How to make a carnivorous plant terrarium

How to make a carnivorous plant terrarium

tank terrarium for carnivorous plants

Terrariums are a spectacular way to grow many carnivorous plants. They maintain high humidity, keep temperatures constant, allow in ample light to keep plants happy, and provide a porthole through which you can monitor your plant’s progress. They’re also an elegant way to put plants on display as beautiful indoor and outdoor decorations. Who wouldn’t want to ogle an exotic carnivorous plant through the looking glass?!

Carnivorous plants that do well in terrariums

Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) – Great candidates. They don’t require high humidity, but greatly appreciate it. Flytraps stay relatively small, so are good candidates for ornamental terrariums. Respect dormancy periods.

Tropical Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes) – Will require larger terrariums that maintain high humidity, with some ventilation. Nepenthes are hard to grow outdoors in many areas, so fish tank terrariums and greenhouses are the most common way to grow them.

Sundews (Drosera) – many can be displayed in smaller ornamental terrariums. For larger collections, or plants that need room to spread out (I’m looking at you Drosera binata dichotoma ‘Giant’), larger fish tank-type terrariums will be better.

Butterworts (Pinguicula) – Some species really need the higher humidity of a fish tank terrarium, while others simply enjoy it. Many can be grown in shallow, ornamental terrariums, but remember to respect dormancy periods.

Sun Pitcher Plants (Heliamphora) – Enjoy high humidity, and some get fairly large, so I’d recommend using a fish tank terrarium, here.

Australian Pitcher Plants (Cephalotus) – Enjoy the higher humidity and temperature controls, so use a fish tank terrarium for Cephalotus.

Types of terrariums and when to use them

enclosed ornamental terrarium

Enclosed ornamental terrarium – make elegant displays, and bring an old school botany vibe. This makes your already exotic plants look even more curious – like they are specimens imported from a far away land. These terrariums are simple to setup – simply plant the carnivore directly in the terrarium base in the preferred soil mix, or keep your plants in individual pots and place them within the terrarium. You can decorate with ornamental long fibered sphagnum moss. Place them in windowsills for ample light. Be aware of heat that can build up in these containers when they’re exposed to direct sunlight – you don’t want to cook your plants!

open terrarium Open terrarium – make great centerpieces and give you and your guests the best unobstructed view of your carnivorous plants. It also exposes your plants to the space they are in, which means they can assist in trapping natural house pests. This same exposure does have some disadvantages, though – primarily, temperature will be at ambient room temperature and humidity will be on-par with the room they are in. This isn’t ideal, but many carnivorous plants will adapt. Also keep lighting conditions in mind – you’ll need a sunny windowsill to keep your plants happy.

Fish tank terrariumFish Tank Terrarium – a more utilitarian option for enthusiastic growers. Fish tanks terrariums require more investment and initial setup, but are much more flexible with the types of carnivorous plants you can grow in them. Use them for larger plants like Nepenthes, or if you have many smaller plants that you’d like to grow. They’re ideal when high-humidity and temperature control is required, such as during seed germination and cutting propagation. They can also be used to quarantine and monitor plants with a pest infestation – to keep them away from other healthy plants during treatment. Tank terrariums are also good for “off season” growing. I’ve always grown my indoor carnivorous plants in fish tanks with florescent grow lights sitting on top. They come in two materials worth considering:

  • Glass terrariums – glass is a decent thermal insulator, keeping temperatures inside relatively predictable. Glass tanks will retain heat, though, so cooler grow lights (like LEDs and fluorescents, discussed below) are required. If you’re going to put a glass terrarium outside, it should be out of direct sun – choose a shadier area under a tree or awning. Make sure to also pair your plants with this shadier environment. Glass is also fragile, and will chip and crack relatively easily.
  • Acrylic Terrariums – with better light transparency, lighter weight, and greater strength, acrylic terrariums are a great alternative to glass. They are less scratch resistant, so you will have to be careful with grittier soils and sand scraping surfaces.

