The successful keeping of tortoises involves offering a wide variety of foods to promote healthy appetites and provide essential nutrients. In their native environments they will browse freely among the many types of plants they encounter. This article will explore some of the readily available plant species which many tortoises consume with gusto.
Landscaping with plants which provide food and shelter for tortoises is not difficult. Many suitable plants are very ornamental and are adaptable to a wide range of climates, and many can be grown in containers. Please bear in mind that this article is being written in Southern California with its climate as the basis for descriptions of plant performance. Since the readership of the Tortuga Gazette is both national and international, local conditions will vary greatly. For instance, the Tropical Hibiscus will freeze and not recover in localities in which the temperature drops below 30° F (-1° C) for extended periods. In such localities, gardeners may treat the plant as an annual, setting out fresh plants each spring.
In addition it is important to remember that plants destined for consumption by chelonians should be free of residues from pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Very little information exists on the effects of these powerful chemicals on "cold blooded" animals; therefore, it is wise to be scrupulous in avoiding the exposure of your tortoises to these substances. Granular (pellet) fertilizers are also potentially dangerous and should not be used in areas in which tortoises live and/or graze. Snail bait is extremely toxic and should be rigorously avoided.
The scientific or botanical names for the plants reviewed in this article are provided in parentheses. Common names for plants vary locally, but the botanical names are used worldwide, recognized from the Antilles to Zambia. The reader will be assured of getting the exact plant being described when it is identified by its botanical name.
Tropical Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) flowers and leaves are nutritious favorites of many tortoises. This large evergreen shrub may reach 15 feet at maturity and requires frequent, deep waterings for best performance. It also requires some protection from hot afternoon sun in the warmer inland areas. Many flower colors are available, from white through yellow and pink to orange and red.
Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii) is in the same family as the Tropical Hibiscus. It requires full sun, grows well in less-than-perfect soils, and is quite drought tolerant once established in the garden. Blue Hibiscus is an evergreen shrub which reaches a height of 5-8 feet at maturity. Its lilac blue flowers are relished by many tortoises.
Chinese Lantern (Abutilon hybridum) has flowers which many tortoises find delectable. This evergreen shrub grows at a moderate rate and requires regular watering for bestappearance and flower production. It reaches a height of 8 to 10 feet with an equal spread at maturity. Flower colors include white, pink, yellow, red and several bi-colors.
Rose (Rosa species) blossoms are enjoyed by tortoises. Floribunda roses produce masses of flowers, stay a manageable size and are often more pest- and disease-resistant than Hybrid Tea roses (the most commonly grown of the roses). Floribundas generally require less pruning for flower production than Hybrid Teas. Rosa rugosa species roses. R. rugosa "Cecile Brunner" and "Belle of Portugal" are highly recommended for quality of flavor, but these grow to huge proportions and one must have plenty of room for them.