are allowed to touch the soil surface, they will root elsewhere in the enclosure. If you do not want it to spread, simply cut the bloom stalks as they form.
Pothos come in a variety of color variations. They can act as a ground cover or climb with supports. If provided enough humidity, the vines will grow aerial roots that attach to surfaces such as cork bark, wood, even foam backgrounds. The petioles are long enough to provide hiding areas for the young dragons if used as a groundcover, which is the most likely scenario when being grown in this type of habitat. Typically, pothos will only climb in tropical enclosures or if provided additional watering and supports until it can successfully attach itself to a surface. Pothos grow quickly and can tolerate a good mowing!
Groundcover plants are those that will stay short and eventually cover the substrate. They give additional places for your cleanup crew to hide, which is beneficial to them and your set up, as your pet won't be as likely to use the self-serve buffet. They can give your enclosure a unique appearance overall, if that is something you are trying to strive for.
Hoya is a genus of over 500 species, though only a few are available in cultivation. All are a pet safe option that can scratch that itch many of those with arid animals have- the desire to make their enclosures look lush. Plants that thrive in desert or semi-arid conditions often don't have big leaves, as that can lead to water loss, which can be devastating in dry climates. Hoya come in many colors and shapes, though they are all vines that will cover the ground or cascade over a ledge, potentially making a hide feel even safer. Hoya are moderate growers with a unique growth pattern. They will often, but not always, send out a long stem before they begin developing leaves. You can see this process in the bottom right of this photo. While it may look strange, fight the urge to trim off the "naked" vines, new leaves will come in time!
String of Things
"String of things" is occasionally used as shorthand for a group of plants, that share similar common names. String of dolphins, pearls, hearts, spades, bananas, pickles, and turtles all fall into this category. Ironically, not all of these plants are related to one another, they just so happen to share a growth pattern. Not all "strings of things" will do well in an arid environment. String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), string of dolphins (Senecio peregrinus), string of hearts, (Ceropegia woodii), string of spades (Ceropegia linearis ssp. woodii), string of bananas (Senecio radicans), and string of pickles, sometimes called ruby necklace (Othonna capensis) are all wonderful choices to include in an arid enclosure.
But be warned, string of turtles, while also a "string of things" that is often found near the succulent section, will not tolerate the arid environment needed to keep your dragon happy. String of turtles (Peperomia prostrata) is an epiphytic vine native to the Brazilian rainforests and would feel much more at home in a tropical enclosure.
Sempervivum is a genus within the Jade family, Crassulaceae, containing about 40 species, often called house leeks or hens and chicks. They spread via offsets, sometimes accompanied by lateral growing stems, similar to the runners you see on strawberries. They will eventually fill the container they are in, forming a thick mat. They are easily controlled by trimming stems as they form, or simply by removing some plants if they become too much. Typically, the adult plants will be no taller than a few inches and can tolerate your bearded dragon walking across the top of them without issue.
Sedum is a large genus in the jade family containing somewhere between 400-500 species. There is considerable variety within the genus, and occasionally within the species, thanks to human intervention and the formation of cultivars. A member of the sedum genus you may be familiar with is burro's tail, Sedum morganianum. If you have ever grown a burro's tail or donkey tail succulent, you know the leaves fall off incredibly easily. This is intentional on the plant's part! Those leaves, if they fall in an area that suits the needs of the plant, will grow an entirely new plant. It is a survival technique! While not all sedum are so fragile, this is true for all sedum plants. If a section of stem or leaf breaks off of the plant, it will re root and continue to create new plants, which will lead to a faster groundcover effect in your vivarium. Don't be nervous if your dragon seems to take a liking to nibbling on these plants occasionally, many sedums are fast growers!
Understory in this case refers to plants that will grow taller than the groundcover plants, yet stay shorter than the plants listed in the canopy section. These are the "medium" plants, though some may grow as tall or taller than the canopy plants, they can be trimmed to fit this category.
Haworthia is another genus of succulents, this one containing about 150 species, all of which endemic to the countries of South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Namibia. These plants are often confused with aloe, which are in the same family. Haworthia fasciata is possibly the most common and most widely available species within this genus. This plant can grow up to 3 to 5 inches tall. It is also called the zebra plant, not to be confused with Aphelandra squarrosa, the zebra plant mentioned in the list for crested and gargoyle geckos. There is no relation between the two zebra plants and they cannot survive in the same conditions as one another. Haworthia cooperi is a species that will grow slow and adds an interesting component to your enclosure with its translucent leaves. While this species can grow up to ten inches tall, it is not often or by any means quickly that this happens. If you would like the translucent leaves of Haworthia cooperi but the size of Haworthia fasciata, then look no further than Haworthia cymbiformis, the cathedral window succulent. This species of Haworthia will grow to the smaller side of the zebra plant, about 3 inches tall. Another excellent choice of Haworthia would be Haworthia bayeri. This species sits closer to the ground than other species of Haworthia, which have a mostly upright habit across the genus. Instead of the leaves growing upwards, as shown in the photos, these leaves lay close to the ground and have a flat surface on the top portion of the leaves. They are a deep, gorgeous green and are not as translucent or light green as some of the other species with a similar growth habit.
Aloe is yet another genus on this list, this one containing over 650 species. With so many species, there is a lot of variety on height, color, and shape! The typical aloe that comes to mind is Aloe vera, sometimes called true aloe, which would be better fitted toward the canopy category. This is the species known for its medicinal benefits that treats burns. Aloe vera would give lovely height to your enclosure, while other aloes, such as the Aloe 'White Fox' would be better suited for this category, staying a similar size to many Haworthia. Some species of aloe have sharp spines on the sides of their leaves, so it is important to double check before purchasing. If it feels sharp to you, it will feel sharp to your bearded dragon.