Terrarium lighting

florescent grow lights

Fluorescent Grow Lights – florescent terrarium lighting is the best bang for the buck option. Florescents are inexpensive, have a decent lifespan, and are beaten only by LEDs in energy efficiency. Newer generation T5 bulbs will last about 20,000 hours. You have the option of tuning the light your plants receive using bulbs with a cooler or warmer light spectrum. Bulbs in the cooler light spectrum mimic winter months, and warmer bulbs will mimic summer months. It’s good to have both spectrums represented to more closely mimic natural light, but in a 4 bulb setup, you may want 3 of one type and 1 of the other.

LED grow lights LED Grow Lights – the Rolls Royce of grow lights, LEDs are cutting edge lighting technology, cool-running, hyper-efficient, and can last up to ten years. They tend to be more expensive than equivalent fluorescents lights, but like with any newer technology, price is coming down with time. You will save money on electricity bills and replacement bulbs due to their long life and energy efficiency, but the payback period to justify the higher upfront costs may be a few years out. Another neat LED feature is that they often come in light spectrums that are tuned to provide plants with only the wavelengths of light needed to foster healthy growth. This makes them even more efficient than other bulbs that convert energy into wavelengths of light plant’s don’t readily use to build new cellular structures. However, this feature also gives LED grow lights their characteristic pink hue which may be odd mood lighting indoors, and won’t visibly highlight the beautiful colors that many carnivorous plants contain.

For equivalent light coverage as a 24 inch, 4-bulb florescent fixture, I would get two of these units, or one of these ones.

High pressure sodium grow lights High Pressure Sodium Grow Lights (HPS) – a more traditional high-output grow light, high pressure sodium grow lights are good for large-scale growing conditions, but probably not for terrariums. They throw a tremendous amount of lumens, a measurement of the intensity of light, which allows them to penetrate thick canopies of leaves to reach lower branches. They are in the warmer spectrum and give off a yellow-orange light wavelength. Imagine the common orange glow of street lamps at night, and you know what high pressure sodium grow lights will look like. Lifespan is about 20,000 hours, and they are not energy efficient, relative to the lumens/wattage ratio of florescent and LED grow lights. There are also more costs to consider with High pressure sodium bulbs. For instance, most require an external ballast (use a digital one for energy efficiency, to prolong bulb lifespan, and to warm up bulbs faster on startup) to regulate power flow. The bulbs are oval, and suspended horizontally, so you’ll almost certainly want a reflector hood to direct light that would otherwise be directed upwards, to be reflected down towards your plant. There are all-in-one solutions that you should consider if HPS is something you’d like to experiment with. Considering their overall inefficiency at turning watts into lumens, they also produce lots of wasted energy in the form of heat – the bulbs get untouchably hot when they’re warmed up – and this will require venting and cooling in tighter growing areas. If you go with HPS bulbs, be prepared to run the air conditioning frequently, and do not rest the light on top of your terrarium.

metal halide grow lightsMetal Halide Grow Lights – the sister bulb to high pressure sodium bulbs, metal halide grow lights have many of the same advantages and disadvantages as HPS lights. The real difference is that they throw a cooler spectrum of light that mimics natural winter lighting conditions more accurately. Metal halides can be used alongside HPS bulbs for a fuller spectrum, or at different times during the year as replacements to HPS bulbs to produce more natural “seasons” for carnivorous plants. Like high pressure sodium bulbs, metal halide bulbs will produce waste heat, require ballasts, hood reflectors, and are likely overkill for most terrarium setups. Here, again, there are all-in-one solutions, so don’t let me stop you from experimenting!

Monitoring temperature & humidity in a terrarium

Digital Thermometer and Humidity Gauge

Digital Thermometer and Humidity Gauge – Easily readable, digital thermometers and hygrometers are sensitive and accurate, but will require occasional battery replacements.

Analog Thermometer and Humidity GaugeAnalog Thermometer and Humidity Gauge – Analog terrarium hygrometer and thermometers are simple and don’t need batteries, but are a little less accurate and responsive than their digital counterparts. This probably won’t be an issue unless you’re concerned about rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity.

