Safe Plants For Box Turtle Habitats

What plants are toxic to box turtles?

You need to set up a habitat for your pet turtle before you buy or adopt them. 

However, you may be wondering how vital their wild habitats are in forming a new captive one. 

Are there recommended plants for different subspecies? 

What benefits do plants provide for a turtle?

We’ll answer this and more! 

safe plants for box turtle habitats

Safe Plants For Box Turtle Habitats

When looking for plants for your box turtle’s enclosure, consider the plants you would find in their native habitats first. These vary by species of box turtle, so do your research before choosing a plant.

Wild box turtles will eat and forage for wild vegetation in their native habitats. 

Therefore, you should stick with plants which mimic their native foliage as closely as possible.

You need to make sure whatever plants you put in your turtle’s habitat are not toxic to them specifically. 

Do not rely on lists of plants which are safe or toxic for mammals. 

Box turtles can eat and digest vegetation, even mushrooms, which may poison or kill a mammal. 

For best growth indoors, houseplants which do well in low light are highly recommended.

It is very likely whatever plant you buy will get munched on by your pet at some point. 

Not only is it important the plant is not toxic for turtles it is also essential it has not been treated with pesticides and herbicides. 

Most plant stores will use pesticides and herbicides on the plant and its soil. 

If you buy a plant from a store, make sure to wash it well and repot it before putting it in your turtle’s enclosure. 

Growing plants from seeds present less of an issue, as long as you are growing them without pesticides. 

You should still wash them thoroughly, just in case.

If you choose ornamental plants, make sure to feed them to your turtle in moderation and observe the effects before feeding them more or permanently installing them.

Big List Of Plants For Box Turtles

While some plants are great for your turtle to munch and hide under regularly, some are only appropriate as occasional treats, and some should be avoided altogether.

Non Toxic Plants

  • A variety of leaf lettuces (excluding romaine and iceberg)
  • Nontoxic grasses like prairie grasses
  • Ferns: great shade and ground cover plants
  • Mosses: great for layering with the substrate, help retain moisture and humidity
  • Shrub Oak
  • Sagebrush
  • Wildflowers and Wildflower Mixes
  • Safe Herbs like parsley
  • Safe Vegetables and Fruits
  • Clover
  • Alfalfa
  • Collard greens
  • Pokeweed

Plants Safe in Small Amounts

  • Pansies
  • Pothos: These are high in oxalic acid and may interfere with calcium absorption
  • Grape Leaves and Fruit
  • Dandelion Leaves and Flower Heads
  • Day Lilies
  • Green Bean Leaves and Pods
  • Squash and Zucchini Flowers
  • Mulberry plant: While the berries are too sweet to be fed too often, your turtle can munch on a leaf just fine

Toxic Plants For Turtles

This is not intended to be a complete list. These specimens should be avoided, as they are potentially high in compounds which may make your box turtle sick.

  • Aloe Vera
  • Amaryllis
  • Sweet pea seeds
  • Shasta daisies
  • Avocado
  • Azalea
  • Bird of paradise
  • Calla lily
  • Boxwood
  • The entire buttercup family
  • Columbine
  • Creeping charlie: usually classified as a weed, make sure to pull it if you find it in an outdoor turtle enclosure
  • Daffodil
  • Carnation
  • All Ficus plants
  • Lily of the valley
  • Tomato vine, fruit too high in phosphorous
  • Spider Mum
  • Poinsettia

What Should I Do If My Box Turtle Has Eaten A Toxic Plant?

If you suspect your turtle has eaten a toxic plant, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Signs of toxic plant consumption include:

  • Choking
  • Excess Salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions
  • Paralysis

It is better to err on the side of caution if you are unsure if a plant is toxic for your box turtle. 

Different sources may have different opinions on one plant and whether it is safe.

Do Box Turtles Need Plants?

Technically, box turtles do not need plants in their enclosures. 

However, a few appropriate plants may add mental stimulation, shaded areas necessary to prevent overheating, and extra vegetation to snack on.

Plants are especially great if you have an outdoor environment set up for your box turtle. Since many box turtle substrates are also suitable for planting, you do not need a plant pot. 

You should make sure there is some drainage. 

Many owners will install a layer of rocks underneath their turtles’ substrates for drainage. 

Make sure you do not put soil with styrofoam particles in your turtle’s environment, as styrofoam is harmful if ingested and may stick from static to your turtles.

If you have an indoor enclosure, sticking to potted plants is recommended.

How Do I Set Up A Box Turtle Habitat?

You should set up your box turtle’s habitat before you even buy or adopt it. 

Learn as much as possible about your subspecies’s habitat in the wild to best replicate it and provide your turtle with the proper ground cover, plant life, and temperature and humidity.

Only use aquariums for sick turtles, hatchlings, non-hibernating turtles, or turtles under quarantine. Box turtles do not generally like glass aquariums as homes. 

A box turtle in an aquarium will scratch at the corner, attempting to escape before giving up and losing its appetite.

Indoor and Outdoor Needs

You will need a sturdy water source. 

We recommend a dish big enough to soak in since turtles usually get their water from soaking and not drinking. 

However, it should be shallow enough your turtle will soak happily without drowning. 

Digging a recess for it in the substrate is a great way to ensure no tipping, and your turtle will be able to get in and out safely.

At least one hide box and a selection of logs will help your turtle feel secure and safe. 

