How to Care for Epiphytes in Vivariums: Bromeliads and Air Plants
What are epiphytes? Epiphytes are plants that grow without soil, instead using another plant or object for physical support without being parasitic. Some epiphytes have aerial roots, and others have no roots at all. Most live in tropical climates, and a few live in deserts where they can draw moisture from coastal fog.
Epiphytes sound fancy, but chances are good that you’re already familiar with a couple of famous ones: bromeliads and air plants! These plants are very popular in reptiles and especially frog vivariums due to their distinctive appearance and flexibility in placement. However, if you’re new to epiphytes, then they’re probably a bit intimidating. After all, they don’t go in the soil! Where do you put them? How do you water them?
Never fear, because, after this article, you’ll be able to place and care for epiphytes in your own vivarium with confidence.
Caring for Bromeliads in the Vivarium
Bromeliads generally like lots of humidity and bright light, which makes them a good fit for tropical vivariums. They’re particularly popular in dart frog vivariums because they store water at the base of their leaves, which is where dart frogs like to raise their tadpoles.
Planting Bromeliads in a Vivarium
When choosing bromeliads for your vivarium, avoid varieties with serrated or spiked leaf edges, as these may injure your pet. Aechmea, Neoregelia, and Vrisea generally do best. If you have a large viv, Guzmania is also an option.
Since they’re epiphytes, planting bromeliads is different from other plants. Bromeliads should be placed in a spot where they can be firmly anchored in place, such as a fork between two branches, or a deep furrow in bark. They can also be “potted” in a bit of cork tube. Affix the plant in place with hemp twine, wrapping it over the roots rather than the body of the plant. You can disguise the tie with sphagnum moss on top. In a month or two, the plant’s roots should take over as the primary anchor. In tall enclosures, bromeliads generally do better when planted higher rather than lower, since the most humid air sits at the bottom of the enclosure. This also works well for their lighting preferences, as the strongest light will be closest to the lamp(s).
Lighting for Bromeliads
Most houseplant guides will tell you that bromeliads like “indirect sunlight,” which is important information if you’re keeping them near a window. However, sunlight is many times stronger than even the brightest LED lamps, so in a terrarium, you still need to use a powerful LED grow lamp to keep bromeliads happy. The Bio Dude’s Glow & Grow and the Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar are both excellent for this purpose. Depending on the size of your vivarium, multiple lamps may be needed to provide enough light. If you are using a heat lamp in your enclosure, make sure to keep your bromeliad(s) away from that immediate area to prevent scorching.
Watering Your Bromeliads
Bromeliads like moisture and thrive when misted multiple times daily, but their roots must be allowed to dry out between misting sessions. Use reverse osmosis or distilled water for misting, not tap water. If the rainwater in your area is clean, that is also an option, but make sure not to collect it in a metal container. It is possible to overwater bromeliads — if the leaves start to turn brown and fall off, that means the plant is rotting and conditions are too wet. When in doubt, it’s better to keep your bromeliads too dry than too wet. Adding a fan or two to the top of the vivarium helps to increase ventilation and prevent rot.
To keep your bromeliads in top condition, mist them with water mixed with an appropriate amount of bromeliad fertilizer 1x/month. Fertilizing should only be performed during the spring and summer months, as it can cause damage during the plants’ dormant season.
Flowers are a sign that you’re doing it right!
Caring for Air Plants in the Vivarium
There are two types of air plants which can be used in vivariums: Xerics and Mesics. Xerics are from relatively dry climates which receive less rain and more light. To survive periods of drought, they store water in their leaves. Xerics can be easily identified by their silvery color and furry or dusty appearance. This makes them fairly hardy. Mesics, on the other hand, are from humid climates with plenty of water and little direct sunlight. They have smooth, shiny leaves and sometimes come in unique colors such as red.
Planting Air Plants in a Vivarium
Xeric air plants are better suited to life in a semi-arid vivarium because they can withstand ambient temperatures of up to 100°F and prefer plenty of strong light. They’re also more hardy. Examples of xeric air plants include Tillandsia xerographica, T. ionantha, T. tectorum ecuador, and T. usneoides.
Mesic air plants are better suited to life in a tropical vivarium because they prefer cooler temperatures (above 60°F) and more shady, forest conditions. Examples of mesic air plants include Tillandsia bulbosa, T. abdita multifora, T. andreana, and T. butzii.
Air plants don’t have roots, which means they grow wherever they can wedge themselves — usually in a cluster around the husk of their mother plant. However, in a vivarium, you can use 100% silicone sealant to attach them wherever you want them. It’s best to anchor air plants to something you can easily remove for regular soaking. Alternatively, you can use cable ties to anchor your air plants. Never anchor air plants with copper wire, as copper is toxic to them!
When touching air plants, wash your hands first with soap and water, or wear gloves, as they’re sensitive to skin oils.
Lighting Your Air Plants
Both xeric and mesic air plants should be exposed to a high-intensity LED plant light like the Bio Dude’s Glow & Grow or the Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar to meet their needs. Depending on the size of your vivarium, multiple lamps may be needed to provide enough light for xeric air plants.
While mesic air plants don’t need as much light as their xeric counterparts, this does not mean they do well in shade or dim conditions! As an additional note, air plants of any variety should never be placed in close proximity to a heat lamp.
Watering Your Air Plants
Xeric air plants can survive on being misted for 15 seconds, once every 1-2 weeks, depending on temperature and humidity. Air plants in drier, hotter conditions should be misted more frequently than air plants in an enclosure with more moderate conditions. For best results, soak the air plants for 20-30 minutes 1x/month.
Mesic air plants should be soaked weekly for 20-30 minutes at a time, in addition to being kept in a humid environment. Every 2-3 weeks, provide a longer soak about 2 hours long.
Use water with a high mineral content to nourish your air plants: rainwater, spring water, or well water is best. Do not use distilled or reverse osmosis water because these don’t contain minerals. It’s also not good to use tap water, as tap water contains extra chemicals. Once a month, add an appropriate amount of bromeliad fertilizer to the soak to keep your air plants in top condition. If you’re worried about residue, you can give them a rinse before returning them to your viv.
After soaking air plants, give them a good shake to get rid of excess water and let them dry in a well-ventilated (but not sunny) area for about four hours before putting them back in your vivarium. Pointing a fan at the freshly-soaked air plants can help speed up the process. Don’t skip air drying, as your air plants may start to rot otherwise!
Flowering air plants should be sprayed instead of soaked to preserve the flowers.
This is just an introductory guide to bromeliad and air plant care. As with other plants, epiphyte care is nuanced and often simply takes practice to get right. Once you get used to the unique needs of epiphytes, however, you’ll find the routine easy and even intuitive. It could even be argued that, as far as plants go, these guys are pretty easy to care for!
- Rebekah Walenta