Controlling temperature & humidity in a terrarium

terrarium fanA small, inexpensive terrarium fan will help with cooling a terrarium, and air circulation in a terrarium. Some air circulation is important for healthy plant growth and helps reduce mold and fungus problems. Place the fan at a top opening of your carnivorous plant terrarium, and angle the airflow down, into the terrarium. Try to avoid creating a windstorm for your plants by angling the fan against a pane of glass. It’s a good idea to put a fan on a cycle timer to have it turn on every fifteen minutes for one minute. This keeps fresh air and circulation good, and avoids vacating too much of the valuable humidity.

Under Tank Heating Mat

Under Tank Heating Mat and Heating Controller – Heat radiated by florescent grow lights will go far in warming your terrarium. In fact, I frequently have to put spacers between my florescent lights and the top glass of my terrarium to create an air gaps and keep the tank cooler. If you rest the light fixture on top of the tank, you’re not likely to have issues keeping the tank warm, but there are exceptions. If your terrarium will be in a cold corner, use a heating pad or seed germination mat under the base of a fish tank style terrarium to increase temperature by a few degrees. Pair it with a controller that will automatically, actively monitor temperature, and turn the heating element on and off to maintain a steady environment.

Feeding carnivorous plants in terrariums

Live Mealworms

Live Mealworms – These little critters can easily be purchased online or picked up at pet food stores, and are great for Nepenthes, Cephalotus, Heliamphora, and large Venus flytraps. Drop these directly into the plant’s trap. Keep them refrigerated between feedings to prolong their lives and viability as plant food.

Live CricketsLive Crickets – Good in tanks that don’t have water pooling at the bottom (otherwise they’ll drown and rot). Similar to meal worms, the are good for Nepenthes, Cephalotus, Heliamphora, and large Venus flytraps. Keep in mind that crickets do “chirp,” so don’t use live ones if the noise will bother you.

Wingless Fruit FliesWingless Fruit Flies – these come as kits that you can use to grow your own fruit flies, which make great food for Sundews, Butterworts, small Venus Flytraps, and even Nepenthes. Once grown, simply puncture a small hole in the top of the lid, turn the container over, and sprinkle your plants with food. Reseal the lid with tape to prevent fruit fly escape.

Dried InsectsDried Insects – for folks not into the idea of feeding live insects to their carnivorous plants, here’s a simple solution: dead insects! This option is a bit of a grab-bad of different critters that can be fed to plants for a well-rounded nutritional mix. Pick up a pair of forceps, and you won’t even have to touch them!

carnivorous plant terrarium-openI hope this clearly outlines all of your options and helps you decide which carnivorous plant terrarium setup is right for you. With all of these considerations, it may seem a little daunting, but follow the recommended links and you’ll be off to a good start. Leave comments and questions below and I’ll be happy to get back to you with answers! Cheers, and happy growing!

By |2017-04-06T17:49:11+00:00April 6th, 2017|Cultivation, Propagation|20 Comments

About the Author:

Carnivorous plant grower, entrepreneur, product manager, designer, tech junkie, car nut, Halloween enthusiast. Actively making my hobbies and fascinations a key focus of my life.

20 Comments

  1. Tomika Woods June 9, 2017 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    I want live plants but it would be thrilling to watch them grow. Could you tell me if it is safer to transplant them or start from the seed? Can I grow pitcher plants, sundew savages, and venus flytraps together? Where is the best place to purchase them? I think that would be absolutely beautiful gift for my son.

    • David Fefferman June 9, 2017 at 1:09 pm - Reply

      Howdy Tomika! Pitcher plants and Venus flytraps do great together. Many sundews (like Drosera capensis, D. binata, D. filiformis, etc) will thrive with them, as well. Other sundews (like tropical sundews) require different conditions and won’t do well in an environment acclimated for your other carnivores.
      Transplanting is a perfectly safe option. In fact, if you’re a newer grower, I recommend it. You’ll have mature plants, faster (some pitcher plants take 5+ years to fully mature from seed) and the terrarium will look great from day 1. If you’re going to go this route, it’s best to transplant in late winter or early spring towards the end of their dormancies to avoid stressing and weakening the plants.
      A couple of great places to purchase them are World’s Rare Plants, and California Carnivores.
      Let us know how it goes when you pick up the plants!

  2. Tomika Woods June 9, 2017 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Thank you! I have one more question. I have a 10 gallon tank, how many Viparspectra LED lights should I get?

