Plants for Poison Dart Frogs
Many of you know me from various reptile expos around the Pittsburgh area where I sell plants and clean up crews to help you get your very own bioactive enclosure up and running for your pets! A bioactive enclosure is one that includes plants, soil, and a clean up crew usually consisting of microfauna such as springtails and isopods. The clean up crew will help to eat any mold, decaying plant material, and droppings from your animals, as well as help to fertilize your plants. Essentially, you are creating your very own mini ecosystem! Bioactive enclosures are meant to mimic the natural environment of your pet as much as possible, while also creating a low maintenance enclosure. Caring for a bioactive enclosure is as easy as spot cleaning, picking up droppings as you see them, cleaning the glass, and any other care your pet may need, 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 where your pet comes from.
Poison dart frogs live in the rain forests of Central and South America where they get their poison from the diet they eat in the wild. In captivity, the frogs do not have access to the same insects as they would in the wild, therefore they will not have the same toxic traits. There are around 200 species contained within the dart frog family, but not all are available in the pet trade. Of the 16 genera, only about four are common in the pet trade. Though there is so much variety contained within this group of frogs and they cover a few different habitats, all of the habitats have two main things in common: foliage and moisture. With that in mind, let's go over some plants that would thrive in the conditions the frogs need.
"Always Good" Plants
There are a couple of plants I call "always good" plants. These are ones that can tolerate a wide range of conditions and are a tried and true plant to be used in a variety of enclosures, especially tropical enclosures. These plants can tolerate some severe abuse, both in the sense of physical that your animals may inflict and with care. Though this list is short, it will not steer you wrong.
Pothos come in a variety of color variations. They can act as a ground cover or climb with supports. 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 frogs if used as a groundcover, yet sturdy enough to hold the frogs, should they choose to climb them instead.
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 grow along the ground and can eventually fill out the substrate surface. They often give nice places for your isopods and springtails to hide. They can help to mitigate the need for replacing leaf litter consistently as it decomposes, as this will act as a living leaf litter. While it may not completely rid the need for leaf litter, it can help limit the amount used.
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 frogs. The native range of this plant and several species of frogs overlaps, meaning this may be one they would come across in the wild. As a slow to moderate grower in most circumstances, this plant does not need much maintenance in an enclosure.
Despite its common name, this plant is not a pothos at all! This is Scindapsus pictus, sometimes also called the silver satin pothos due to the satin like appearance of the leaves. This is another popular houseplant native to Borneo, Sumatra, the Philippines, and the surrounding areas. It functions similarly to a pothos in the vivarium setting, able to climb, trail, or act as a ground cover. This doesn't grow quite as vigorously as pothos and requires less trimming, if you are looking for a similar vine with less maintenance.
Strawberry begonias are not strawberries, nor begonias. It gets this name by having a begonia-like appearance to the leaves, and sending out runners, like strawberries. Other common names include creeping saxifrage, roving sailor, Aaron's beard, and creeping rockfoil. It will flower lovely white flowers high above the leaves. This plant is native to China, Japan, and Korea. This plant overall tolerates the humidity well and is a wonderful choice for an interesting groundcover.
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 frogs are 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.
In the jungle setting, all of the plants on this list would be considered either understory or groundcover plants. When you shrink the jungle down to fit in your reptile room, the terms can switch definitions a bit. Understory plants are those that are taller than groundcover plants, but are still shorter than those that would grow to be as tall as the enclosure.
Prayer Plants (Maranta or Calathea)
Prayer plants are those within the Maranta and Calathea genera. 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. 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. To learn more about the the care for each genus, take a peek at the posts titled "Calathea Care" and "Maranta Care."
Rex begonias are the most common, but all begonias are going to provide both wonderful color and texture with their leaves. For the frogs, the leaves act as surfaces to climb on and hide under. Begonias can be tough to take care of in the houseplant setting, as they need high humidity and moisture in order to thrive, just like frogs. Many begonias also have showy flowers to add to the aesthetic appeal. Begonia species range in color from shades of green with white polka dots to deep reds, nearly to black. Some species of begonias grow tall. These species are easy to trim if they begin to outgrow the tank. Trimming these begonias will also give them a bushier appearance as they grow back.
Air Plants and Bromeliads
Air plants and bromeliads 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 frogs. 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), though this is unlikely to be necessary if the frogs are being kept at proper humidity levels. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, there is an air plant for every enclosure!
Bromeliads are related to air plants and come in two main forms: epiphytic and terrestrial. Terrestrial bromeliads are ones that will do wonderfully when planted in the soil, but epiphytic bromeliads, similar to epiphytic orchids, can tolerate being planted in an airy soil or being mounted in a similar way as described for the air plants above. For more information on bromeliad care, see the post titled "Bromeliad Care." If the bromeliads are thriving, your conditions are perfect or nearly perfect for your frogs! Bromeliads provide another climbing surface for your frogs, but beware- not all bromeliads are created equally. Some have sharp spines on the edges of the leaves which pose a risk to your frogs.
