What is a Terrarium? Container Explained

The word Terrarium derives from the Latin, terra – “earth” arium – “a place or receptacle”

Terrariums are diverse; they are containers, often made from glass to contain miniature ecosystems. They are used to display plants and flowers, small animals, and collections from nature; terrariums are gardens in a jar to enhance any indoor space.

Terrariums are a fantastic way of showcasing a selection of air plants to their best. They are an attractive design feature for any home or workspace and create an interesting talking point.

What are Air Plants?

Air plants are unlike traditional pot plants that use roots to drain moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Instead, their leaves are lined with a series of minute cells called trichomes. They absorb water, nutrients, and light from the atmosphere to promote healthy growth.

The ‘epiphytic’ plants use their tiny roots to attach themselves to a surface, often a tree, rock, stone, or cacti. They are not parasitic and drain nothing from the host; they simply gain shelter and co-exist.

Air plants are exotic, tropical plants that don’t need a container to grow. They live independently or as part of a display, often inside a terrarium.

The Best Terrariums for Air Plants

Most terrariums for air plants are round, teardrop, cube, or lantern-shaped. What they must have in common is an open-top or side to allow adequate ventilation and access.

terrarium examples

Air plants thrive in conditions with good airflow from which the trichomes absorb maximum moisture.

The opening is also necessary to construct the terrarium and giving the plants the regular watering they need.

There should be plenty of space to remove the plants every week to give the Tillandsia a thorough soaking, essential for their health and growth.

Transparent terrariums are best for air plants; they need several hours of indirect light each day. Colored glass or plastic prevents enough natural light from reaching the plants, resulting in their premature death.

The Best Air Plants for Terrariums

With more than 650 varieties of Tillandsia, the genus name for air plants, it is difficult knowing which are the best varieties for terrarium growth.

Always refer to the plant’s growing requirements and size possibilities before buying. Don’t overstock the available space; give each plant room to grow, flower, and shine.

Ionanthas are a species of air plant with many varieties. Most are well-suited to terrariums as they are small, hardy, and have leaves that blush and change color for long periods as they approach maturity.

Fuego, Rubra, Guatemala, Scaposa, and Mexican are just some of the available uniquely shaped Ionanthas.

Simple Terrarium
Simple Terrarium

Tillandsia Bulbosa thrives in open terrariums with plenty of airflow. These chaotic plants have long, spindly leaves reminiscent of creatures from the depths of the ocean. They bloom deep violet, red, and vivid plum shades and rarely surpass 4″ They are stunning, resilient plants to build a display around.

Tillandsia Seleriana reminds us of a small artichoke with its thick, thirsty leaves covered in trichomes. The blade-like leaves grow upwards; the plant suits a taller or teardrop-shaped terrarium. It is slow-growing, reaching heights of around 35cm at maturity when the leaves blush stunning pastel shades.

T. Capitata Peach is a pretty air plant with wide-spreading velvety leaves that are soft, greenish-gray. Its name is derived from the color they change in preparation for blooming. Each leaf turns shades of orange and peach before a single deep violet inflorescence appears.

T. Brachycaulos V. Multiflora comes in many varieties; take care to buy the small-sized plant for a terrarium; giant Multiflora reach 30cm tall. Their long, dark leaves arc downwards as they grow before turning stunning shades of red and gold. As the name suggests, each plant has several flowers, tubular inflorescences in vivid violet, white, and yellow tones.

The Best Air Plants for Open Terrariums

There are two primary groups of Tillandsia: Mesic and Xeric. They are classified depending upon their native climate and environment.

Mesic plants grow best in the low-light of tree canopies in rainforests. They have greener leaves, like indirect sunlight, and require frequent watering.

Xeric plants are from arid, drought-tolerant regions as such, they are hardier and need less frequent watering. They grow on rocks, cliff faces, and cacti and handle sunlight.

They store moisture in their thick, silvery leaves as they’re unsure where the next drink might come from.

It is advisable to choose a range of air plants from one or the other category. That way, their care needs are similar; they prefer the same temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions. All the plants in the terrarium can be misted or soaked simultaneously.

What are Terrariums Made From?

The purpose of a terrarium is to display your air plants collectively. They bring nature indoors and complement your décor.

