The Best Houseplants for Low Light Conditions

February 4, 2020

By Matt

Look at Pinterest and you’ll see floor-to-ceiling windows, sunlight illuminating fiddle leaf figs, and a riot of overgrown plants drinking in more sunshine than your entire house sees in a week. What to do?

Wish your home were an oasis teeming with greenery? If your lack of southern windows is preventing your green thumb from scratching that itch, the low-light houseplants featured here might be the solution!

What happens to plants in low light?

Every plant needs light for photosynthesis, the process a plant uses to convert light, oxygen, and water into energy. Without enough light, plants are unable to grow, bloom, and produce seeds. If you’re guilty of buying plants that require more light than you have, these symptoms might look familiar:

  • Leaves fade from dark, glossy green to pale yellow as they stop producing chlorophyll.
  • Plants become leggy—all stem and few leaves—as they attempt to reach the light.
  • Flowering plants don’t produce buds.
  • Leaves may begin to drop, and variegated leaves become solid green.

It’s key to your plants’ well-being that you understand their light requirements. This is their bread and butter. You’ll have more success if you choose houseplants that prefer the lighting conditions you have in your home.

How low is too low?

High 

Maybe you’d like to grow succulents. Who wouldn’t? But those little guys love sun. You can bring them home, but plants with a large appetite for sunlight won’t be happy without at least 6 hours a day of direct sun. This keeps them colorful, compact, able to flower and produce seeds. 

For sun lovers, you need a brightly lit room with windows along a south or southwest wall, or indoor lighting for plants.

Medium 

Most rooms with windows that face east or west and seem well-lit during the day have medium light. This includes light diffused by sheer curtains. Medium light plants evolved as part of the understory, partially shaded by the upper tree canopy. They prefer bright filtered light.

Low 

Rooms with windows that face north have low light. This includes windows shaded by trees or buildings, and rooms that are darker in winter because of the sun’s angle. Plants that require only a few hours of indirect light are best suited for low-light rooms. These plants evolved in dense shade on the jungle or forest floor. 

While some medium or high light plants can tolerate low light, they’ll have a difficult time producing enough energy to sustain them, and very few will be able to flower or produce seeds. 

Culture

To care for low-light plants, examine their origins. Understory inhabitants have a culture unlike other plants. They may experience higher humidity and more constant temperatures than plants in open areas, and their soil and water requirements are different as well. If you have children or pets, note that many low-light plants are toxic if ingested and the sap may cause skin irritation.

Soil

There’s faster decomposition in moist environments, and low-light plants evolved to need lots of organic matter. Humus provides nutrients, and the light, loose texture allows roots to spread. Sand helps drainage; roots need air as well as water. 

You can use a planting mix like Cactus, Palm & Citrus Potting Mix that includes sphagnum moss to hold moisture, compost to supply nutrients, and perlite and sand for drainage. 

Water

When watering most low-light plants, remember they’re producing less energy and need less moisture than other plants. They’ll benefit from being watered thoroughly with tepid water, allowing the excess to drain, and waiting until soil dries out before watering again. 

Use pots with drainage holes and never leave standing water in saucers. It’s a good idea to use a moisture sensor or your finger to check soil wetness before watering. Generally, the top inch or two of soil should dry out between waterings, and some plants prefer to be even dryer.

Temperature

Like many houseplants, low-light plants prefer a temperature between 68 and 80 degrees F during the day, and about 10 degrees cooler at night. Temperatures below 50 degrees F could cause problems, so position plants away from doors and windows to avoid shocking them with a blast of cold air. 

Light 

low-light plants require at least 3 hours of indirect light a day. Direct sunlight could scorch tender foliage. 

Clean leaves with regular sponge baths or showers. Removing dust helps plants use all available light for photosynthesis, and washing leaves (including the undersides) can prevent pests and disease. Use a soft cloth and a spray bottle of water, or carry small plants to the sink or shower and spray gently with tepid water and allow to dry. Cover soil with plastic wrap or foil first to prevent saturating roots.

Best plants for low light

These colorful, interesting plants are easy to care for and satisfying to grow. They add beauty to your home or office and give your well-being a boost! 

Photo source

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Native to eastern Africa, ZZ plant has been grown commercially since 1996. One of the most tolerant plants when it comes to light conditions, its reputation as a trouble-free houseplant has made it easy to find in garden centers. Its glossy green foliage and unusual form make it a nice addition to an indoor garden.

While bright indirect light is optimum for ZZ plants, they’re beloved for their ability to thrive even in shade. They’re also forgiving about occasional neglect. Their potato-like rhizomes retain moisture, allowing them to survive up to 4 months without rainfall in their native environment. 

In summer, water your ZZ plant thoroughly every 2 to 3 weeks, allowing the excess to drain. Soil should dry out between waterings. This may be less frequent in winter, depending on your home’s temperature and humidity.

Grow in cactus potting mix for best drainage. Feed once a month during spring and summer with liquid fertilizer like Jack’s Water Soluble Fertilizer, diluted to half strength.

