Plants For Corn Snakes
Many of you may know me from various reptile expos, where I sell plants and clean up crews to help you build your own bioactive enclosure for your pets! A bioactive enclosure is one that has plants, soil, and a microfauna clean up crew usually consisting of isopods and springtails. The cleanup crew will help to eat any decaying plant matter, mold, and droppings left by your pet, as well as helping to fertilize your plants. Essentially, you are creating your very own mini ecosystem! The purpose is to replicate your pet's natural habitat as closely as possible. An added bonus to creating a bioactive enclosure is that they are very low maintenance. They will mostly just need spot cleaned, in the sense of removing any droppings you see and cleaning the glass, as well as any other maintenance your pet needs, such as misting. Trimming plants and aerating the soil should be done on an as needed basis. To properly replicate your pet's natural habitat, you must first learn about your pet's origin!
Corn snakes are native across the eastern United States, being most abundant in the south. You will find them in a variety of habitats, including rocky hills, woodlots, meadows, even abandoned barns! Because of their diverse habitat, they will participate in a variety of activities including climbing and burrowing. Even with a bioactive habitat, it is best to have sturdy sticks, branches and other materials for climbing. Because of their burrowing habit, it is incredibly important to allow your vivarium to "rest" before introducing your snake. This will allow your plants to establish a good root hold before an animal will disturb the roots and soil. For most, it is best to allow newly planted enclosures to rest for one month before introducing your animal, but in the case of a digger or burrower, two months is even better. It is best to wait until you can see new growth on the plants before introducing an animal, which can vary and is dependent on a lot of factors. Allowing an enclosure to rest can be achieved by keeping your snake in a temporary or quarantine enclosure. But before the tank can rest, choosing which plants to include is a wonderful place to start!
The following plants mentioned are frequently on my table at reptile expos. If you would like to request specific plants to be held for you at a particular expo, please email me at least 2 weeks prior to the date of the expo and I will do my best to ensure that I will have them there for you! The list of shows I will be attending this year can be found under the Announcements tab.
"Always Good" Plants
There are a few plants I have deemed to be "Always Good" plants. These plants are the ones that will do the best in a wide variety of conditions, such as temperature, watering, and humidity requirements. You will find these plants can thrive in tropical enclosures, but are also wonderful additions to temperate enclosures, such as one you would be building for your corn snakes.
Pothos are an extremely common houseplant that you can often find in bioactive enclosures. They're very adaptable, being able to occupy the base of your enclosure, creating a ground cover that still leaves space for your snake to hide. They can also climb, especially if you mist the wood the pothos is trying to attach to. Misting the wood behind the pothos vine will encourage roots to form and latch on. This plant is easy to cut back, just pick a point on the stem and cut! These plants come in a variety of colors and patterns, some of which grow faster or slower than others.
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.
Groundcover plants are those that will cover the ground and not grow too tall. These plants are often vines and will help to provide lots of hiding areas for the clean up crew, in addition to any leaf litter you may add. They also help to hide the substrate, if that is something you would prefer.
Tradescantia, spiderworts or inch plants, come in various sizes and colors. They all do wonderfully as houseplants and enclosure plants alike. They grow very quickly which can be both a blessing and a curse. Consider the size of your enclosure and the frequency at which you are willing to trim plants in order to decide if you should add this plant to your enclosure. They are a favorite among chameleon keepers, as they grow fast enough to tolerate the damage their pets can do. If your snake is particularly destructive, this may be a good choice for you. If branches of this vine break off, they will easily re root into the soil and create a whole new plant.
Turtle vine looks like it belongs to the Tradescantia genus, however its Latin binomial is Callisia repens. The turtle vine behaves very similarly to the inch plants and spiderworts, but it has a slightly different appearance. The leaves are small and teardrop shaped. They are a light tan color above, occasionally with small brown spots. Below the leaf, they are purple, just like that of Tradescantia zebrina. It is also an easy plant to grow and cut back, if need be. Just like the pothos, simply choose a spot and snip! They also share the trait of easy propagation that tradescantia, if a portion of the vine breaks off, it will re root.
