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Live Plants vs Fake Plants — Which is Better for Your Reptile?

The issue of live plants vs fake plants is a common wall that prevents many keepers from going bioactive. Some common questions I often receive are:

  • Which is better?
  • Do I absolutely need live plants for bioactive?
  • What happens if I use fake plants with a bioactive substrate?

Whether you have a green thumb or a black thumb, there are advantages of using live plants instead of fake plants. There are also some advantages to using fake plants instead of live plants. Today we’re going to talk about the pros and cons of live plants vs fake plants. Pros and cons will be evaluated by how well each option can replicate different biomes, accommodate reptilian instincts, and promote overall health in the miniature ecosystem that is a bioactive vivarium.

LIVE PLANTS

live plants vs fake plants - bioactive blue tongue skink enclosure

Benefit: Live Plants Freshen the Air

Live plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to make food (specifically glucose) via a process known as photosynthesis. Oxygen is produced as a byproduct of the process, and gets excreted by the plant as “waste.” In enclosed environments like bioactive terrariums, photosynthesis helps keep the air fresh and cycled rather than stale and oxygen-deficient.

Benefit: Live Plants Help Maintain Ambient Humidity

In another cellular process called transpiration, plants release water vapor into the air. This in turn raises the humidity around them, particularly at night, when transpiration is most active. According to studies, plants release roughly 97% of the water that they take in¹, but the exact amount depends on the type of plant in question.

When you have several plants in a contained environment such as a terrarium, this regular water vapor release can go a long way toward improving ambient humidity. Maintaining ambient humidity levels is a common complaint among tropical reptile keepers, which can be solved by switching to a bioactive setup.

This does not mean that bioactive enclosures are unsuitable for reptiles that prefer a drier environment. The effect that plants have on humidity in an enclosure is directly related to how many plants are in the enclosure and what type of plants are being used. For example, arid plants such as succulents release much less water from their leaves than tropical plants like pothos.

Benefit: Live Plants Support Soil Health

Live plants support soil health by aerating it with their root systems. As these roots grow, they help form hotspots of beneficial organic processes that create nutrients for your soil, which in turn creates nutrients for your CUC, which in turn further supports soil health and balance.

Benefit: Live Plants Can Be Edible

Herbivorous and omnivorous reptiles eat plants for food, so providing live, edible plants for them to munch on in their enclosure provides a source of enrichment (entertainment) for them by stimulating instinctive foraging behaviors. Planting a variety of edible plants also facilitates a more varied diet, which provides more balanced nutrition.

On the downside, this grazing instinct means that the plants in herbivorous and sometimes omnivorous reptile terrariums will likely be eaten down to the stems and may need to be replaced regularly.

Benefit: Live Plants Provide a Natural Source of Drinking Water

Many plants are very good at collecting drops of rainwater and fog on their leaves. Other plants, such as bromeliads, collect water in their axils. And sometimes nighttime transpiration will even result in drops of water (dew) forming on the leaves by morning.

All of this creates opportunities for reptiles to get a drink when pools of water are scarce (ex: in treetops), and they seek out these opportunities by instinct. Many reptiles have demonstrated a preference for drinking drops of water from leaves, glass walls, or their own bodies rather than drinking from bowls.

Benefit: Live Plants Provide Extra Cover

Hides don’t always have to come in the form of bark tubes and artificial caves. Live plants provide hiding places, too, which varies the type of cover that you can provide in a reptile enclosure. Providing as many options as possible is a very important element to include in order to facilitate maximum welfare for pet reptiles.

live vs fake plants - Boa imperator in live plant

Benefit: Live Plants Are Eco-Friendly

This one is simple: live plants biodegrade if they are thrown out. Plastic does not. Furthermore, the process of growing live plants and having them shipped to your door is still likely to have a smaller carbon footprint than any plastic replica. That being said, shop at local nurseries where you can.

