Best Terrarium Plants: 13 Filler Plants for Tropical Setups
When it comes to building a terrarium, filler plants are a necessity. They keep the background and foreground spotted with interest, all while raising the humidity, increasing the interest of your terrarium. Even though my main focus is building orchid terrariums, filler plants can be used in any terrarium.
The best terrarium plants that excel at filling the background of your setup are: Aluminum Plant (Pilea cadierei), Baby Tears or Pollyiana Vine (Soleirolia soleirolii), Begonias,Bromeliads, Button Fern (Pellaea rotundifolia )ferns, Golden club moss, Philodendrons, Pilea or Chinese Money Plant,Pixie or Peperomia,Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), Silver Nerve Plant (Fittonia), Spiderwort, and Wandering Jew (tradescantia).
These terrarium filler plants add texture, color, depth, and interest to your terrarium all while permitting the main focus to shine.
"Terrariums by amanda_cabrera liked from a luxurious wicker sofa." by Wicker Paradise is licensed under CC BY 2.
As orchid growers, many of us tend to focus only on orchids and our terrariums end up rather uninteresting when not in bloom. To make a naturalistic terrarium that imitates a portion of the landscape and not just a series of isolated hanging cork plaques, filler plants come to play.
Filler plants add variety and texture to your terrarium, creating a more realistic feel. They add to your terrarium, be it a woodland scene or a tropical rainforest setting.
Aluminum Plant (Pilea cadierei)
Baby Tears or Pollyiana Vine (Soleirolia soleirolii),
Button Fern (Pellaea rotundifolia )ferns,
Golden club moss,
Pilea or Chinese Money Plant,
Pixie or Peperomia,
Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)
Silver Nerve Plant (Fittonia),
Starfish plant (Cryptanthus bivittatus),
and Wandering Jew (tradescantia).
To be honest, I’ve never made a terrarium only from orchids themselves. I’ve always added filler plants to my terrariums since they bring the additional intricate leaf design, color variation, texture disparity, and charm that only orchids won’t bring. Orchid leaves are not that beautiful.
Also, orchids are only in bloom once or twice a year. The rest of the year they are just big, green leaves, and unless you have a Ludisia or a variegated orchid, both with are beautifully designed leaves, your terrarium will hang flat.
(Sorry orchids… I don’t mean to offend. Just stating my opinion.) Filler terrarium plants are that extra touch that really keep the terrarium interesting all year round.
What Filler Plants Don’t work in Terrariums
Golden Pothos and Spider Plant were close runners-up but didn’t make it to the final cut. They aren’t on my list of terrarium plants due to the size that they grow and the constant maintenance that is required inside a small terrarium.
I create terrariums so I can sip a cup of tea, kick my shoes off, and just relax… They are my get away place during winter.
Both Golden Pothos and Spider are prolific growers—too much to handle at times. They turn into constant work, one more chore… I prefer these to be hanging basket plants and not filler plants in my orchid terrarium.
Also, I didn’t add air plants, cactus, or desert-like terrarium plants to this list since all the 13 filler plants above prefer a more humid environment. This article focuses on a jungle-like terrarium with a rainforest climate. This terrarium setup focuses on high humidity where most orchids will adapt better.
Orchids in general do not like drier relative humidity.
Air plants (tillandsias) although special and so delicate are more suited for a succulent terrarium, with lower relative humidity and the less frequent water cycle.
Before you decide on what filler plants to get, make sure they are from the same habitat. To make the terrarium work well together, you have to research plants that come from the same environment, light conditions, watering schedules, and temperature preferences.
You simply can’t add several plants together that wouldn’t naturally belong in the same environment. Even though it will look awesome of a quick picture, the final result over one month will not be pleasing.
Mistakes in orchid terrariums are quite expensive, too.
Choosing the Distribution of your Terrarium Plants
Below is a guide to how to set up these filler plants in the terrarium, provided that there is another focal point. If you want a terrarium with only filler plants, that display extremely well by themselves, it will work, but I find terrariums set up this way a tad bit boring.
If that is the way you want to go, perfect!
Except my strong suggestion is to add that special touch that makes your terrarium stand out among the rest, is that there will be a unique focal point. I’ll talk more about that below, in the middle second (part 2).
Heads up: This article won’t be a “How to Care Guide ” for each of these plants since there are better articles on the internet that explain each one in exact detail.
This article explains how to get a general idea of where to plant filler terrarium plants, as a beginner’s guide to making your orchid terrarium look aesthetically pleasing with filler plants.
Each terrarium is unique, and where you keep the final arrangement also influences the plant placement inside the terrarium (full light, low light, etc..) What I will do is explain the overall setup of how I arrange them in the terrarium and give you an overall “north” of where to start.