Nerve plants, or Fittonia sp., are very similar to and can be substituted for polka dot plants. The nerve plants are native to the tropical rain forests of South America, mainly Peru. This means the native range may overlap with some species of poison dart frogs. The "nerves" of the plant range in color from white to red and do best in terrariums or vivariums where the soil is moist and humidity is high, just as the frogs like. These plants more provide color and hiding areas, rather than climbing surfaces for the frogs. It is unlikely that these plants will be able to support adult frogs on their leaves, but do not underestimate the importance of hides to keep your animals as happy and healthy as possible.
Ferns are a plant that enjoy high humidity and a moist substrate. Ferns provide a lot of leaves and greenery for your frogs to use as a hide. Birdsnest ferns have thick leaves that will be able to hold dart frogs, maiden hair ferns have light and airy leaves that frogs 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 frogs to feel safe within.
Chinese Money Plant
You may also hear this plant referred to as the UFO plant. Both common names are in reference to their leaf shape, near perfect circles resembling UFOs or coins. This plant is native to areas of Southern China. With an upright growth habit, the leaves will provide a strong enough surface for the frogs to climb. This plant also has the common name "Pass it on plant" as it produces pups, or baby plants from the roots. Should the pups get to be too extensive, they can be easily removed from the tank with a trim or by digging the plantlets and transplanting them to another enclosure.
Canopy in this sense refers to any plants that will grow to the top of the enclosure. These plants are going to be the tallest ones, allowing for vertical interest while looking at the tank, and vertical space to climb and hide.
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 frogs. For more information on how to properly care for this plant, visit the blog post titled "Alocasia Polly Care."
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 strong enough to support the frogs' climbing tendencies. They prefer the high humidity the frogs need. Anthuriums are from the same region of Central and South America as the poison dart frogs, so this would be a familiar plant to your frogs.
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 dart frog enclosure. They need substrate that is too dry and would be more suited to leopard geckos or bearded dragons. Tropical dracaena, sometimes called dragon trees or corn plants, don't always have leaves that can support a frog, some of which can support a smaller frogs. There are some species that stay smaller and could be classified as an understory plant, while others grow tall. The trunks can support a frog, no problem, but the species with thin leaves are going to provide more of a hiding spot than anything. Hides are important to make your frogs feel safe. Species with wider leaves will be able to support adult poison dart frogs.
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 frogs 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 frog's enclosure and an excellent climb. The leaves at the top of the stump will provide a nice, concealed space for your frogs to feel safe.
Philodendron is a large and varied genus in the Araceae family. So varied, in fact, that philodendrons can occupy every section of the enclosure, groundcover, understory, and canopy. Some philodendrons, like the one pictured above, have more of a shrub-like pattern while others upward and will easily attach itself to foam backgrounds or wood to sturdy itself. There are also philodendrons that grow in an extremely similar way to a pothos, but with a speed between the pothos and scindapsus, a moderate pace. There is truly a philodendron for any space in the tank. Some philodendron will quickly and easily outgrow the size of the tanks. Some great species of philodendron to fall back on include P. 'Birkin', P. hederaceum, P. micans, P. 'Silver Sword', and many more!
Choosing one or two plants from each category will help you to create a perfect bioactive enclosure for your frogs. No matter if you choose to use groundcover plants or not, leaf litter will be a necessity for the frogs. Having plants in the enclosure does not mean there does not need to be other elements for the frogs to climb and explore. Branches, hides, and other elements should be considered when you are building a vivarium for your pets. This is especially true for the times your plants need to grow into their environments, such as immediately after building or after having been cut back. Remember to leave space for these necessities, it is easy to get carried away!
It is best if the bioactive enclosure is given about a month to rest and allow the plants to acclimate to their new environment before adding the animals. This will allow the plants to become more established and provide the highest chance for success for all of the plants. Adding plants can also change humidity, adding a thermometer/hygrometer while the enclosure rests before you add the frogs can help you to understand where the humidity rests naturally. Consider keeping your frogs in a temporary or quarantine enclosure during this time, or setting up the bioactive enclosure before getting the frogs. Allowing the enclosure to rest will also allow your cleanup crew to familiarize themselves to the new surroundings and discover the safe and unsafe areas to roam without the risk of being eaten by the frogs.
Like the frog photos included in this article? All of the photos come from Pick Your Poison Darts, a local poison dart frog breeder! If you have any questions on which dart frogs to choose for yourself or questions on care, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them on Facebook to see where they will be next! They're often at reptile expos surrounding the Pittsburgh area.
As always, if you have any questions about plants or how to build the enclosure, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Happy Growing and happy frogs!