Benefit: Live Plants Are Generally Inexpensive

Large live plants can be pricey, but you know what’s more expensive? The same size plant, but artificial. Filling out a lush, enriched reptile enclosure can be expensive with natural wood, real stone, and live plants, but it’s generally much less expensive than trying to do the same with plastic wood, artificial stone, and plastic plants.

Benefit: Live Plants Look Great

This one is certainly more subjective, but should be addressed. Live plants help create a 100% natural, lush, and beautiful terrarium that you as the keeper will be eager to show off.

But there’s more to it. Speaking from a human psychology perspective, humans generally feel happier and more optimistic in surroundings with plenty of plants and nature. In a survey at four San Francisco Bay Area hospitals, after spending time in a garden, 79% of patients said they felt more relaxed and calm, 19% felt more positive, and 25% felt refreshed and stronger.² When you have a bioactive terrarium in your home, you have a miniature garden of your own to enjoy and may notice some similar benefits for your mental health.

Drawback: Live Plants Can Be Delicate

Most plants have not evolved to withstand being regularly trampled. For larger reptiles being housed in bioactive enclosures, you will need to take durability into consideration as you choose plants, and you may need to replace them regularly.

live plants vs fake plants - plants trashed by blue tongue skink

Drawback: Live Plants Require Careful Placement

When choosing live plants for your bioactive enclosure, you need to consider the conditions they’ll be subjected to:

  • soil moisture
  • light exposure
  • heat tolerance

Keeping all of these factors in mind can require drawing out a map of your enclosure, planning where you want to have plants, and then determining which plants are most likely to do well in that particular spot depending on your lighting and heating placement and desired humidity levels.

Drawback: Live Plants Require Regular Trimming

Healthy, thriving live plants are constantly growing, so regular trimming and pruning is needed to keep them under control and to keep your vivarium looking the way you want it to.

Drawback: Live Plants Need Special Lighting

Light is a big part of whether a plant lives or dies in a certain setting. In fact, it’s so it’s important that plants are generally placed into categories based on how much light they need:³

  • Full Sun
  • Light Shade
  • Part Shade
  • Full Shade
  • Dense Shade

Depending on how much light your reptile can tolerate and how much your plants need, you will most likely need to add at least one plant light to your lighting array for a bioactive setup. The Bio Dude offers a full line of LED and T5 HO fluorescent plant lighting to meet this need.

Drawback: Live Plants Need Appropriate Soil

You can’t just stick a live plant in any substrate an expect it to grow, even if it gets enough light and water. Plants use their roots to gather essential nutrients from the soil, and if your substrate doesn’t provide those nutrients, the plant will struggle to stay alive and may even die.

Bioactive substrates are ideal for live plants because, when done correctly, it will stay aerated enough to protect the plant from bad bacteria. Ideally this substrate should be infused with  beneficial fungi and bacteria, and maintained by a CUC. The substrate will also need to be occasionally fertilized with a bioactive-safe fertilizer. The Bio Dude’s BioShot is a great candidate for nourishing a new terrarium, and the Bio Dude’s BioVive can be used to rejuvenate depleted soil.

Drawback: Not All Live Plants Are Edible

Live plants can also come with risk — risk that can prove fatal to your animals if proper precautions are not taken. When looking at live plants for your terrarium, avoid any that are known to be toxic or poisonous. Even if you’re not housing an herbivore or omnivore, there is always the chance of accidental ingestion. The Tortoise Table is a helpful resource to reference while you’re browsing at the nursery. 

And when in doubt, don’t plant it!

Drawback: Live Plants May Be Contaminated with Harmful Chemicals

Where you source the plants for your terrarium is very important. Plants grown with pesticides, fungicides, and even non-organic fertilizers should be avoided whenever possible, as they can potentially harm your reptile and will almost definitely harm your CUC. Plants from Home Depot, Lowes, etc., will always be covered in these nasties.

