Home | Terrariums and Vivariums | Terrarium Safe Plants: Tips for Avoiding Pesticides

Terrarium Safe Plants: Tips for Avoiding Pesticides


African violet

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by רנדום

Each year, a wider variety of beautiful and interesting live plants becomes available to keepers of amphibians, reptiles, scorpions, tarantulas and other terrarium animals. Responsible suppliers to the pet trade should propagate plants without relying upon pesticides, but many hobbyists are rightly concerned about the possibility of poisoning their pets. While working at the Bronx Zoo, I had access to professional horticulturists who provided me with some safety measures one can employ to assure that plants are safe for use in terrariums.


Pesticide Types and Uses

Pesticides may be classified by the site at which they exert their effects. Surface pesticides remain on stems and leaves, and are usually mixed with adherents in order to improve their sticking power. Adherents are chemical compounds that may also be harmful to terrarium animals. Systemic pesticides diffuse into plant tissues – these are less commonly used on house and terrarium plants than are surface-acting chemicals.


Many species that are marketed as house plants are much favored by animal-keepers as well. Included among these are pothos, peace lilies, Chinese evergreens, cast iron plants and snake plants. These plants have almost certainly been treated with pesticides, as they are grown in large propagation operations, and not specifically sold for use in terrariums.


Carpet moss

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)

Various ferns, mosses, bromeliads and carnivorous plants raised by those who target pet keepers as customers may or may not be pesticide free (please see below, and post a comment for further information).


Risks to Reptiles and Amphibians

The skins and exoskeletons of reptiles and most commonly-kept invertebrates may be relatively impervious to pesticide poisoning by casual contact. However, traces may enter the animal if tracked onto food, or, perhaps, via the pedipalps of spiders. Herbivorous species may also sample plants, including those generally considered to be distasteful.


Red eyed treefrog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Charlesjsharp

Amphibians are very sensitive to chemicals of any type. Their porous skins allow substances as small as oxygen molecules to enter the body, and pesticide toxicity has been well-documented in field and lab studies (I once observed autopsies of male African Clawed Frogs that had been exposed to a common pesticide…the unfortunate fellows had developed ovaries!). While tree frogs and others that spend their time on plants are most at risk, pesticides can also diffuse through the tough skins of desert dwellers such as the Colorado River Toad.


Detoxifying Terrarium Plants

Plants treated with surface pesticides can be rendered safe by washing with water. Be sure to rub the leaves, stems and roots with a clean sponge, and rinse well; submerging the plant and swishing it about afterwards is also useful. I always discard the soil that arrives with plants, as pesticides that have dripped off the foliage during application will accumulate there. Vinegar, lemon oil and other products are frequently recommended as well, but I’ve not found these to be necessary.


Long-nosed Chameleon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flickr upload bot

There aren’t any well-established practices where systemic (absorbed) pesticides are concerned. Horticulturist co-workers at the Bronx Zoo suggested a 30 day waiting period before any suspect plant was placed into an exhibit. I did well with that protocol at the zoo, and have continued to use it in my personal collection.


Sources of Pesticide-Free Plants

Most terrarium plant suppliers rely (or claim to rely!) upon pesticide-free growing practices. I do not have much recent experience with any of the major growers, but can ask colleagues in the zoo and private trade for their opinions if you are unsure of your source. Please post any questions or comments below.




Further Reading


The Peace Lilies in the Terrarium


Wild-Caught Insects as Reptile Food: Pesticide Concerns

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

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.
Scroll To Top