  3. Robert Johnson July 12, 2017 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    I love the glass container with the assortment of carnivores within it. The picture of it was next to your statement cheers and happy growing. By the way your article was great and very informative. I think now I’m going to give this a try. P.s. Was there a little bit of water in the bottom of the glass container. Thank you

    • David Fefferman July 13, 2017 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Hey Robert, thanks for checking out Carnivorous Plant Resource and your kind words! I’m glad the article was useful for you. How much water depends on what type of plant you’re growing. If you’re growing Sarracenia/North American pitcher plants in an undrained container, just make sure not to overwater – you don’t want the roots soaking wet for extended periods of time.

  4. Gary September 12, 2017 at 2:20 am - Reply

    I got a few questions for u in regards to using a fish tank. Can I put any small animals in with my venus flytraps, such as some fire belly toads just trying to spice up the tank a bit. the tank is more than big enough to set up a pool at one end where they will pretty much stay close to all the time, was just wondering.

    • David Fefferman September 12, 2017 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      Howdy, Gary. You can definitely intermingle plants and animals, but do keep in mind that if the toad is small enough to fit in a trap, it’s small enough to be a meal. It’s not unheard of for small frogs and lizards to get eaten by large flytraps.

  5. Gary September 13, 2017 at 7:19 am - Reply

    ok got a different question what are the biggest types of flytraps ? Can you over feed your flytraps ? I’ve been catching flies and small crickets and grass hoppers for my plants and once in a while a worm which comes from moths. When and how many plants are open I will get enough for each trap is that to much at one time. Thanks for getting back to me and as quickly as you did ,have a great day.

    • David Fefferman September 13, 2017 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Happy to help, Gary! Title of “largest Venus flytrap” is constantly changing as new varieties are hybridized or mutated in tissue culture all the time. The largest I’ve personally seen are B-52 flytraps and King Henry flytraps.
      On the question of “can you overfeed a Venus flytrap?” – Well, yes and no. Each trap is good for 1-3 meals. Triggering traps and digesting food requires energy from the flytrap and the payoff from digestion can be delayed. Triggering too many traps with food within a short span of time will temporarily weaken the plant in the short-term, but be fine in the long-term. After overfeeding, you may have a plant produce a few smaller traps until it has a chance to recover. I just try to imagine how sleepy and lazy I feel after a big meal – it’s kind-of like that. It shouldn’t do any serious harm, though.
      My outdoor plants in Southern California catch their own food and do great without my assistance. For indoor or terrarium plants, I’d suggest something along the lines of 1 meal for every 3 traps on the plant every week. By the end of the third week, either the first trap you fed will be reopened, or a new trap should be pretty well developed to replace it.

  6. Calli October 27, 2017 at 12:21 am - Reply

    I have a question. What kind of plants do you suggest for a small fish tank, it’s only about 2 gal. And tall. I really would like to convert it to a terrarium. And what light that that as well please.

    • David Fefferman October 27, 2017 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Howdy Calli – thanks for the question! It depends on how tall your tank is and your ability to care for the plants inside. If you’re new to growing carnivorous plants, you could go with a Sarracenia purpurea (a squatter North American pitcher plant). Or, perhaps some large Venus flytraps? If you’re looking for really low maintenance, try something like a Drosera capensis. Or, you could always try planting a few of these together to make a mini-bog garden!
      If you’re a bit more advanced, you could try a Cephalotus/Australian pitcher plant, Heliamphora/Sun pitcher plant or some more exotic Sundews.
      2 gallons will probably be too small for most Nepenthes or larger Sarracenia.
      On lighting, since your tank will be a bit narrow for long florescent lights, you could try windowsill growing or a smaller LED light like this one.
      Hope this helps, and let me know if you have more questions. Happy growing!

  7. Jasdip Sagu June 14, 2018 at 5:12 am - Reply

    Hello

    Great article!

    Would drosera aliciae, drosera capensis and heliamphora do well together?

