Plants for Gargoyle and Crested Geckos
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!
Crested geckos (often shortened to "cresties") and gargoyle geckos (sometimes shortened to "gargs") come from the same habitat in the southern portion of New Caledonia, an island midway between Australia and Fiji. Both cresties and gargs have a similar care due to their shared habitat and behaviors. Both species are arboreal, nocturnal geckos that occupy a very similar niche with diet and activity. Both species of geckos make a wonderful pets for first time keepers, as they do not need additional heating or lighting, due to their nocturnal nature and natural habitat. Where they live also makes them great contenders for bioactive enclosures, as the plants they like and do well with their environmental are all great terrarium and house plants! Here are some suggestions to get you started in your plans for a bioactive enclosure for a crested or gargoyle gecko.
All of the following plants are frequently on my table. If you would like to request that I will have a specific plant for a specific reptile expo, please send me an email at least 2 weeks prior to the show, and I will do my best to ensure that the plants requested will be available at the expo.
"Always good" Plants
There are a few plants that are what I like to call "always good" plants. They can tolerate a range of watering and humidity requirements, as well as the damage that can be caused by your pet going about its day to day life. This list is short, but these plants will not steer you wrong, especially in a tropical enclosure.
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 gecko to hide. They can also climb, especially if you mist the wood the pothos is trying to attach to during the nightly misting these geckos need. 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 refer to those that will coat the surface of the soil. They often give nice places for your isopods to hide, prolonging their life span if your gecko likes to pick off snacks. They also help to hide the soil, if you prefer to have a different look to your enclosure.
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 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!
String of Turtles
String of Turtles is a very popular houseplant. It is called such because its circular leaves look like the shells of turtles! This plant goes by the latin name Peperomia prostrata. You will often find them displayed in the succulent section, however they are not succulents. They are tropical plants native to Brazil, making them the perfect plant for the tropical enclosure needed for your gecko. All peperomia are pet safe, which adds to the appeal, should your gecko decide they want salad for dinner. As a slow to moderate grower in most circumstances, this plant does not need much maintenance in an enclosure.
String of Frogs
String of Frogs, Ficus quercifolia, comes with a warning. This plant will look fantastic and do extremely well in a gecko's enclosure, however they do produce the latex sap common in this genus. Should you need to trim this plant, remove your animal and do not place them back into the enclosure until the plant has had sufficient time to "bleed" and callous over. This milky sap is a defense mechanism and can cause harm to reptiles and amphibians. If you have a particularly heavy or destructive gecko, stay away from this plant.
Tradescantia, spiderworts or inch plants, come in various sizes and colors. They all do swimmingly 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 gecko is particularly destructive, this may be a good choice for you.
Selaginella is the only living genus in the family of spike mosses, Selaginellaceae. They are an ancient plant and do very well as groundcover for the more horizontal species. Some species grow more upright, which will stay small, just a few inches tall. It is a great plant for any area that stays a little too wet, like by the water bowl, or in enclosures with high humidity.
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 geckos areas to climb and hide. Ironically, most of the plants on this list are considered understory plants when taken out of this context and placed in the wild.
Prayer plants are those within the Maranta and Calathea genera. There are care sheets written for both of these plant published already, should you consider a prayer plant as a houseplant instead! These plants are named such, as the leaves fold up at night, as if they are folding their hands in prayer, but lay flat to absorb sunlight during the day. This gives your gecko more space to play while they are awake, they provide a safe space to hide, so your gecko feels comfortable enough to sleep. They range in size and have a moderate to slow growth rate, meaning trimming will not be frequently necessary. When trimming this plant, be sure to trim the stem, not the petiole, or the portion of the plant that connects the leaf to the stem.
Air plants are an easy way to have greenery at any point on the background or in the sticks and climbs that should be provided for your gecko. Air plants will not survive being planted or laid on the substrate. The easiest way to mount your air plants is to use fishing line. Just be sure to trim any excess line and there are not gaps between the line and the decor you are tying it to, to ensure there is no risk to your pet getting tangled in the invisible line. This will allow you to remove the air plant if you need to give it additional water via a soak (see the blog post titled Air Plants- Tillandsia for more information on care). Air plants would love to be misted nightly with your gecko and, depending on your humidity retention in the enclosure and species of air plant, they may never need removed from the enclosure for additional water. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, there is an air plant for every enclosure!
Ferns are a plant that enjoy high humidity and a moist substrate. Ferns provide a lot of leaves and greenery for your gecko to use as a hide. Birdsnest ferns have thick leaves that will be able to hold small geckos, maiden hair ferns have light and airy leaves that geckos can make their way between and feel safe and protected in. There are so many ferns in between you can choose from! Each species of fern can be used in slightly different ways, but they will all provide a place for your gecko to feel safe within.