If you can’t avoid the hardware store, you will need to take certain precautions to “purge” your plant before adding it to the enclosure:

  • disinfect the leaves and root base with a gentle 5% bleach solution
  • repot the plant in bioactive substrate mix or organic potting soil
  • let sit for at least 1 month before moving to the enclosure

LIVE PLANTS — SUMMARY

Pros
  • support soil health
  • help freshen the air
  • help maintain healthy ambient humidity
  • can be edible
  • provide a natural source of drinking water
  • provide an additional source of cover
  • are eco-friendly
  • generally inexpensive
  • look great
Cons
  • can be delicate
  • require thoughtful placement
  • require regular trimming
  • need special lighting
  • need appropriate soil
  • sometimes toxic or poisonous
  • may be contaminated

FAKE PLANTS

ball python reptile terrarium

Benefit: Fake Plants Are Impossible to Kill

Fake plants don’t have special care needs because they don’t need any care at all. You don’t need to be mindful of how much light they’re receiving, how much water they need, whether it’s too hot, etc. They will always look the same (until they get old and wear out, of course), and can be used virtually anywhere in your reptile’s enclosure.

Plus, they’re more durable than their live counterparts. You don’t have to worry about whether the plant will get trampled to death by your large snake or lizard.

Benefit: Fake Plants Are Low-Maintenance

Because fake plants don’t grow, they don’t need regular trimming. They don’t need extra lighting or regular watering, either.

Benefit: Fake Plants Are Versatile

Want to try a new look in your reptile’s enclosure? It’s easy to remove and replace fake plants. They don’t get stressed from being moved, you don’t have to worry about replanting each one. Plus, it’s a much less messy process.

Benefit: Fake Plants Provide Cover

Like live plants, fake plants are also valuable for providing different types of cover in your enclosure.

live plants vs fake plants - crested gecko under fake plants

Benefit: Fake Plants Always Look Great

Fake plants always look great no matter what. They will never have browning leaves or wilted flowers. In fact, if you like flowers, you can have flowers all the time! And if you invest in high-quality artificial plants, it’s impossible to tell them apart from the real deal at a glance. Which means you’ll always have an Instagram-ready enclosure.

Plus, if we’re going to talk about human psychology — the brain generally can’t tell the difference between a real plant and a fake plant from a glance. Simply seeing the color green evokes positive emotions in humans.4 So you will likely get a similar satisfaction and enjoyment from looking at an enclosure planted with artificial rather than live plants.

Drawback: Fake Plants Do Not Assist Humidity

Because they are not alive, fake plants don’t hold onto or release water, which means that they have no effect on ambient humidity levels. Tropical enclosures with artificial plants are more likely to struggle with maintaining adequately high humidity levels.

Drawback: Fake Plants Can Be Flammable

Fake plants are usually made from silk or plastics, which are generally both flammable materials. Some artificial plants are deliberately fire-resistant, which is a definite selling point when you can find them. That being said, do not install fake plants close to heat lamps — even the “fireproof” ones.

Drawback: Fake Plants are Relatively More Expensive

I’m not talking about dollar store fake plants here — those are really low quality, unlikely to last very long, and may even injure your reptile from exposed wires. Overall, they’re just the worst example of a fake plant that can be used in this discussion, and kind of a cheap shot in the live vs. fake debate.

I’m talking about the replicas that can pass for the real deal and are built to withstand outdoor conditions like heat and UVB. Expect to pay much more for a decent fake plant than you would for its live equivalent.

Drawback: Fake Plants are Not Safe for Ingestion

Reptiles are often drawn to edible plants by their color, especially in the case of brightly-colored fruits like berries (which is why you often see tortoises and bearded dragons attempting to eat fingers and toes with painted nails!). This means that herbivores and omnivores may mistake a fake plant for a live one, and try to eat it.

