Iguanas are popular pets among reptile enthusiasts, but keepers tend rarely include live plants in their enclosures as often as they do with many other species.
There are a variety of reasons for this, but with sufficient desire, effort, and planning, you can certainly install live plants in an iguana enclosure.
We’ll explain everything you need to know about adding live plants to your iguana’s enclosure below, including a few of the species that tend to work best in these situations.
We’ll begin by discussing a few of the reasons that iguana keepers rarely incorporate live plants as much as keepers of other species do.
The Best Plants for Iguana Habitats
The following plants are some of the best choices for iguana habitats.
But remember, there are many different types of iguanas, and they hail from very different environments.
So, be sure to select plants that are likely to survive in the same kind of conditions your pet requires.
In other words, cacti and other plants from arid regions are better suited for, say, spiny-tailed iguana habitats than they are for green iguana habitats.
The reverse is also true; tropical plants that thrive in humid environments are unlikely to do well in desert-style vivaria.
1. Sansevieria trifasciata
Commonly called mother-in-law’s tongue, Sansevieria trifasciata is a popular choice with many reptile keepers, as it is attractive, hardy, and exhibits an interesting growth habit.
It can survive in relatively dim light, which makes it a great choice for vivaria settings, and it can also survive with relatively little water.
You may be able to use Sansevieria trifasciata in a variety of habitats, including those at both ends of the humidity spectrum.
However, it is probably better suited for arid enclosures containing spiny-tailed or rock iguanas than it would be for jungle-dwellers, such as green iguanas.
This plant is often considered mildly toxic for dogs and cats, as those who consume it may experience digestive upset.
However, many keepers have used it in reptile habitats without noting any problems, and it is probably not terribly appealing to iguanas, given its tough, fibrous texture.
It is, however, important to note that the leaf tips of this plant are often very sharp and may cause physical injury, so caution is warranted.
2. Philodendron hederaceum
Often called the heartleaf philodendron, Philodendron hederaceum is a tropical plant that is often incorporated into reptile and amphibian vivaria.
It is best-suited for rainforest-style vivaria, making it more useful for green iguanas and similar species than those hailing from arid regions.
Native to Central America, this plant produces attractive, dark green, vaguely heart-shaped leaves.
It typically grows as a climbing vine, so it presents a lot of interesting possibilities for keepers. For example, it can be trained to wrap around branches, perches or other items in the habitat.
Most philodendrons are classified as mildly toxic to dogs and cats. They aren’t thought to contain poisonous compounds; rather, their tissues are full of insoluble calcium oxalate crystals.
These crystals can cause gastrointestinal upset and cause pets to vomit.
It isn’t clear whether iguanas can become sick after eating this plant, so caution is advised.
3. Tradescantia zebrina
Sometimes called the inch plant, Tradescantia zebrina is historically native to Central America, but it has been inadvertently spread to many other regions.
This highlights the plant’s adaptable and hardy nature, which explains one of the reasons it often works well in reptile habitats.
It typically grows near water in the wild, so it is best suited for humid vivaria. It can be grown as a ground cover or in hanging baskets.
You could probably even train it to grow up cork bark or hardware cloth sections, so you could conceivably use it as a backdrop in the habitat.
Tradescantia zebrina is often listed as being mildly toxic to cats and dogs, and it is sometimes known to cause skin irritation in humans.
Nevertheless, it is likely safe enough to try with iguanas – just be prepared to remove it if your pet begins displaying any troubling symptoms or eating it in large quantities.
4. Platycerium bifurcatum
Better known as the staghorn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum is native to Indonesia and Australia.
A very common species offered in home improvement stores and nurseries, this fern typically grows as an epiphyte, high above the forest floor.
Platycerium bifurcatum is especially well-suited for forest-dwelling iguanas, as it not only grows well in elevated locations within the habitat, but it is also thought to be safe.
Most authorities classify it as harmless to dogs and cats, and it is unlikely to sicken an iguana who nibbles on a leaf.
However, as mentioned earlier, there is a lot we don’t know regarding toxic plants and iguanas, so caution is always warranted.
5. Aechmea recurvata
Known as the urn plant or urn bromeliad, Aechmea recurvata is a South American plant that is very common in the horticultural industry.
There are a number of Aechmea species available, and many of the things discussed here about recurvata apply to its close relatives.
There are also a variety of recurvata cultivars available, from which hobbyists can choose.
Another plant that can grow in multiple ways, you can plant Aechmea recurvata directly into the substrate, in a traditional plant pot, or you can attach it to an aboveground branch like an epiphyte.
