Growing Plants for Tortoise Yards:
Plants We Have Found Which Work Well
by Bob and Judy Thomas with photographs by Sean McKeown
Tropical Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis). These large shrubs are great plants for tortoise pens. They provide ample shade, and the flowers and leaves are a nutritious food source. You can buy one gallon plants. 0r, if you have a friend or club member with a plant, you can start cuttings very easily. They do well throughout the central California coast and southern California. They do not tolerate heavy frosts or an arid climate. (Sorry Cen-Val, Kern and High Desert).
We plant cuttings in pots or directly in the ground as follows. We start with cuttings which are about as thick as a pen or pencil and about 12 inches long. We remove leaves except for one or two at the top. Place cuttings in a jar with four inches of water with vitamin B-1 added to water per directions on container. Leave the cuttings in water over night. Next day coat the bottom of cuttings with Rootone, poke a hole in the soil and place cutting about six inches deep packing dirt around it. We use one-gallon pots with sandy soil or place directly in sandy soil in the yard. Water daily with vitamin B-1 added to water for first few days. The plants like full sun, but we have found it best to get them started in filtered sunlight, i.e. under a tree or an open shrub. Starting cuttings in winter or early spring seems to bring best results. After plants get about 18 inches it is time to plant them out into the yard. Allow ample room as they can grow to six to eight feet tall with equal spread (or even larger). They can be pruned to smaller sizes. We pick flowers each evening (therefore we enjoy the blooms during the day) and feed the blossoms to our tortoises. When trimming, we put trimmings into tortoise yards and they strip the leaves.
If you are visiting the
"Home for Wayward Turtles & Tortoises," just ask us for cuttings.
(Aloe species). These small, medium or large succulents are very easy to propagate. The plants branch continually, and the offsets can be pulled or cut off to start new plants. We put them in the ground and they almost always grow. The plants look something like cacti, but the spines are relatively soft and can be handled easily. They look good in an enclosure, growing year round and producing very long lasting orange or yellow flowers. We have eight different species and they bloom at different times. Tortoises will eat the leaves if they are cut from the plants and offered.
Jade Plant (Crassula argentea). These small to medium sized succulents are very easy to propagate from cuttings and will even grow from individual leaves. Put cuttings directly into ground approximately four to five inches to anchor them. Jade plants will provide some shade as well as hiding places.
Spineless Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia species). These medium to large plants, are true cacti. Prickly pear is high in calcium, and is eaten by all of our tortoises. The cactus pads can be planted directly into the ground. Bury approximately one third of the pad in the ground. Plant in sandy soil, or at least in a well-drained location. Protect the newly-planted
pads from tortoises with a fence until the plant has grown and the rootstock hardens. Without such protection, tortoises will eat the plant to the ground before it has a chance to develop.
Yucca (Yucca species). These large succulents provide nice shade and are very decorative. Best choices are those yuccas with soft leaves. Yuccas can be started from cuttings; they are best propagated in spring or early summer. Cut a branch away from the parent plant, and remove most of the leaves from the bottom of the cutting. Strip back completely, plant lower portion 8 to 12 inches deep in the ground in well drained soil.
Grapes (Vitis vinifera and V. labrusca). These deciduous vines provide a good place for the tortoises to hide and also provide shade. Tortoises like to eat grapes and grape leaves. Thompson seedless grapes are easy to grow and care for. The vines are also easy to start in the same way as Hibiscus cuttings start. Take your cuttings when the grape vines are dormant in mid-December through January. We use them in our red-foot, yellow-foot, elongated, sulcate, leopard and desert tortoise pens. Any leaves that grow near the ground get eaten.
Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). Most water turtles (and many tortoises) love to eat the roots and leaves of these floating, aquatic plants. Water hyacinth will overrun your pond if you have too many plants or too few turtles. Plants float on the water and help shade the pond which will keep down algae. They also take nutrients out of the water. When you have too many plants for your pond, give them to other club members or put them in your compost pile.
Pineapple Guava (Feijoa sellowiana). These large shrubs provide shade for your tortoise yard and produce a fruit for you and the tortoises. The flowers also have edible petals. Pineapple guavas grow to six feet tall and about four to six feet across. They are generally available in one gallon containers.
Geranium (Pelargonium species). Geraniums provide good shade and color in both upright and cascading varieties. Both flowers and leaves are edible. These plants can be started as cuttings (see Hibiscus). Ivy
geraniums planted as ground cover form dense mats; do not use ivy geranium if you want to find your animals easily.
Ornamental Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis). This plant forms a low-growing ground cover which will be completely eaten by tortoises. Ornamental strawberry is best used in box turtle and water turtle enclosures, as the turtles will eat fruit and the bugs that are attracted to the strawberries.
Marguerite Daisy (Chrysanthemum frutescens). These medium-sized plants provide nice shade and color
(white, yellow or pink flowers) in your yard. This shrubby perennial can be shaped in an "umbrella" form for maximum
shade. Marguerites are easy to start from cuttings (see Hibiscus).
Kale (Brassica oleracea). This cool-season vegetable can be started from seed in one-gallon pots. Put out in yards when large enough that tortoises can't reach upper leaves. Pick older leaves to feed turtles and tortoises. Plants will last up to two years.
Edible Fig (Ficus carica). Fig trees are easy to start from cuttings (see Hibiscus). The fruit and leaves are high in calcium. This deciduous tree provides shade in summer. This fruit tree grows best in hot-summer areas.
Mulberry (Morus alba and M. nigra). Mulberry trees supply shade for tortoise yards, and the young leaves provide food for tortoises. Can be kept small by stripping off leaves for feeding. Fruitless mulberry varieties can be purchased in one-gallon pots. They grow rapidly and are less messy than fruiting trees.
Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon). This turf-grass is good food for your animals, and is almost impossible for them to kill. It will go dormant in winter, turning brown in cold areas. Bermuda grass will spread fast by surface and underground runners, but is extremely invasive and difficult to control. Our sulcate, leopard and Galapagos tortoises love it.
Bob and Judy Thomas have a ranch in Arroyo Grande, California with over 250 turtles and tortoises representing over 50 species.
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 35(3): 6-7, March 1999