Choosing the Right Bromeliad for the Tropical Vivarium – June 2013

By Bruno Magana

Among the wide variety of tropical plants suitable for the vivarium, there is arguably no other plant family more coveted than the bromeliads. As extensive as this family is, it can be quite difficult to figure out which ones will thrive in your set up. It is important to be able to distinguish between the types of bromeliads to know where the most suitable place in the vivarium is to plant them. Don’t worry, there are some interesting genera in this family that may narrow down your search.

Bromeliads are new world plants, which means they naturally come from the americas. Ranging from the east coast of the United States down into South America, you can imagine that these plants must have developed some interesting characteristics to overcome different habitats and climates. So it’s a relief to know there’s a suitable plant for almost any part of your vivarium.

The largest genus of bromeliads, Tillandsia, offers many suitable species for decorating pieces of wood and vivarium backgrounds.  More commonly referred to as “air plants”, tillandsia are probably one of the most recognizable bromeliads aside from pineapples (That’s right – pineapples are bromeliads!   Learn something new everyday huh?).  Tillandsias are mostly xerophytic epiphytes, which means they hold no water, but rather use specialized plant scales (trichomes) to collect water from the ambient air humidity. These are best suited for the top area of the tank were they get direct lighting – many of these plants will also appreciate the heat in such a placement. When you first acquire these plants, chances are they have not grown roots that would normally be used to anchor themselves to a surface. Using a small dab of non toxic adhesive, you can mount many of these species to decorate a piece of driftwood. Flexible wire can also be used to anchor tillandsia to a desired location. Many species of day geckos will even lay their eggs in mid sized tillandsia like T. Cyanea. Small species of chameleons may also appreciate T. Usneoides (commonly referred to as “Spanish moss”), as it can assist in their climb to that hard to reach basking spot.

Tillandsias in the Terrarium!

Some of the more exciting types of bromeliads are the tank epiphytes. These plants grow in such a way as to allow water to pool at the base of each leaf. To many species of frogs, this is the ideal nursery! Such a characteristic is also appealing for high strung tropical geckos in search for a water source.  Among these tank types, one of the most beautiful (in terms of color and pattern variation) genus is Neoregelia. While this genus ranges in size from small to mid sized plants, very few actually get very big. This is good news for that empty middle area of your vivarium! Many of these plants will attach themselves to wood in a similar way to members of the tillandsia genus, but they will also do fine in soil so long as it drains quickly. If you find yourself limited on space in your vivarium, these are a good choice because most Neoregelia grow flat rosettes. Not to mention many Neoregelia hybrids won’t exceed 5 inches or so! Small hybrids like “tiger pups”, “fireballs”, and “pepper” are suitable  to mount on cork branches or backgrounds going up the tank. Many species of dart frogs will readily rear tadpoles in these plants. Great news for anyone who fancies dart frogs!

Once you have your desired layout and the plants you have selected are in place, you may find yourself with a dull and rather boring patch of soil. It may take a long while before mosses thrive in this area and another plant may disturb the order of the set up. Fear not, there is a bromeliad for that! The genus Cryptanthus is a small group of bromeliads that really set themselves apart from most of the family. They are terrestrial plants that have a succulent appearance and often have wavy leaves. Cryptanthus need to be grown in soil. It is one of the few bromeliads that rely on the nutrients in the ground that can be collected with it roots (much like any other plant outside of the bromeliad family). You don’t need to dig deep for these plants, the roots grow out rather than down. This characteristic makes them good candidates for ground cover. Many smaller shy species of reptiles and amphibians will appreciate the shelters Cryptanthus will create.

Now that we have covered three genera of the bromeliad family, you should have a pretty good idea of their uses in the esthetic vivarium.

So go out and have fun with your next project. Remember that a happy plant will often result in a happy animal.

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