Plants for Leopard Geckos
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!
Leopard geckos can be found naturally in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan in dry grasslands and rocky deserts. These ground-dwelling lizards lack the sticky toes that other geckos use to climb, meaning they do better in a long enclosure than an upright enclosure. They get their name from their primarily yellow bodies covered in irregular brown spots, like a leopard. These geckos overall have very easy care with an overall mild temperament and are great for beginner reptile keepers. Now that we know where they come from, let's go over some plants that will be beneficial to put in their enclosures!
Before we begin to discuss plants that will do well in a leopard gecko 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 a leopard gecko enclosure. They require humidity that is too high for the gecko 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 gecko. 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 list of plants for gargoyle and crested geckos, I mentioned "Always Good" plants. They were spider plants and pothos. While it is possible to get both of those plants to survive in an enclosure suited for arid species, it isn't easy and the plants will not be pretty. While those two plants are definitely a tried and true plant for most any enclosure, they require too much moisture and would not do very well in this type of enclosure.
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.
String of Things- Pearls, Hearts, Bananas, Dolphins
"Strings of Things" is often used as a catch-all for plants often distantly related to one another. String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus), string of hears (Ceropegia woodii), string of bananas (Senecio radicans), and string of dolphins (Senecio peregrinus) are all "strings of things" that will do very well in an arid enclosure. These plants need to dry completely before watering, just as it would occur in the desert. These plants don't climb and will cover the ground nicely. If portions of them break off, they will re root where they are, filling in a new space that your gecko dragged it to.
String of turtles, while also a "String of Things" often found near the succulent section, would not survive the conditions needed for the animals to thrive, as it is a tropical vine from Brazil.
Hoya often scratch that itch many arid reptile owners have of wanting large leaves and a tropical feel. Hoya is a genus of plants containing over 500 species, though only a few are available in cultivation. They come in many colors, shapes, and sizes, though they are all vines that will help to cover the ground. The leaves are larger than those of the Strings of Things. So large, in face, that they could have space for your gecko to hide amongst, as well. Hoya grow slower than pothos and will take a decent amount of time in order to take over the enclosure and will not need frequent trimmings to be kept in line.
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.
In this case, understory plants are those that will grow to be taller than the groundcover plants, yet shorter than those in the next section. Some may need to be trimmed in order to stay the medium height, but it is easy to keep these plants in this medium range.
"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!
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.
Echeveria is yet another 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 leopard geckos 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!
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 leopard geckos thrive in. The leaves drape down, and as the tree grows, it will give your gecko 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.
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 gecko 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."
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. 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 the Understory 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 gecko.
Elephant bush, or Portulacaria afra, is often mistaken for a jade plant, Crassula ovata. This plant grows more upright. This is another succulent that you may see as a bonsai. 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. With a moderate growth rate, this plant is possibly the one that would require the most maintenance of the plants on this list, however, it would not need maintenance often. This is a unique addition to the enclosure, which can have a more shrub like appearance than other plants on this list.
When building a bioactive tank, it can be challenging to choose which plants will have the same water requirements and which will stay small enough or can be trimmed to stay small enough to fit in an enclosure. Another thing to note when building bioactive enclosures is to allow the plants to rest before adding the animal. This will give the plants a bit to become established, giving you the best possible chance for success. It is best to leave the bioactive enclosure to acclimate for a month. This can be achieved by having a temporary or quarantine tank ready to go for your pet to live in during this time.
Choosing one or two plants from each category will create a lovely bioactive tank for your gecko to thrive in! If you choose to forego the ground cover options, or even while the ground cover is filling in, consider adding leaf litter to give your cleanup crew a chance to hide. Including plants to your enclosure does not mean you should forego the other, nonliving areas for your gecko to explore. Consider adding at least one humid hide to assist with shedding, rocks, and perhaps some smaller branches laid horizontally to give your gecko areas to safely climb. Leopard geckos may not be arboreal or live in trees, but some do like to climb short distances for exercise. When building your bioactive enclosure, remember to leave space for the necessities, such as food and water bowls, hides, etc. It's easy to get carried away!
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.