Something important to note, turtle vine (Callisia repens) and string of turtles (Peperomia prostrata) are two very different, unrelated plants. String of turtles will not thrive in the soil conditions needed to keep your snake happy and healthy. They are a strictly tropical vine that does much better when the soil is kept evenly moist, which runs the risk of causing a respiratory infection in your snake. Peperomia prostrata also does not grow as vigorously as Callisia repens and may not be able to tolerate the burrowing habit of your snake.
Silver Satin Pothos
Scindapsus spp. sometimes called silver satin pothos, satin pothos, or silver vine, is a member of the same family as their pothos cousins. They share a lot of similar traits, such as being able to crawl or climb with the use of aerial roots that attach to consistently misted wood or foam backgrounds, interesting color patterns, easy trimming when the time comes. Silver satin pothos also have the added benefit of a slower growth rate than most pothos, which will ultimately require fewer trimmings. There is also the option of small and large leaf forms. Scindapsus pictus 'Exotica' is pictured above. It has larger leaves and a slower growth rate than Scindapsus pictus 'Argyraeus', pictured to the right. Each will be an equally great choice for different regions. Both are the same species and require the same care. "Exotica' has larger leaves on longer petioles, which can provide a safer feeling for your snake as it slithers beneath the leaves across the substrate. 'Argyraeus', with its shorter petioles and smaller leaves, can provide a similar effect to smaller snakes or juvenile corn snakes, but will not be able to hide an adult snake. They will provide a unique look to the enclosure and if they successfully climb a background, can be absolutely fascinating.
Many of us are likely familiar with English ivy, Hedera helix. It is an incredibly invasive plant in the USA and Canada, but demonstrates what it has to offer inside the enclosure well in many of our landscaped areas, and, unfortunately, our forests, as well. It can grow as a lovely groundcover, or climb backgrounds and sticks. This durable plant will tolerate an adult snake disturbing the roots and slithering on top of the leaves. Because this plant is so invasive, it is best to dispose of any trimmings you have into tied plastic bags and then throw those in the trash in order to make sure they do not make in out into our ecosystems any more than they already have.
Even though English ivy is readily available outside, gathering it to include in your animal's enclosure is not safe. There could be a range of pesticides on the leaves, as well as other illnesses your snake could catch. It is best to purchase ivy from a reputable shop.
What I am calling "understory" plants are the the plants that will act as a midway point between the tallest and shortest plants in this list. They will fill the space between nicely and give your enclosure a more completed, natural look. Ironically, most of the plants on this list are considered understory plants when taken out of this context and placed in the wild.
Philodendron is a genus of nearly 500 accepted species, with a variety of growth habits. Some philodendrons would be best put into the groundcover section, such as Philodendron hederaceum or Philodendron micans. They are very similar to and sometimes mistaken for pothos. They grow a little slower than pothos and will not need to be trimmed as often, but will both climb and crawl in the same way a pothos will.
Some philodendrons do best when planted near the background and are allowed to grow with supports that they can attach to, such as Philodendron 'Emerald Queen' Philodendron 'Silver Sword' and more with the upright habit. These species and cultivars will use their roots to attach to the background to hold itself upright.
Others still will have a more shrub-like appearance. A terrific example of this would be the Philodendron 'Birkin' pictured at the top of this section. These plants have large leaves and strong, short stems that will tolerate some climbing of small snakes, but will not be able to support adult snakes. The leaves will bend to the ground if the snake attempts to climb. Medium snakes can be a toss up when it comes to how well they can climb these plants. It is possible you will still find adult snakes hiding at the base or tangled close to the center of philodendrons with this growth habit, as the large leaves may make them feel safe.
Anthurium is a genus of plants that range in both size and price. The most common anthurium also goes by the common name Flamingo Flower. They have some on the longest lasting flowers. The red bract, the modified leaf surrounding the spadix, will last for weeks on end. They are not going to be strong enough to support any climbing the snake may attempt with this plant, but they will tolerate being bent to the ground. Some anthurium have larger leaves that can help to make your snake feel secure while out and about in its enclosure. The most common and readily available species of anthurium will have a fairly open base, as pictured to the right. This makes it a great plant to include near a water dish or a hide, as it won't dip into the water or crowd the entrance to the hide. If your snake were to spill its water or go for a swim, this plant would be one of the best on this list to include near the water, as it can tolerate the extra moisture often found in that area.