Terrarium building is subjective and you need to go with what works for you. Everyone has different tastes and making a terrarium in not that different from floral design—what pleases one might not another person.
Yet in all the terrariums I set up, I like to keep the same “diagram” of plants because this felt right for me… It’s how I feel they so stand out the most, making the best of each one.
Tip: I like to pick either pink or red when designing a terrarium. If the focal point orchids are pink orchids, then I try to get filler plants that have either pink veins or pink dots, avoiding darker red plants. If the main orchids I want to display are a reddish tone, then I stock up on dark red fireball bromeliads and other plants that share that red coloration to them.
In my opinion, it makes for a cohesive design, with the different variations of red through patterns, textures, and layers, but never a contrasting pink to through it all away. <-- My two cents.
Before you Add Filler Plants to Your Terrarium
As long as you have the terrarium false bottom in place, then you’re ready to add substrate and start filling the terrarium with plants. If you haven’t made the false bottom, check out this article
where I talk about how to make that.
This layer is extremely important to have so your soil or substrate won’t mold, compact, or create unnecessary bacteria.
How to Arrange Filler Plants in Your Terrarium
No matter what shape, length, radius, or width of the terrarium you have, you can separate the terrarium into thirds.
The back third will be heavily planted with taller, more robust filler plants, hiding the background and creating depth.
Since these are taller filler terrarium plants, make sure you get light-loving plants since their leaves will overpower the back and be closer to your light source. If you plant these massive filler plants toward the front, they’ll hide the background and make your terrarium hard to visualize.
The back third of the terrarium is also good for climbing vines and plants that cling to trees, peat moss, or coco fiber. If you have a false background made from expanding foam, then this will also constitute the back third. Choose plants that have thicker foliage and spread vertically.
Tip: Always select plants in odd numbers. One, three, or five—for some unknown reason, this is more appealing to the eye. This is also used in floral design. Odds are in our favor here.
Middle-sized Filler Terrarium Plants
Moving on to the 2nd part of the terrarium… This middle section is your main focal point, grabbing your eye, and hopefully leaving you gasping in awe. Since this article is about filler terrarium plants and not the main attention-catching plants, I won’t go into detail here about how to design something awesome for this layer.
But for a quick overview, you can add a log, massive rocks, twigs, a fountain, or even decoration that is not plant related.
Whatever your main idea or main themed to your terrarium, you’ll need to place it here. In some more elaborate terrariums, this could even be a water feature like a waterfall.
I like to add my favorite plants here…so orchids it is. These orchids will be larger, fancier orchids.
I sprinkle tiny orchids in the front and back of the terrarium, too, but this is where the main concentration of your “best” or “favorite” plants should be. Make your orchids stand out, after all, they deserve the spotlight.
If you’d like a list of orchids that do well in a terrarium, I wrote this article
giving a quick overview of the best orchids for closed terrariums.
I used the word “closed” but it was mainly in contrast to the low-humidity and low water requirements that a succulent or desert terrarium, or an “open” terrarium would call for.
If you place an orchid in a totally enclosed pace with a top on it, it’s more than likely to fail.
Orchids need high airflow
and circulating humidity
to thrive, both of which a closed terrarium doesn’t provide. It’s always best to have fans
and a misting system
when using this kind of setup.
If you are not adding a special feature, then use the middle-sized filler plants in the 2nd division of 3.
Speckle the terrarium with plants that have contrasting colors, heights, and textures.
Another great idea is to order the same plants but in different color schemes
. If you place two plants that have the same color next to each other, they’ve lost their uniqueness and charm, as if competing with each other.
1) The Terrarium Foreground: Tiny Plants that Form Bushes
In the first, front-most third, you should keep the lower light plants
(compared to the taller ones) which shouldn’t be tall, but shorter and bushier in nature. They can be low lights because the other plants in the terrarium will cast shadows on them,
keeping them partially hidden from the lights.
a good idea to have extremely different light-requirement plants together
, but if they do differ, keep the lower light plants in the front.
The list of plants above is just a starter… If you want some more suggestions for low-light plants, try Aglaonema, Syngonium, Marchantia, Spathiphyllum, Euonymus, Scindapsus, Dracaena, Sansevieria, Chamaedorea, and Pittosporum.
Talking about low-light, I know it’s tempting, but please don’t set your terrarium in direct sunlight even if you are using high-light orchids and sun-loving filler plants.
