How to Keep Moss Alive and THRIVING in Your Vivarium
Written by Mariah Healey, ReptiFiles.com
I think we can all agree that moss looks incredible in vivarium setups. It’s lush, it’s vibrant — it’s just screams, “Life thrives here!” But moss can be a bit tricky to care for, especially when you’re new, so if you’ve had trouble with it, you’re far from alone. This is especially the case if you have a pet reptile, since the conditions that reptiles prefer tend to be a bit less moss-friendly than for amphibians. If you struggle with moss (or if you just want to get started on the right foot), this is the article for you!
What IS moss?
Moss is a type of very small plant. It’s a plant because it has leaves and uses photosynthesis to make food from sunlight. It doesn’t have roots in the traditional sense, but it does have root-like structures. It generally has a soft, fuzzy appearance and is bright green in color, although yellow, brown, or purple is possible.
Lichen is sometimes mistaken for moss, but it’s actually a completely different kind of organism. Lichen is a symbiosis of both fungus and algae: the algae feeds the fungus, and in return, the fungus protects the algae. It’s generally fairly flat, spreads along a hard surface like rock or wood, and is green, gray, tan, orange, or yellow in color. Lichen does not have leaves, although sometimes it takes a branching shape that can be mistaken for a plant. It also does not have roots.
Can you tell the difference between the moss and the lichen in the photo above?
Know Your Moss
Here are some common types of moss you may encounter as a herp keeper:
Flame moss: Flame moss is a tall, aquatic moss named for the way it resembles green fire. It doesn’t require a substrate and isn’t picky about light, which makes it good for beginners. This moss must be submerged to thrive and prefers CO2 supplementation.
Pillow moss: Pillow moss is a terrestrial moss named for the way it tends to grow in mounds that resemble a pillow. This moss is a bit needier but still flexible. It prefers medium to bright light and can be either attached to terrarium features or simply pressed into the substrate.
Java moss: Java moss is an aquatic moss that grows in clumps with irregular arrangements of medium-length branches. This moss is very beginner-friendly, isn’t picky about light levels, can be used free-floating or attached to a substrate, as long as it’s submerged.
Taiwan moss: Taiwan moss is an aquatic moss with a fernlike appearance. This moss is fairly newbie-proof, can be used free-floating or anchored, and will stay alive at varying light levels.
Sheet moss: Sheet moss is a terrestrial moss that conveniently grows in thick, carpetlike sheets. This moss can be attached to terrarium décor or simply pressed into the substrate. It needs bright light and moderate to low temperatures to thrive.
Weeping moss: Weeping moss is an aquatic moss that grows in densely packed, drooping clumps with long tendrils. It can be used free-floating but is often attached to thin pieces of wood to create a treelike effect. As long as it has light it’ll be happy, but CO2 supplementation is recommended.
Spiky moss: Spiky moss is an aquatic moss named for the way it grows in an irregular, triangular pattern that gives it a “spiky” appearance. CO2 supplementation is recommended but not required, and it can be used free-floating or anchored at varying light levels.
Stringy moss: Stringy moss is an aquatic type of moss named for the very long tendrils which give it a “stringy” appearance. For best health, supplement with CO2. This moss also needs bright light and some kind of substrate or anchor.
Liverwort: Liverwort is similar enough to moss to be part of this list. It doesn’t need a substrate or particular light levels, but it can be grown out of water as long as it’s kept close to a constant source of moisture.
What about Spanish moss? you may be wondering. That’s actually not a moss – it’s an air plant under the genus Tillandsia! Read “How to Care for Epiphytes in Vivariums: Bromeliads and Air Plants” if you’re looking to care for Spanish moss
Moss Care Tips
When you’re looking to buy moss for your reptile or amphibian’s enclosure, it’s best to purchase the moss from a sterile grower so you won’t have to clean it. You can collect your own, but as tempting as it may be in the moment, it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth.
If your moss arrives in a tissue culture cup, you’ll need to remove the culture gel before planting. This is easy to do with just gentle washing or soaking in dechlorinated water. Avoid touching the moss with your bare hands if possible. Wear gloves or use tongs, depending on the size of the moss piece you’re working with. If you don’t have gloves, wash your hands with soap and water and thoroughly rinse afterward. Pillow moss or sheet moss are less sensitive — simply soak it in water to fully hydrate before placing it in the enclosure.
Plant terrestrial moss by placing it on top of a medium that absorbs water, like sphagnum moss, wood, or even pumice stone. If putting the moss on wood or stone, placing a layer of sphagnum moss underneath will help prevent drying out. Or, better yet, use an automatic misting system to meet your moss’s needs. Bio Dude bioactive-ready substrates are also appropriate. Coconut fiber, peat moss, or similar substrates won’t work. If you’re placing the moss on a soil substrate, gently press the moss into the soil so it can draw moisture from the substrate.
To plant aquatic moss, you will need a way to secure it in place. Use string or fishing line for the job. Avoid wire or toothpicks, as these have the potential to harm your pet!
Terrestrial moss should be misted at least 2x/day for the first three weeks after transplant, preferably three or more sessions per day. Automatic misting systems are great for this, or even a fogger. Make sure to use dechlorinated water for this, preferably spring water. The chlorine in plain tap water is not good for plants, and especially not for moss.
What keeps moss alive:
- Being allowed to establish itself and acclimate for at least three weeks
- Lots of light, preferably from an LED lamp between 5000-6700K, for about 12 hours/day
- 80-90%+ relative humidity and consistently wet substrate
- Temperatures between 60-90°F
- Dechlorinated water
What kills moss:
- Drying out
- Direct sunlight (ex: from a window)
- Removing from tissue culture (or even opening the cup!) before you’re ready to plant
- Rough handling
- Tap water
- Getting watered like a houseplant (as opposed to misting)
- Rebekah Walenta