It will also provide them with shaded spaces to prevent overheating. Install a shady area as well. 

Plants, like ferns and dwarf apple trees, are great at providing shade.

Your turtle should have loose substrate. 

This will help facilitate their instinctual digging and burrowing behavior. 

Make sure to use a substrate which retains moisture, like very fine hardwood mulch or non-chemically treated topsoil. 

A layer of sphagnum or terrarium moss, or hardwood leaf litter, will provide more moisture and humidity.

Make sure not to use a substrate made from cedar, pine, or fir, as these woods are very toxic to a turtle.

Indoor Needs

If your enclosure is indoors, even for part of the year, you will need a heat lamp and a UVB lamp. 

Like all reptiles, turtles have particular temperature needs. 

The proper temperatures vary across subspecies, so make sure your specific turtle’s needs are met.

UVB light is necessary for the production of vitamin D3, which aids in calcium absorption. 

Without enough calcium, your turtle may develop metabolic bone disease, which is extremely painful and may result in paralysis.

You will also need a humidifier or a way to keep the enclosure moist and humid. Humidity needs also vary among box turtles. 

Florida turtles, for example, need 70-90% humidity, while most turtles are fine with 60%.

Outdoor Needs

When building outdoors, put the pen on the eastern side of your house. 

This way, the pen catches the sun of the early morning, and your turtle will warm up to start the day the same way it does in the wild. 

The recommended size for an outdoor turtle pen is 4 by 8′ feet (2.44 m).

Keep in mind, it may be much easier for a turtle to escape outside. 

Make sure to give the enclosure high enough walls with an overhang to prevent escape.

Outdoor pens are easier to plant shade trees and plants in and around. 

A dwarf apple or mulberry will also provide you with an easy source of turtle meals.

Make sure to turn off any outdoor lights you have at nighttime, so your turtle is not disturbed from its sleep cycle.

Multiple Box Turtles

If you are keeping multiple turtles in the same enclosure, you will want to ensure each has enough space. 

Turtles may be territorial and may become aggressive with others of their kind. 

We recommend putting visual obstacles in a turtle enclosure so they cannot see each other all the time.

Do Different Species of Box Turtle Have Different Enclosure Needs?

There may be specific habitat requirements for specific subspecies of box turtle. 

You will need to research your turtle’s subspecies to create the best environment possible for your box turtle. 

Here are a few examples.

Ornate Box Turtles

Ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) are one of only two turtle species native to the Great Plains of North America. 

They are very into burrowing, even in comparison to other box turtles, and spend most of their days burrowing into the ground and abandoned prairie dog burrows to keep cool.

Make sure your ornate box turtle has deep soil to burrow into and plenty of hides. 

Great plant options for these turtles include prairie grass, wildflowers, and sparsely leaved shrubs like sagebrush or scrub oak.

Asian Box Turtles

The group known as Asian box turtles are from an entirely different subgroup and genus from American box turtles. 

They generally live in hotter and more humid environments. 

Planting their environments heavily and with multiple plants will help maintain humidity.

Asian box turtles also spend much of their time in the water. 

They will need a permanent swimming area at least 8″ inches (20 cm) deep with sloped sides, in addition to a normal watering station. 

You may want to invest in an automatic sprinkler system or provide soaks with a hose during hot days. 

You do not want any turtle to overheat.

Building An Outdoor Habitat For You Box Turtle

Outdoor enclosures, when possible, are always better than indoor enclosures for turtles. 

When building an outdoor habitat for a turtle, you will want to make sure to prevent any wood you use from rotting and any metal you use from rusting. 

We recommend gluing 1″ inch (2.54 cm) PVC pipe into a square frame with T shape and elbow connectors, onto which you will screw 3-4 sides of vinyl siding. 

Using an already existing wall of a house or garage as a fourth side is a great idea as well. 

Be careful to avoid gaps at the edge of the pen, as a turtle may use these for escape.

Border the inside of the turtle enclosure with recessed paving tiles or bricks, digging up the sod and placing them, so they are level. 

This way, the turtle will learn there will be no escape from its enclosure through digging.

Ensure the enclosure has high walls to prevent escape, at least 8-9″ inches (23 cm) above the substrate layer.

Though some owners recommend chicken wire to discourage their turtles, chicken wire may scrape and injure your turtle if they come in contact with it.

If you have a pet dog, you will need to make modifications to prevent it from getting into the turtle enclosure. 

A dog may easily kill a turtle if allowed. 

Also, make sure the enclosure is not easily disturbed by children or other creatures in the yard. 

Can Outdoor Turtles Eat Insects They Catch In The Wild?

Though a live-caught insect is more likely to have come in contact with a pesticide than a feeder insect from the store, the truth is you may not be able to prevent your turtle from eating insects it catches in its outdoor enclosure. 

Rainfall will bring earthworms up from underground. 

Slugs and snails populate urban and suburban gardens. 

Lights on around dusk will bring moths and June bugs. 

All these insects are perfect foods for a turtle, and you may not be able to stop them from hunting.

Final Thoughts

There are many plants which are safe for a box turtle enclosure. 

You will want to make sure any plant you pick is nontoxic for a turtle, as it may eat it on occasion. 

You will also want to replicate the plant life found in the turtle’s natural habitat as closely as possible.

Setting up a box turtle’s enclosure may be an intense process, but proper habitat setup will give your turtle the best chance for a long and healthy life.