The glass will literally cook your orchids and bake them until they’re beyond dead.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to staying to the plants in the top 14. Medium-light
filler plants that aren’t listed in the top 13 above, include: Ajuga, Hedera, Sinningia, Episcia, Saintpaulia, Chlorophytum, Myrsine, Zebrina, Buxus, Mitchella, Tradescantia, Mimosa, and Streptocarpus.
Sunlight penetrates the glass terrarium, heating it up over time, considerably raising the temperature inside the glass. If you need to provide extra lighting for the terrarium, this light fixture (grow light)
is what I recommend since it has a clip and is full-spectrum. You can check the price on Amazon here (Affiliate Link).
These tiny, front-placed plants could be horizontal “trailers”, in a sense that they climb out, or short bushy plants that don’t detract from the back. The sole purpose is to break up the front landscape by adding texture and color in unexpected but random spots.
The Best 13 Filler Plants for Terrariums
Now that you have a general idea of how I set up my terrariums, let’s get into the plants that fill the surroundings and make the background “ignite” with color.
I’ve grouped the plants by the layers, making them easier to categorize. If you have a smaller fish-bowl terrarium, you’ll need to adapt and rearrange this classification. When I made this list, I was transforming an old, discarded aquarium and turning it into a terrarium.
Taller Terrarium Plants for the Background
The first group of filler plants are the ferns. Ferns can do well in lower light conditions and love the high humidity that is required for a tropical terrarium.
I remember as a girl, traveling the highways in the mountainous regions of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the orchids that hung in the midst of the trees along the highways. Water would trickle down the cliffs, and a constant midst of high humidity would linger until close to noon.
Ferns would grow in every available spot possible: trees, rocks, any sight of dirt, a small fern leaf would pop up.
When picking out ferns, keep the leaf variety different, aiming for various colors and shapes of leaves. Always inquire about the size the fern will get when purchasing your terrarium fern.
Some ferns are monsters, like the famous houseplant, the Boston fern. They aren’t the fastest growers in the world, but if you get one that is too big, you’ll have constant maintenance in the end.
When placing the fern in your terrarium, focus on the back third.
Before setting up your terrarium, if you have a vertical background, always attach ferns to it. Keep them high. Even though most ferns aren’t high-light plants, they can tolerate being planted in the upper portion of your terrarium, allowing their leaves to cascade down the background.
If your terrarium is horizontal, place the ferns next to the back glass, and pick ferns that will maintain their leaves more upright. If your seller doesn’t provide these ferns, move them to the middle part of your terrarium, keeping taller plants in the back.
My suggestion for a great fern for terrariums is a Button Fern (Pellaea rotundifolia), but you can choose any smaller fern that tolerates higher light. Clicking on the picture or the link will take you to Amazon to check the price.
If you get a young specimen, the Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus) does well, but it does grow a lot. Asparagus fern (Asparagus spp.) have the same problem with size but can still de “doable”. I really admire their delicate leaves, and how they fan out with grace.
Other ferns that can be placed in a terrarium include Maidenhair fern (Adiantum cvs) and Round-leaved fern (Pellaea rotundifolia).
2. Aluminum Plant (Pileia Cadierei)
Another great filler plant for terrariums (even though you will be trimming it a bit more than others) is the Aluminum Plant.
The leaves on this charming plant are what makes them so special.
They are heavy growers, but won’t live more than 5 to 6 years before dying off.
They hardly ever produce flowers (at least in terrariums). It’s the leaf that is mesmerizing.
The vicious root system is another negative side effect of this plant, and it is very toxic to cats and dogs.
(If you are wondering if orchids are toxic, you can read these two articles where I explain the difference of what potting mixes can do to cats
and what they do to dogs.
Each article is different since the digestive system is unique to each.
I’m not a vet by any means, but I have a cat (Midnight—who likes to interrupt my YouTube videos all the time) and I have a dog (Max, who you can see at the end of this article here
) …and I have orchids. So, I had to investigate to make sure my pets were safe.Aluminum plants are toxic so keep that in mind.
I know a lot of people make terrariums and add animals (in that case, a vivarium) so don’t purchase an Aluminum plant if you're building terrariums for dart frogs or other reptiles.
These are definitely background plants and can grow into massive 2 feet (60 cm) plants.
You’ll need to trim them
to keep them manageable and to a decent size.
Philodendrons make great hanging plants, too, so if they don't work in your terrarium, place them in a flowering pot.
They also tend to grow fast, so you’ll have to keep them trimmed down to a smaller size.
Most all Philodendrons are climbers and will adapt extremely well if they have a background to attach to. The leaves have root-like projections that attach to the surroundings.
You’ll need to stake the first couple leaves until the plant understands that you want it to crawl up the background, but the stakes are easily removed later.