Elephant bush, or Portulacaria afra, is often confused with the common jade, Crassula ovata. This species of succulent is often grown as a beginner bonsai experiment, it is extremely tolerant of pruning, whether that be from a needed trim or a nibble from your dragon. Native to Southern Africa, this plant can grow up to 15 feet tall in the wild, however it stays much smaller when grown as a houseplant. This is a unique addition to the enclosure, which can have a more shrub like appearance than other plants on this list. It is possible to keep it a small shrub, trim it into an amazing tree, or just allow it to grow naturally and only trim it to size. This means this plant is versatile and can fit into the understory or canopy category.
Echeveria is a large genus in the jade family. These plants are likely the ones that come to mind when you hear the word "succulent." They come in a range of sizes, colors, and leaf shapes, though they all grow in a rosette fashion. A good number of these species will eventually grow tall with naked stems near the bottom as they naturally lose their older leaves. It takes a good amount of time for most species to get to this point, but if you would rather keep these plants close to the ground, you can "restart" them by cutting the stem close to the surface of the substrate, leaving the stump and planting the top after allowing the stem to callous over for at least a few days. The stump will grow new heads of leaves and the top will eventually root back into the substrate, creating a new plant once again. The colors of these succulents range anywhere from pastel blues and pinks to deep reds, luscious greens and everything in between.
The canopy layer is the tallest layer in the forest, which is also why it is the tallest layer here. These plants are all intended to give vertical interest in the tank. It is not as crucial for bearded dragons as it is for other species, as they spend most of their time on the ground, only doing short climbs here and there. That being said, these still make the tank look nice and finished!
Opuntia is a genus of cacti with 150-180 species. Some of these species are thornless, either naturally or were bred to be that way through human intervention. Cacti are a wonderful snack for your bearded dragons, so when they begin to grow too tall or wide, the cactus trimmings can be added to their greens for the day! Some species have long, sharp thorns and others, like bunny ears, are even more dangerous. The species that appear as though they have soft, fuzzy tufts have glochids. Glochidium are typically barbed and come off more often easily than the thorns after they wedge themselves in the skin of the unlucky animal who passed too close or decided to take a nibble. Though it may seem as though your bearded dragon is well protected against this risk, they are incredibly small and can still stick in the skin of your pet. Should they decide to take a bite, their mouths would be filled with tiny, fragile glochids that are nearly impossible to remove. You will be able to tell visually if the prickly pear you are looking at is a thornless variety, but it is always safest to double check by running your finder along the areoles of the cactus, or the areas in which the thorns would emerge. If it is smooth, and you do not feel any pricks in your fingers after rubbing them together, this is a safe variety to include with your bearded dragon.
There are several species of snake plants, which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some grow tall, while others stay short, perfect for the enclosure size. Snake plants are not fast growers and will take a while to outgrow an enclosure, if purchased small. Some species and varieties will never be tall enough to outgrow a properly sized enclosure. These are sturdy plants that an active dragon can climb across without causing harm to the plants. They tolerate low light and are often one of the first plants we think of when one is looking for a low light or drought tolerant plant. While these plants can tolerate low light, they do best in bright, indirect light or under a grow light. There are grow lights that emit UVB, which are also safe for reptile use. For more information about snake plant care, take a peek at the post titled "Snake Plant Care."
These come in two main forms, the Mexican ponytail palms that almost resemble an onion and the "traditional" ponytail palms with the thick, trunk-like caudex. These are not true palms and are accustomed to the dry, arid conditions that bearded dragons thrive in. The leaves drape down, and as the tree grows, it will give your beardie an area that is more enclosed, acting almost as a hide. These plants are native to the semi-arid areas of Central America. They've evolved to survive the dry conditions by storing water in their caudex.
"Jade plants" refers to any plants in the Crassula genus. Some are more common than others, such as Gollum fingers jade, sometimes called Ogre's Ears (pictured above) or Crassula ovata (right). Both of these plants are actually the same genus, the Gollum fingers variety is a mutated form of the original leaf shape. These plants can easily grow to the size of a small shrub outside in conditions they thrive in, or even in a pot, if given the proper conditions. However, these plants are often chosen to bonsai for beginners, making them great choices for medium sized plants in the vivarium. They can also be used as a tall canopy plant, if you would prefer. Other species of jade, such as watch chains (Crassula muscosa), rattlesnake tail (Crassula barklyi), and string of buttons (Crassula perforata), as well as many other species, will stay shorter and fit within this understory size. All species of jade are safe to plant in with your leopard gecko. With over 200 species and a good amount of them available in cultivation, you can surely have the pick of the litter!
It can be overwhelming to begin building your bioactive enclosure, especially when it comes to choosing which plants to include that all have the same requirements, will stay small enough with minimal trimming, and are reptile safe. Choosing one or two plants from each category will put you well on your way to building a wonderful enclosure that your beardie will thrive in! Be sure you still have plenty of space for the necessities like food and water bowls when planning the layout of the plants.
A key part of giving the plants in the bioactive enclosure the best chance of survival is allowing the tank to rest before adding your pet. It is best to allow bioactive tanks of this nature at least one month to establish itself before your dragon has a chance to explore its new habitat. Allowing the enclosure the chance to establish itself not only gives the plants the best chance of survival, after their roots begin to take hold, but also will allow your cleanup crew to find all the best places to hide in order to stay safe before your bearded dragon is introduced. It is ideal to wait until the plants begin to put on new growth, which can happen in the month time frame, but doesn't always. Keeping your pet in a temporary or quarantine tank for this time frame will make a significant impact on the success of your bioactive tank.
As always, if you have any questions on how to assemble your bioactive enclosure or what you should include, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.