It will also tolerate relatively dim lighting, and it has pretty modest water requirements, which means it may work in arid or humid vivaria.
Aechmea recurvata is not thought to be toxic to humans or common domestic pets. Some do, however, bear spines along the edges of their leaves, which could conceivably cause injuries.
6. Nephrolepis exaltata
Often called the Boston or sword fern, Nephrolepis exaltata is a very popular houseplant that is available in just about every nursery and home improvement store.
It is generally considered non-toxic to humans, cats, dogs and horses, and it seems likely – yet, as with most other plants discussed here, not certain — that it is harmless to iguanas too.
This fern is well-suited for rainforest-style iguana enclosures, and you can plant it in a hanging basket or along the floor of the enclosure (either in a separate pot or installed directly into the substrate).
It can survive in low light levels, and it handles humid conditions pretty well.
Nephrolepis exaltata is a rather bushy, dense plant that takes up quite a bit of space.
This makes it useful for “filling out” a terrarium, camouflaging pots or other types of cage furniture, or providing visual barriers in the enclosure.
7. Epipremnum aureum
Typically sold under the name golden pothos, Epipremnum aureum is one of the most common plants used by reptile and amphibian keepers.
It thrives in most humid vivaria, as it will tolerate low light conditions, as well as substrates so damp that they’d quickly kill many other species.
You can even grow this plant hydroponically inside your habitats if you like.
There are a variety of cultivars of this plant available, and most will grow in several different ways.
You can plant them directly into the substrate as a ground cover, leave them in their pots to grow in a shrub-like form, or wrap the vine around branches.
The biggest issue with Epipremnum aureum relates to its potential toxicity. Most authorities agree that the plant is mildly to moderately toxic to humans, dogs and cats.
However, there is some anecdotal evidence that invasive green iguanas in Florida occasionally consume Epipremnum aureum growing outdoors.
Whether the plant is ultimately determined to be toxic to iguanas or not, the relative danger presented by this species seems pretty low, given there aren’t many published accounts of lizards becoming ill after being housed with the plant.
8. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is best known as the Chinese hibiscus, but ironically, we don’t know exactly where the plant originated.
In the modern world, it is widely cultivated as an ornamental, and the plant’s flowers are even used as a human food source in some parts of the world.
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is closely related to Hibiscus syriacus, and most things discussed below apply to both species.
Unfortunately, while Hibiscus plants will often grow well indoors, they require very high-quality light to bloom indoors. But even if they never bloom for you, they can still be excellent plants for use in a vivarium.
These plants can grow relatively large, which is also a benefit for iguana keepers.
Hibiscus plants are largely considered safe for iguanas to consume – many keepers deliberately feed the flowers to their iguanas (who, for their part, appear incredibly fond of them).
In fact, you may need to rotate Hibiscus plants regularly, to allow them to recover after your iguana feeds on them.
Plants in the genus Opuntia are known as prickly pear cacti. These plants are completely edible, save for the thorns some species and cultivars possess.
Indeed, prickly pear pads and fruit (with spines removed) represent good food sources for iguanas.
However, many forms do bear large, potentially dangerous spines, so caution is definitely warranted.
Opuntia cacti are not suitable for rainforest-style enclosures, but they are a great candidate for drier habitats containing spiny-tailed iguanas or other, similar species.
These cacti do require bright light, so you may find it necessary to move them outdoors occasionally.
The Challenges of Adding Plants to a Green Iguana Habitat
Iguanas present a few challenges to keepers who’d like to add plants to their lizard’s habitat. Two of the most notable include:
The Issue of Space
Because live plants take up a lot of enclosure space, they often force keepers to provide larger accommodations than they normally would.
For example, a 10-gallon aquarium may provide a couple of small anoles plenty of space, but you’d probably want to upgrade to a 20-gallon enclosure if you intend to give your lizards some live plants to enjoy.
But this is harder to do with many iguanas, who often require huge enclosures in the first place. Keepers just rarely have extra space available to accommodate even larger habitats.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t add live plants to your iguana’s habitat – you just need to be willing to construct a larger-than-usual enclosure and install the plants in sensible ways.
It can also be helpful to pay special attention to the growth habits of the plants you select, as some will work better in iguana habitats than others will.
For example, because iguana enclosures often provide a great deal of vertical space, epiphytes – plants that often grow above the ground on the branches of trees – can often be installed in places that won’t subtract from the usable space available to your pet.
Climbing vines can also provide a space-efficient way of incorporating live plants in your pet’s habitat.