This species of monstera is another that is often grown like a pothos, either climbing or trailing. The reason this plant, sometimes called the swiss cheese plant, is in the understory category rather than the groundcover category is due to how far away the leaves sit from the stem. The petioles hold the leaves far above the soil, or far away from the sticks or background that it is climbing. Monstera addansonii is another fast growing, easy care plant that makes an easy addition to the enclosure. If it needs to be trimmed, be sure to cut the stem and not the petiole. The petiole is the portion of the plant that attaches the leaves to the stem.
The dragon tail plant is a close relative to the pothos, both in the genus Epipremnum. Dragon tails are a specific cultivar of Epipremnum pinnatum with thick, glossy, dark green leaves and an even thicker stem that runs across the ground. This plant will not climb, but it will continue to crawl across the ground. Because of this, it is best to plant this plant on one side of the enclosure and allow it to continue to grow across to the other side. Double check which way the stem is facing before installing it in the enclosure. As this plant grows and matures, the leaves will become bigger with larger and more fenestrations, or large dents in the leaves. It is quite the unique plant to add! With a slow to moderate growth rate, the dragon tail is a great, low maintenance plant to add.
The plants I am classifying as "Canopy plants" are the tallest on the list. Some may give your snake a place to climb or provide something of a hide in the branches that should be provided for climbing. Unfortunately, there aren't many plants that can both fit inside the enclosure and support your snake's climbing habits. Sturdy branches and other elements should be included to be sure your snake can safely explore.
Chinese evergreens, Aglaonema spp., come in a variety of colors and forms, though they all have a very similar growth habit. Their large, colorful leaves will bring vertical interest into the enclosure. This plant has a moderate growth rate and is a relatively low maintenance plant. Should it need any trimming, simply choose a space on the stem and snip!
The parlor palm, also called the neathe belle palm, is a small species of palm tree. They are a slow grower that is another plant that would fill in the space near the water bowl nicely. Being a palm tree, they can tolerate wet feet fairly well, though they can still be planted and survive elsewhere in the enclosure. These plants will not be able to support even young snakes, but they will provide vertical interest and may make the climbing areas feel safer if planted near them. Should this plant need to be trimmed, it is best to simply cut the trunk and allow the plant to grow back from a stump, rather than trimming the leaves.
Dracaena is a wide and varied genus in the asparagus family, now containing plants that used to be in the Sanseveria genus. I would like to note before continuing that snake plants, those that used to be classified as Sanseveria are not included in those that would do well in a corn snake enclosure. They need substrate that is too dry. Tropical dracaena, sometimes called dragon trees or corn plants, don't have leaves or branches that often can support a snake, but they still will provide a wonderful finished look to the enclosure. There are some species that stay smaller and could be classified as an understory plant, while others grow tall.
Schefflera, also called umbrella plants, are in a similar boat to Dracaena. The leaves are not often strong enough to hold snakes, but provide even more coverage to ensure your pet feels safe. They will need trimming to keep the plant to size, though they are slow growers. Simply choose a spot on the branch and cut with a clean pair of pruners. This plant is a true tree, but when space is limited for root growth, such as in an enclosure or pot, the size is limited. They are easily trimmed to size and grow slowly, making them low maintenance as far as canopy choices go.
Choosing one or two plants from each category will help to ensure you create a wonderful bioactive tank for your snake. If you choose to forego the groundcover, consider adding leaf litter to the soil to give space for your cleanup crew to hide. Having these plants does not mean you do not need to provide other, nonliving areas for your snake to explore. Adding cork bark or other types of wood and branches will give your snake a reliable place to climb, as they would in the wild. When you are building your bioactive enclosure, remember to leave space for any necessities, such as hides and water bowls. It's easy to get carried away!
Like the snake photos included in this article? They call came from Steel City Scales, a local crested gecko and corn snake breeder! Occasionally, we share a table at some local reptile expos, such as Pittsburgh Mega Reptile Expo, Rock n' Reptile Expo, and Steel City Reptile Expo.
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. For more information on gecko or snake care, shoot an email to email@example.com or visit www.steelcityscales.com.