    My glad jar with lid is around 20cm diameter and about 40cm tall…

    • David Fefferman June 14, 2018 at 11:37 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jasdip! Drosera capensis is the most forgiving of the plants you’re asking about – no required dormancy, and so hardy and prolific, that it can become a weed in carnivorous plant collections. I grow mine outside in Southern California with no humidity, and frequent 90°F+ temperatures.
      Like Drosera capensis, D. aliciae is also from South Africa, and has similar overall growing conditions. It’s similarly robust, and these sundews go together like peanut butter and jelly.
      Heliamphora are going to require the most particular growing conditions out of this group. Sun pitcher plants generally like more well-drained soils compared to these sundews. High humidity and air circulation are important, so optimize your terrarium for Heliamphora conditions, and watch for progress of the sundews. If you can keep the Heliamphora and Drosera in separate, optimal soils, you will be fine as temperature and humidity shouldn’t be a problem for the sundews (and may actually benefit them).

  8. Jasdip Sagu June 14, 2018 at 5:16 am - Reply

    Great article!

    Looking to create a closed-top terrarium or even open…

    Would drosera aliciae, drosera capensis and heliamphora do well together?

    My glass jar with lid is around 20cm diameter and about 40cm tall…

    • David Fefferman June 14, 2018 at 11:46 am - Reply

      Hi Jasdip – just seeing the comment on a glass jar – may be a little snug for all of these plants – Drosera aliciae is a small, rosetted sundew, so should be fine. Heliamphora, depending on the species, may outgrow that size fairly quickly. D. capensis can get larger than 20cm in diameter. Soil requirements are a little different, as well, but may not be a deal-breaker simply because D. capensis and D. aliciae are so hardy and tolerant of varied conditions.
      If you’re going to close the jar terrarium, you also have to consider height limitations including soil depth in the equation. Some Heliamphora will outgrow this space.

  9. Dale June 17, 2018 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Hi David, coud you recommend a substrate for the terrarium to grow plants in? I want to grow plants that dont requrie a dormany period, so I was thinking a mix of heliamphora and drosera so could you recommend a mix that would suit both?

    No worries if not, and thank you so much in advance either way. This website is incredibly useful.

    • David Fefferman June 17, 2018 at 8:08 pm - Reply

      Hi Dale, thanks for writing and the kind words! There are many combinations of carnivorous plants that meet the “no dormancy” criteria. If you’d like to stick to Heliamphora and Drosera, you’re going to want to optimize for the Heliamphora which like a well-drained soil. You can probably find a Drosera that will tolerate these conditions – capensis, aliciae, spatulata, etc. I’d try a substrate mix comprised of half sphagnum peat moss, and an equal mix of perlite, fine orchid bark, pumice, and lava rock. Optionally, you can also throw in a little long-fibered sphagnum moss to give the Drosera roots a little something to wrap around. Happy growing!

  10. J. Brotnov September 8, 2018 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Hello. Nice site. A lot of good ideas, and I have a question.
    I bought a Cape Sundew in Seattle, and when I returned to my home in the Central Valley, installed it in a terrarium with 1/2 sphagum/1/2 perilite mixture for the soil, then a mesh divider, with glass beads in place of the charcoal. It’s doing ok, but some of the newer leaves are a paler green than the rest. So I got a plant light, which is on for about 5 hours during the day, until the sun reaches around to that part of the house.
    Then I read that you live in SoCa and that you grow your sundews outside! Doesn’t the dryness pose a problem? Is the plant in a pot, or a dish or what? How often is it watered? My front deck gets about 5-6 hours of sunlight, and while the aloe vera love it, I was afraid the heat would cook the D. Capesis.
    Any advice?
    Thanks

    • David Fefferman September 9, 2018 at 7:52 pm - Reply

      Hey, thanks for the kind words! Cape Sundews are one of the most robust carnivorous plants you can get and when I’ve seen them struggling, it tends to be because folks are over-thinking their care. They are literal weeds in my Southern California outdoor collection – spreading through thousands of tiny seed and surviving 115°F weather. More light is more better. The ones I do have potted up as specimens are in 3-4 inch plastic pots, and I use the water tray method (plants sitting in a couple inches of reverse-osmosis water at all times). As soon as the water dries up, I simply refill the tray. How often you have to fill up the tray will depend on the weather, the size of the tray you are using, and how many plants you have sitting in it. Hope this helps, and happy growing!

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