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Reptile Gardens – Growing Food Plants and Attracting Insects for Your Pets

With spring finally here, my thoughts are turning to growing food plants and collecting insects with which to feed my collection.  Happily, these two activities are intertwined – plants attract insects, and insects pollinate plants.  Garden-grown plants provide minerals and trace elements that are often difficult to supply otherwise, and their fiber content is usually quite high.

Your pets’ enthusiastic attacks on novel foods will leave no doubt as to their value in stimulating appetite and behavior.  Tortoises and iguanas will spend hours happily picking through piles of fresh greens…more so if they can forage in outdoor pens atop growing plants.


Tortoises of all types, especially those maintained on a limited number of food items during the winter, invariably improve in condition when offered wild plants.  During the warmer months, natural forage can account for up to 85% of the diets of most species.  A pair of spur thighed tortoises, each of which weighed in at 80-90 pounds, fared very well on such a regime during the years that they were under my care at the Prospect Park Zoo.

If your tortoise or iguana is maintained on natural foods for a portion of the year, the balance of the diet can be comprised of a high quality commercial tortoise or iguana chow.

Herbivorous Lizards

Green, rhinoceros and desert iguanas, Uromastyx spp., chuckwallas and other herbivorous lizards become very excited as soon as novel fresh foods are offered.  It is difficult to get across just how much they change in demeanor but, once seen, their reactions will quickly convince you of the value of your efforts.

Aquatic Turtles

Don’t forget your aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles – cooters, American and Asian box turtles, wood turtles, Amazon side-necks and a host of others relish greens, fruits and vegetables.  Actually, painted turtles and red-eared sliders should be gradually switched to a plant-based diet as they mature.  This may take some time and creativity, but is well-worth your efforts.

The Ever-Abundant Dandelion

Uromastyx eating dandelionApril and early May is dandelion-blooming time in the northern half of the USA, and nearly every herbivorous reptile relishes its leaves and, especially, the bright yellow flowers.  You can harvest this nutritious plant nearly anywhere…just be careful around homes as it is considered pest (a phenomenon that has baffled me since childhood!) and is often attacked with herbicides.

I have long used dandelion flowers to spur activity in zoo exhibits…by placing them in out-of-the-way locations, I was able to induce a great deal of interesting foraging behavior.  This was of such obvious value to the animals that I continue to freeze dandelions for winter use in my own and public collections.

Hardy Self-Starters

A number of plants that readily colonize bare patches of earth, and which need little care, are also highly valuable additions to reptile diets.  Especially hardy are clover (Trifolium), honeysuckle (Lonicera), thistle (Sonchus), bramble (Rubus) and various wild grasses.


Other types of browse that produce tasty stems, leaves and roots include various mallows (Malva), cat’s ears (Hypochoeris), Clamatis and Sedum.


Further Reading

Please see my article on Toxic Plants  for some cautions.  It was written with birds in mind, but is a good general reference.


  1. avatar

    Hello Mr. Indiviglio,
    I’ve been feeding plenty of greens to my Sliders lately and you are right, it’s a good way to satisfy their constant begging for food. They love a big handful of mustard greens floating in the tank and they spend hours picking away at it. The article on feeding greens to Sliders led me to this article and I noticed a recommended plant called a Clamatis and then, on the page with the list of possible toxic plants, the Clematis, which I know well, but I don’t know if the Clamatis is a plant or a typo. Google search returns Clematis for Clamatis!
    Great articles as usual!

    • avatar

      Hello DJ, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. Glad you have found greens to be of use – good way to avoid over-stuffed Sliders while keeping them busy at the same time! I see what you mean re the plant – I’ll check with sources that list each (ASPCA/ British Tortoise Assn.) and see if I can resolve it.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Would you please email me instructions for freezing dandelions? Thanks so much in advance.

    • avatar

      Hello Kevn, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      I rinsed the dandelions and then allowed them to dry before enclosing in plastic zip-lock bags. While working at the Bronx Zoo, policy was to freeze (tree foliage, for primates) plants without rinsing, then to rinse after defrosting…not sure if it made a difference in quality. The plants look withered and discolored upon defrosting, but are accepted by many animals (if less enthusiastically than fresh, perhaps); zoo nutritionists informed me that their quality remains relatively high.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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