Iguanas Are Herbivores
The second major challenge keepers face when adding plants to their iguana enclosure relates to the diet of these lizards: Most iguanas are herbivores (or omnivores who primarily subsist on plants), and they may consume any plants you add to the habitat.
This actually presents two problems:
- You may spend a lot of time and money adding plants to the habitat, only to look in one morning and see that your pet has devoured them.
- Some plants may be toxic or otherwise harmful to your lizard.
The best way to tackle the first issue is to either install plants in a manner that precludes your pet from accessing them or simply accept the fact that live plants may represent an on-going investment.
In fact, if you don’t mind coughing up cash for plants periodically, you can deliberately provide species known to be safe as a part of your pet’s regular diet.
The second issue is trickier to overcome, as there isn’t a lot of consensus regarding the plant species that are or are not dangerous for iguanas.
Most “toxic plant” lists consist of species that are known to be dangerous to dogs and cats – the relative danger they present to iguanas is unknown in most cases.
The author has observed several green iguanas completely defoliate large plants that are commonly considered toxic for dogs and cats, without suffering any apparent ill effects.
Additionally, “toxic” or “poisonous” plants vary wildly in terms of the danger they present.
Some may be deadly in minute quantities, while others only cause problems if large amounts are consumed.
Still others aren’t necessarily “toxic,” but by virtue of their chemical or mechanical properties, they may cause internal damage or illness.
So, all keepers need to determine for themselves how they will tackle the issue of plant toxicity when adding live plants to the enclosure.
We’ll explain any known issues with the plants recommended below, but be sure to do your own research and take whatever steps you can to prevent your iguana from eating anything that may cause him harm.
Are Artificial Plants Safe for Iguana Enclosures?
Given the challenges involved with adding live plants to an iguana enclosure, many keepers wonder if it would simply be easier to use artificial plants instead.
Unfortunately, this approach rarely offers any significant benefits.
Using artificial plants does eliminate the worry that your lizards will ingest something toxic – neither silk nor plastic are likely to be poisonous to your pet – but it creates another problem: If your lizard consumes artificial plants, he may choke or become obstructed.
This can result in serious, even fatal, health problems.
If you want to try artificial plants in your pet’s enclosure, just make sure that your iguana cannot possibly reach them, which isn’t always easy to do.
Even though artificial plants don’t smell like their real counterparts, iguanas are pretty visually oriented lizards, who’re happy to try anything that looks edible.
Tips and Tricks for Adding Plants to Your Iguana’s Habitat
Successfully maintaining plants in an iguana habitat requires you to be a bit of a scientist, as well as something of an artist.
So, make sure you learn from any mistakes you make, try not to become discouraged by setbacks, and consider utilizing some of the following recommendations:
- Keep your iguana well-fed to reduce the chances that he’ll consume the plants you install. Although this won’t always prevent your lizard from tasting leaves or flowers that he finds appealing, satiated iguanas are far less likely to nibble on the plants in their enclosure than those who’re always a bit hungry.
- When adding large plants (including those with a tree-like growth habit) to an iguana enclosure, it is usually easier to leave them in a separate pot than it is to bury them in the enclosure substrate. By doing so, you’ll be able to move or replace the plants easily, and you can simply camouflage the pots with corkbark or some other type of cage furniture.
- Hanging plant baskets often provide you with a good way to include vegetation that your pet is unlikely to access. You may be able to mount them from the enclosure ceiling or large branches, depending on the design of the habitat. Note that many plants can be installed in hanging baskets – you aren’t limited to those planted this way by the nursery.
- It may be helpful to maintain two sets of plants for your pet’s enclosure. By having two separate sets of plants, you can rotate them between your lizard’s habitat and a back porch or some other place that offers ideal growing conditions. This is especially helpful if you’re including edible species, as the plants will periodically have the chance to recover and produce new foliage.
- Understand that poisons or toxins aren’t the only dangers some plants present. Some common houseplants and ornamental species can cause physical injuries to your pet, so caution is advised. This not only includes plants with sharp thorns but also those that have sharp leaf tips too.
- Always be sure to wash off plants before adding them to your pet’s enclosure. You have no way of knowing what pesticides or herbicides were sprayed on the plants before you purchased them, so it is always a good idea to rinse off the leaves and stems with water when you get them.
Adding plants to an iguana enclosure certainly isn’t as easy a task as it is with some other popular pet reptiles, but it is possible.
Just remember to keep your pet’s safety in mind and take the time to prepare for the endeavor.
While we’ve tried to recommend species that are likely to be safe, there is little concrete information available regarding plant toxicity and iguanas.
So, be sure to thoroughly research any plant before adding it to your pet’s habitat.