Although fake plants are fairly durable and generally don’t taste edible, reptiles can be pretty determined, and ingestion is still a possibility. Reptiles can’t digest plastic, and because any ingested pieces of fake plant are likely to be pretty large, they may not be able to pass it through the digestive tract, which will result in severe impaction.

Fake plants may also be nibbled on by hungry feeder insects and CUC. These plastic pieces may get stuck inside the insects, and if your reptile eats those insects, they may get poisoned by those bits of plastic or dye residues. This is very common with large crickets and roaches with free roaming feeding methods.

Drawback: Fake Plants Can Encourage Growth of Harmful Bacteria & Fungi

Did you know that plants have immune systems? They’re different from the immune systems that animals have, but it’s an immune system all the same. Plant immune systems help protect them from mold, bad bacteria, and disease, which can help reduce these factors in your own enclosure.

Did I say that fake plants don’t require maintenance? Okay, that wasn’t quite true. Fake plants don’t have any kind of defense against the pathogens in your terrarium. In fact, because they don’t help fight them, they end up helping them. So in order to prevent this, fake plants need to be disinfected regularly with a chlorhexidine or F10SC solution.

Being easy to clean does mean that fake plants can be good for creating cover and climbing material in quarantine enclosures, however.

Drawback: Fake Plants May Off-Gas Toxic VOCs

It’s well known that most plastics off-gas VOCs when exposed to heat and/or UV light. Even silk plants, which is a natural material, often are made with artificial dyes that will also off-gas VOCs when exposed to similar conditions.

What are VOCs? VOCs are volatile organic compounds. These are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature, and low water solubility.5 This means that they get emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids. Many VOCs are man-made chemicals present in man-made products, and they are considered to be a source of indoor pollution. If you’re familiar with the smell of plastic, “new car,” or fresh paint, then you are familiar with the smell of VOCs.

It is not known exactly how toxic VOCs are, or which plastics and other materials are the biggest culprits. However we do know that VOC buildup in homes is known to cause health problems for humans. It is also likely that long-term exposure to VOCs contributes to cancer.6

If VOCs are known to harm humans, particularly in low-ventilation areas with high VOC-emitting materials, what might they do to reptiles, which are much smaller, more sensitive, and living in enclosed containers with potentially tons of artificial plants?

Drawback: Fake Plants Need to Be Regularly Replaced

Fake plants are quite durable, but they are incapable of self-repair, and they do wear out eventually. Trampling, bright light, UVB, heat, and humidity all gradually erode artificial plants until they have lost much of their original beauty.

Drawback: Fake Plants Are Not Eco-Friendly

Fake plants are made of artificial materials that resist biodegrading and dyes that can poison soils. All fake plants get thrown away eventually, and when they do, they will sit in the landfill for ages before finally breaking down.

There are not a lot of eco-friendly alternatives in the artificial plant space, unfortunately. Considering that fake plants are a common fixture in homes and businesses as well as reptile enclosures, hopefully this will change soon.

FAKE PLANTS — SUMMARY

Pros

  • impossible to kill
  • low maintenance
  • versatile
  • provide additional sources of cover
  • always look great

Cons

  • don’t assist humidity levels
  • can be flammable
  • more expensive
  • dangerous to ingest
  • encourage the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi
  • likely off-gas toxic VOCs
  • need to be replaced periodically
  • not eco-friendly

Tips for Caring for Live Plants

i.e. “Help! I have a black thumb!”

At this point, many of you may be thinking: “Well I would love to do live plants, but I ALWAYS kill my plants, no matter what I do!”

Well, if you have a black thumb (don’t be ashamed — I too once had one) don’t let that stop you from trying a live planted, bioactive enclosure. Keeping plants alive is actually pretty simple once you know what they need and get into a routine. There’s no such thing as a magical “black thumb” or “green thumb” — there’s just people who understand what plants need, and people who just need to learn.