Therefore, terrariums need to be transparent; why spend time, effort, and money designing a display that no one can see?

Glass Terrariums

The best-suited materials are glass and plastic.

Glass purpose-made terrariums are readily available in nurseries, gardening stores, or online. Most are round balls or teardrop-shaped; others are lanterns made from glass panels between a metal framework.

Although colored glass terrariums are available, they are not ideal as the color tint filters out some of the light spectrum necessary for the healthy growth of air plants.

Plastic Terrariums

Plastic is cheaper, lighter, and more versatile; unfortunately, it doesn’t have a long life expectancy and will discolor over time.

Plastic terrariums are a valuable, cheap way of getting children interested in air plants and their cultivation.

Things to Use to Make a Terrarium

Disused fish tanks of all shapes and sizes make perfect terrariums to display wide varieties of Tillandsias.

Ensure the tank is thoroughly clean and dry before constructing a display; any moisture residue might cause root rot, the enemy of air plants.

Fish tanks have ready-made covers that allow easy access to plants.

Oversized wine glasses and goblets make fantastically personalized terrariums in contemporary living spaces.

Large glass bottles and jars allow for modern displays, whatever their size. The neck has to be wide enough to add the plants and other materials. It should also allow easy access at watering times.

Every household has plastic containers lying around, waiting to be recycled. Food and drink packaging is easy to repurpose into a terrarium, ideal for kids to get imaginative.

They are lightweight, great for making into hanging decorations. Their biggest downfall is the aesthetic appearance; hardly high-end interior design!

It is possible to repurpose most glass or plastic receptacles into an air plant terrarium. They should be large enough to hold at least one or two Tillandsia, have a hole for ventilation and access, and allow plenty of light onto the plants.

Ceramic, terracotta, or containers with drainage holes won’t suit tropical air plants; they would prove detrimental to their health.

Constructing a Terrarium

The best terrariums have a theme or a particular design; Desert, beach, the shore, or jungle are some of the styles that suit air plants.

Choose Tillandsia to compliment your theme. Don’t overfill the terrarium; the plants will grow and don’t want to fight for space, light, and moisture.

air plants in terrarium

Single plants often look great alone in an interesting setting. Two or three contrasting types work best if space allows.

If you choose a hanging terrarium, choose air plants with lots of pups that thrive in cascading clumps. It adds an extra dimension to a display.

Choose a Growing Medium

Tillandsia does not need soil; use a different medium to build the first level. It should be well-draining so as not to cause root rot.

tillandsia terrarium

Sand works well; colored sand and aquarium gravel have many color variations.

Add a Layer of Interest

A second layer adds interest and contrast to the arrangement. Glass beads, gravel, white stone chippings work well.

Third Layer

Next is the fun layer where you can get creative. Depending on your theme or styling, add stones, marbles, driftwood, coral, pine cones, twigs, rope, seashells, anything to create an outdoor setting.

Ensure everything is clean and thoroughly dry before placing it in the terrarium.

Any wood should be untreated; paint toxins are lethal to air plants.

Add the Plants

Tuck the plants into the best positions, use a dot of glue or a piece of twine to hold them in place if you prefer. Remember that they need water regularly, and you will have to lift them from the terrarium.

Don’t be tempted to tuck them down to the base layer of sand; the retained moisture damages plants.

Site the Terrarium

Choose an area with lots of free-flowing air and plenty of indirect or artificial light.

Care for your air plants with frequent, appropriate watering. As a general rule of thumb, most plants should be misted every 2 or 3 days and have a good soak once every week or two.

Final Thoughts

Terrariums are display containers to best showcase a variety of air plants. Tillandsia needs open sides to receive plenty of aeration and moisture.

The only thing limiting your design is imagination. Enlist the kid’s help, build a Sponge Bob underwater setting, or stick with a classic design to complement the décor.

The choice is endless; a string of fairy lights will even show the terrarium off after dark.

Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh is a writer with deep roots in the soil of western New Hampshire. His first experiences with gardening were at the age of 10 where his parents allowed him to plant and cultivate his first vegetable garden. Twenty years later he’s continued with his passion for gardening and actively rescues abandoned plant life.