If you have a fake background where you can attach plants, use bromeliads. If you don’t have a vertical foam layer, then use the bromeliads in the middle layer as an attention-grabbing plant. Bromeliads will take the light well but can’t stand having soggy feet
. Keep them up, off the ground. If you can, use a substrate that drains fast and doesn’t retain water.
Some bromeliads are epythitic
and can attach to rocks and tree limbs. With a little aid to get started, tie them to the logs, or use superglue
. To know what superglue is best, I wrote this article about superglue and orchids
to know which to avoid.
Bromeliads are perfect to attach to those nicks and crannies that you don’t know how to fill in the terrarium, and are larger, more robust plants. Tip:
I always use thre
e bromeliads, no matter what.
The only extra care you’ll need with a bromeliad is the water you use.
They are extremely sensitive to chemicals in the water
, so tap water
isn’t the best choice. You can read this guide to the different types of water
that bromeliads prefer. I wrote that article with orchids in mind, but since bromeliads are very similar to orchids
in this sense, the information still applies.
Middle Layer of Terrarium Filler Plants
For the 2nd layer in the terrarium, this is where I like to get that splashy, shouting red color, since not many plants have that deep red to their leaves. Bromeliads works well for the 2nd layer, too. By the way, not all bromeliads will turn red, so check with your vendor or salesperson to make sure they will.
I had a question about Starfish plants in substitution for Bromeliads. Starfish plants have thinner red-and-white leaves and also make the primetime hour in the terrarium, but not with a tropical setup.
If you’re going for the succulent terrarium, choose the starfish. With their reddish-veined leaves, they shine in the worlds of greens and browns, making the 2nd layer in the terrarium come to life.
In all, this should be your most focal plants, the ones you want to emphasize.
Begonias in terrariums don’t get past 12 inches (30 cm), but usually stay around 6 to 8 inches tall (15 to 20 cm). Outside, when planted directly in the ground, they can turn into massive plants, reaching more than 5 feet (1.50 m).
Not all Begonias are suited for terrariums.
There are three distinct types of Begonias: tuberous, fibrous, and rhizomatous. The last will require more humidity and makes a great terrarium filler plant, due to this. They don’t survive as well as houseplants though.
The tuberous and fibrous do extremely well as hanging plants.
Begonias also need to be in a potting medium that doesn’t retain too much water. They have a tendency to get root rot easily. When looking for begonias, try these: B. chlorosticta, B. decora, B. luzonensis, B. microsperma, B. versicolor, and B. prismatocarpa.
When using begonias as filler plants, a good suggestion is to purchase several Begonias, each having a different color pattern. This way the care is the same for all, and the unique texture is still there, each with its own pattern, design, color, layout, and design. Begonias make beautiful filler plants for terrariums.
Note: Don’t plant Begonias too close to the light, since they are lower light level plants, on the same level as Phalaenopsis are.
6. Pilea or Chinese Money Plant
Heads up: Some pilea plants have hair-like projections that cause skin irritations. Although they are not exactly toxic, they do cause a histamine reaction. Make sure you protect your hands when dealing with this plant.
Pileas are a new plant to the terrarium hobby since they are mainly grown in China. After the Chinese Revolution in 1960, with Chairman Mao ridding the foreign influence, the Norwegian missionaries were sent out of the country. With this, the Money Plant traveled to Norway, then spread through Europe. Only in this latter part of 2015+, the Money plant has shown up in many terrariums.
The Pilea plants will require moist soil, more so than other plants listed here. They really don’t care if their roots are a bit soggy all the time, and don’t get root rot easily.
If you have a water feature in your terrarium, keep the Money Plant close to the water. Another option is to plant it close to the mister.
These plants will grow taller, on a central stem. They are great to add to the corners of your terrarium since their leaves will bush out.
Spiderworts are leafy green filler plants that flower with a purple blossom. If you are planting a red-themed terrarium, I’d stay away from spiderwort. The colors just don’t go well together. I’d also stay away from the Wandering Jew below, since it is a purple tone, too. (It’s also from the same family.) Focus on your pink orchids with this filler plant.
Make sure you get a spiderwort that is a smaller plant, since they can grow from 6 inches up to 36 inches (15 to 91 cm), making a massive plant for a terrarium.
Heads Up: Spiderworts have a sticky white sap inside of the stem that can cause skin irritation if in contact. You’ll be fine just planting them and interacting with them, but if the stem breaks, be aware to the sap.
The main problem with spiderworts as filler plants is their size and the fact that they attract slugs. All other sides to spiderworts are positive since they tolerate a variety of broad conditions: high-light, low light, moist, dry, lots of water, not enough…
They are hardy plants that adapt well to terrariums.