Peperomia is a genus that contains over 1,000 species, each with their own unique size, color, and growth pattern. Some peperomia stay short, even acting as groundcover, such as the aforementioned String of Turtles. Others have strong, sturdy leaves that can hold your pet and provide a surface for them to climb on. Others yet would behave more like a small shrub, like Peperomia Rosso, which will provide a space for your animal to hide within. It can be hard to tell what is a peperomia and what isn't, due to their extreme diversity, but they are all pet safe, and all great additions to a gargoyle or crested gecko enclosure.
Bromeliads also come in a large variety, some of which can easily outgrow a standard enclosure. Others stay perfectly sized, only growing about 8 inches or smaller. These plants would also be an option for mounting, similar to air plants. Bromeliads have roots that should be wrapped in moss and watered when dry. The cups that the leaves form should be filled with water, which will provide an additional area for your gecko to drink from. An important thing to note when choosing which bromeliad to include in your enclosure are the leaf margins, or the edges of the leaves. Sometimes, bromeliads have a serrated margin that has the potential to cut your gecko's skin. You want to ensure that whatever species of bromeliad you choose, the edges of the leaves are smooth when you run your finger across it in both directions. Sometimes the serrations can only be felt when moving in one direction. For more information on bromeliads, see the blog post titled "Bromeliad Care."
The plants I am classifying as "Canopy plants" are the tallest on the list. They will give your gecko spots to climb, hide, and fulfill their arboreal nature. Some of these plants have large leaves that can hold the biggest of geckos, others have trunks that they can climb.
This is a plant with interesting leaves, sometimes called the African Mask Plant, typically grows 1-2 feet tall. The thick, glossy leaves can hold reptiles heavier than you may expect. This plant does have the ability to go dormant, dying fully back to the soil level, if the substrate is kept too dry. This plant will stay in an active growth, so long as the substrate isn't allowed to stay extremely dry for a long period of time. Keeping the substrate at a proper moisture level for your reptile will help to prevent this. The large, strong leaves will provide both a climbing surface, as well as a nice place to hide for your gecko. For more information on how to properly care for this plant, visit the blog post titled "Alocasia Polly Care."
Zebra Plant (Aphelandra squarrosa)
Zebra plants are a unique plant that have iconic white striping on their leaves, as well as yellow flowers that will remain for an extended period of time. They have thick stems and strong leaves that will hold even the largest of geckos. They are easy to trim and stay smaller, about 1' tall and wide. If they outgrow the space, trimming the plant is as easy as cutting the thick stem with a pair of clean pruners. The plant may be a bit bare while it recovers from the pruning, so consider having additional climbs and hides on standby while the plant takes the time to grow back. This plant will bring a little bit of color to the enclosure.
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 gecko enclosure. They need substrate that is too dry. Tropical dracaena, sometimes called dragon trees or corn plants, don't always have leaves that can support a gecko, some of which can support a smaller gecko. There are some species that stay smaller and could be classified as an understory plant, while others grow tall. The trunks can support a gecko, no problem, but the leaves are going to provide more of a hiding spot than anything. Hides are important to make your gecko feel safe.
Schefflera, also called umbrella plants, are in a similar boat to Dracaena. The leaves are not often strong enough to hold adult geckos, but provide even more coverage to ensure your pet feels safe. They will need trimming to keep the plant to size. Simply choose a spot on the branch and cut with a clean pair of pruners. While the plant takes time to recover from the pruning, it may be beneficial to have additional hides or even a fake plant to give your gecko a place to hide. You can avoid the need to add hides by limiting the amount in which you cut your plant back.
Money Tree Stumps
Money tree stumps are money trees that were allowed to grow to a significantly larger size, then cut back to achieve a certain appearance. These money tree "stumps" are still very alive, growing new leaves similar to that of the umbrella plant out of the top of the stump, near the cut. This results in a nice, living piece of log for your gecko to climb! If the leaves are knocked off, no worries, they will regrow. These plants are very resilient and low light tolerant, making them fantastic for a gecko's enclosure and an excellent climb. The leaves at the top of the stump will provide a nice, concealed space for your gecko to feel safe.
Choosing one or two plants from each category will help to ensure you create a wonderful bioactive tank for your gecko. 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 gecko to explore. Adding cork bark or other types of wood and branches will give your gecko 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 food and water bowls, whether these be in a ledge feeder or on the ground. It's easy to get carried away!
Like the gecko photos included in this article? They call came from Steel City Scales, a local crested gecko 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 care, shoot an email to email@example.com or visit www.steelcityscales.com.