Bonus content from the May 2010 REPTILES magazine article "Planting for Success."
There are situations where it is impossible to use live plants in vivaria. It may not be possible to provide substrate for them to grow in, or you may have a dry desert vivarium that requires some skill to use live plants. Perhaps your vivarium houses large herps that would eat or destroy live plants, etc.
In such situations, artificial plants can be used. While you can’t expect them to look as good as live plants, and they can’t perform the kind of environmental chores that live plants do, quality artificial plants, when used creatively, can create a naturalistic look for an attractive vivarium. Some artificial plants can be quite useful, even in vivaria with live plants. Simulated vines, for instance, can be used to create aerial walkways for certain arboreal herps.
Make sure you purchase artificial plants that are made specifically for use in vivaria or aquaria from a reptile or pet store, or on-line herp supplier. Many artificial plants purchased in craft stores and department stores may contain chemicals or other elements that can be harmful to herps. Also make sure artificial plants have no rough edges or protruding metal wires that may cause herps injury.
The best materials for artificial plants in vivaria are aquarium-rated plastics and other non-porous materials. Some materials used in making artificial plants, such as silk and other porous materials, tend to soak up or hold onto herp waste and dirt, and these can become a source of pollution and infection. Some herps drink by licking accumulated water droplets off of plant leaves, which can be a problem if the leaves are contaminated. Live plants tend to eliminate waste products on their leaves by sloughing them off when they respire and by absorbing and using them for nutrients. Artificial plants cannot do this, so it is important to keep them clean, just as you do your vivarium glass or other surfaces.
Exercise care in selecting your artificial plants, clean them on a regular basis, and keep an eye on them in the vivarium. If they appear to be retaining waste or dirt that you can’t get off, replace them.
Also remember that there are some herps, primarily some amphibians, that really need live plants. They are attuned to the plants’ textures, chemical signatures and color spectra (including wavelengths humans cannot see). For such herps, live plants, or their derivative materials, are essential and artificial plants should not be used. Examples would be treefrogs and arboreal dart frogs that rest or hide on leaves or in the axils of leaves, or lay eggs on leaves or in rolled-up leaves. Small leaf chameleons that live in leaf litter on forest floors also do better with real leaf litter.
Before using artificial plants, research the needs of your herp species or ask an expert to make sure there won’t be any problems.