Tiny, Front-filler Terrarium Plants That Charm
8. Baby Tears Plant or Pollyiana Vine
The Baby tears plant is one of my favorites. It comes by many names: Baby Tears, Angel Tears, Bits & Pieces, Bread & Cheese, Corsican Creeper, Corsican Curse, Friendship Plant, Helxine, Mind-Your-Own-Business, Mother Of Thousands, Paddy’s Wig, Pollyanna Vine, Irish Moss, and others.
This plant doesn’t grow over 6 inches (15 cm) making it a perfect plant to place in the front of your terrarium.
Place the baby tears in the front or in a visual point that is very focal, since the plant is smaller.
9. Nerve Plant (Fittonia)
Nerve plants display gorgeous, silver-veined leaves contrasted on a dark green leaf background. They make great front filler plants because they won’t grow too high, from 3 to 6 inches (7 to 15 cm) tall and spread out to the sides well.
Whatever you do, don’t place Fittonias in full light. The dark-green pattern in their leaves are sensitive to bright light and will sunburn easy.
On the other hand, hide these filler plants under logs, under the protection of other taller plants, where they still can get the high humidity they like and the shade.
I could admire Nerve Plant’s leaves for hours… So delicate, so charming, so peaceful…
If you are planting terrestrial orchids in your terrarium, Fittonias aren’t the plant to be pairing them with. Most terrestrial orchids (like Paphiopedilums) prefer higher alkalinity levels to the soil, with a pH of 7.5. All other orchids will prefer a more acidic potting medium, from 5.5 to 6.5. Fitonias prefer acidic soil, too.
10. Polka-dot- Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)
Also called the freckle-face plant, these low light lovers are incredibly awesome as filler plants in your terrarium. Instead of the straight lines, they have colorful dots that make them pop with interest. These also come in pink, which is sometimes hard to find.
Contrary to the nerve plant (Fittonias), the Polka-dot Plant can tolerate higher light. Some even do well with a little direct sun on their leaves.
Polka-dot plants require a bit more fertilizer than the other plants here, so make a note of that if you see the leaves starting to wilt or the overall health of the plant droop.
Another possible downside is that polka-dot plants grow a lot. You’ll have to keep trimming them down so they spread out instead of up. If you don’t want the work, move them to the back so they’ll grow higher.
11. Peperomia or Pixie
There are so many different types of Peperomias, that it’s hard to pick which ones would go well in a terrarium over others.
Start off with a watermelon Peperomia, (P. argyreia), not only because of the wonderful leaf color but also because it stays small, reaching the maximum height of 8 inches (20 cm).
P. obtusifolia `Minima’ is also another type of Peperomia that works well. It is a dwarf-sized plant, so don’t expect a large package in the mail.
Peperomias will tolerate higher light but prefer a lower light level. They are a beginner plant in that whatever conditions you provide for them, they’ll do their best to thrive. In this sense, they are very forgiving.
The only downside is that Peperomias are a big “magnet” for mealybugs.
12. Wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallid)
I had a hard time deciding whether to place this filler plant in the back or the front, but I’ll keep it in this smaller category for now. Even though these plants are not as tiny as I’d like them to be, they do make a great foreground plant for terrariums.
If your terrarium is small, aim for the back.
Wandering Jews are a dark, purple-leafed plant that stay close to the ground. They are related to the spiderworts, and can tolerate lots of conditions. If you can, keep them in a lower light than the spiderworts though.
Wandering Jews will like a bit more water than most plants on this list, but can’t stay long periods in water.
They propagate by snipping off a tendril and placing it in water or directly on moist dirt. If the soil is dry, the roots won’t grow. They also like to be misted frequently, due to the higher humidity requirements.
13. Golden Club Moss (Selaginella kraussiana)
This moss is great to cultivate in bare places in your terrarium since it will grow out like a carpet, covering the ground in a couple of months. It’s also called spike moss because the leaves are so delicately trimmed and shaped.
Golden Club moss will not like direct sunlight or higher, brighter light. This is what makes is perfect for the front of the terrarium, where it will be shaded by the higher, larger foliage plants in the back.
This moss makes a great filler plant since it doesn’t look like a moss, but acts like one. It’s pretty sturdy in my opinion. If you don’t mist it often, it will die back. It needs constant humidity to thrive.
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The way you arrange your filler plants in your terrarium is mainly how well you can access them to prune, maintain, and care for them, and how appealing they are to the overall structure of the terrarium.
I hope this general article gave you the basics of how to arrange the filler plants in your terrarium. There are so many other plants that I could have added, it was had to pick just 13. If you have some filler plants that you like to add, please list them in the comments below.