Interestingly, caring for plants isn’t all that different from caring for reptiles. Just like different reptiles have different requirements for staying alive and healthy, different plants also have different requirements for staying alive and healthy. If you can keep a reptile alive, you can keep a plant alive. Here are some pro tips to turn your “black thumb” green:

  • Use the right soil
  • Don’t over-water
  • Know the signs of when a plant needs more water
  • Pay attention to how much light the plant needs
  • Use high-quality plant lighting, not just any old white light
  • Pay attention to how much heat the plant can tolerate
  • Let the plants get established before adding your reptile

The best way to overcome your black thumb is to start small. It doesn’t even have to be a bioactive enclosure — just try keeping a houseplant alive, like a pothos or aloe. Once you’ve built up a bit of confidence, try an arid bioactive with succulents and/or air plants. You can even keep the plants in their pots inside the enclosure to increase your likelihood of success.

You’ll find that plant care, although definitely higher-maintenance than fake plants or no plants at all, is easier than you thought. The key is researching each plant’s needs and then meeting those needs.

live vs fake plants - simple bioactive for bearded dragon

Can You Have a Bioactive Enclosure with Fake Plants?

Bioactive reptile enclosures work best with live plants, but I’ll tell you a secret: you can make bioactive work with fake plants, too. It won’t be the same as using live plants — after all, you won’t have the pathogen-fighting properties or aerating root systems of live plants — but you will still have the bioactive soil and the benefits that come with it.

Here are some tips for success if you’re going to use fake plants (whether all or some) in your bioactive setup:

Conclusion

The debate between live vs fake plants is definitely a complex one. Live plants as well as fake plants both have their fair share of benefits and drawbacks when used in a reptile terrarium. If I have to summarize, it goes like this: most of live plants’ benefits are for the reptiles, while most of fake plants’ benefits are for the humans. If our goal if promoting optimum reptile welfare in captivity, then it can be argued that live plants are the superior choice for planting a reptile terrarium — bioactive or otherwise.

At the end of the day, one of the great pleasures of the reptile hobby is the opportunity to replicate our pets’ natural environment as closely as possible and to bring a slice of nature’s splendor into our own home. And plants are an important part of re-creating nature, whether live or fake.

the biodude logo - squareAbout the author: Since the age of 13, Josh Halter has had a passion for making his pets’ enclosures emulate their natural habitat as closely as possible. Decades later, this passion evolved into The Bio Dude. With a retail location in Houston, TX, USA, and shipping all over the country, this store makes planning and building beautiful, functional bioactive enclosures easy for anyone who wants to give it a try.

This article was edited by Mariah Healey.

References

  1. SBM Life Science Corp. (n.d.). 5 Benefits of Houseplants. Retrieved from https://www.bioadvanced.com/articles/5-benefits-houseplants
  2. (Ming) Kuo, F. E. (2010). Parks and Other Green Environments: Essential Components of a Healthy Human Habitat. PDF. Retrieved from https://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Publications_and_Research/Research/Papers/MingKuo-Research-Paper.pdf
  3. Patton, D. (n.d.). K-State Research and Extension. Retrieved from https://www.johnson.k-state.edu/lawn-garden/agent-articles/miscellaneous/defining-sun-requirements-for-plants.html
  4. Elsadek, M., Sayaka, S., Fujii, E., Koriesh, E. mohammed, Moghazy, E., & El Fatah, Y. A. (2013). Human emotional and psycho-physiological responses to plant color stimuli. Journal of Food Agriculture and Environment, 1584–1591. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287612788_Human_emotional_and_psycho-physiological_responses_to_plant_color_stimuli
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs
  6. Berkeley Lab. (n.d.). VOCs and Cancer. Retrieved from https://iaqscience.lbl.gov/voc-cancer

One Comment

  1. Interesting! We are about to try bioactive with a large snake: We had the enclosure modified to allow a 12-inch substrate depth. Still working on what to place in there, but we are going to try live plants. Thanks for this summary!

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