ZZ plants usually grow to 2 to 3 feet and can be easily propagated by leaf cuttings or division. Insects and disease are generally not a problem.

Photo source


Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)

Snake plant, also known as mother-in-law’s tongue, is another easy-care plant. Leaves are green, gray, or variegated green with white borders. Native to West Africa, snake plant likes weather that’s hot and dry. It can be moved outside during warm weather, but avoid direct sunlight, which can burn leaves.

Water thoroughly every 2 to 3 weeks, and allow soil to dry out between waterings. Feed once in spring and once in summer with half-strength liquid fertilizer. Snake plant has few problems with insects or disease.

Snake plant spreads by rhizomes and can be successfully divided. Grow in cactus potting mix. Plants usually reach 2 to 3 feet. In low light, they may not need repotting for 5 to 10 years. 

Photo source

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)

Not a true lily, peace lily is an evergreen perennial native the Americas and Southeast Asia. It prefers bright filtered light and is one of the few houseplants that bloom in low light. 

Peace lily’s leaves will droop slightly when it needs water and perk up afterward, but don’t wait for dramatic wilting; doing so can cause yellowing. Water weekly, and allow the soil to dry between waterings. Feed monthly during spring and summer with half-strength liquid fertilizer.

Plant in potting mix that doesn’t contain fertilizer; peace lily is sensitive to over fertilizing. For proper drainage, use a mixture that contains sand or perlite like Espoma Potting Mix.

Plants can be propagated by division, which is easy to do when repotting. This is best performed in late winter or early spring. Peace lilies have few insect problems.

Photo source

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonemas)

This plant originated in Southeast Asia, and is grown for its beautiful foliage. The cultivar Silver Queen has patches of silver on green leaves; Siam Red is dark green with red accents.

Chinese evergreen grows in most light conditions, and is tolerant of poor watering habits. Keep soil evenly moist if grown in bright light; plants need less water in dim light. Feed with liquid fertilizer once in spring and once in summer. 

Chinese evergreen likes warm, humid rooms and prefers to be kept away from heat vents and out of drafts.

This plant grows slowly, usually reaching 1 to 2 feet. Plant in cactus mix in low, wide pots, which will accommodate Chinese evergreen’s shallow, spreading roots. If plant becomes leggy, cut stems into 6-inch sections and root in water. This plant can also be propagated by dividing.

Photo source

Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)  

This aptly named plant is a member of the lily family and is native to forests in China, Taiwan, and Japan. It has been a favorite houseplant since Victorian times. Cast iron plant grows slowly, and will live many years, reaching about 3 feet when mature.

Forgiving mistreatment like few other houseplants, cast iron plant tolerates a wide range of temperatures and light conditions, although direct sun should be avoided to prevent leaf burn.

Plant in cactus potting mix. Water every 2 to 3 weeks, allowing the top half of the soil to dry out between waterings. Fertilize with liquid plant food monthly during spring and summer. Plants may be propagated by division, and may need repotting every 2 to 3 years. 

Photo source

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum)

Golden pothos, also called devil’s ivy, is a slow-growing vine native to the Solomon Islands, where it covers the ground and climbs trees using small air roots as anchors. As a houseplant, its vining stems will spread 6 feet or more.

Plants tolerate most light conditions, although direct sun may scorch leaves and color is better in brighter light.

Plant golden pothos in well-drained potting mix. Water every week or two during spring and summer, less often in fall and winter. Fertilize once in spring and once in summer with an all-purpose houseplant food.

Although golden pothos is a slow grower, it can become leggy. Trim stems to keep the plant compact, wrap on a stake or trellis, or grow in hanging baskets. It’s easy to propagate golden pothos from cuttings: just place in water until they root, then transplant.

Photo source

Ferns

Ferns require a bit more care than other low-light plants, but their delicate fronds and extraordinary textures are worth the effort. 

Like the forest floor dwellers they are, ferns prefer filtered sunlight and high humidity. Home humidity levels are usually 30 to 50 percent, the minimum most ferns will tolerate. Fortunately, you can increase the humidity in the area around your ferns. 

Start by grouping them in the kitchen or bathroom, where there’s more humidity. Place pots on pebbles in saucers filled with water; the water adds humidity to the air and the pebbles keep the ferns from standing in water. Run a humidifier or mist plants 2 to 3 times a week with tepid water in a spray bottle. 

Water ferns about once a week and let drain. Allow soil to dry slightly between soakings. Feed monthly from April to September with half-strength liquid houseplant fertilizer.

Ferns have delicate roots that prefer loose, slightly acidic soil that holds moisture but allows drainage. You can use Espoma African Violet Mix

Best ferns for low light

Button (Pellaea rotundifolia

  • Good fern for beginners
  • Fronds have rounded “buttons” climbing a thin stem
  • About 12 inches tall/wide
  • Water when soil feels dry to the touch

Southern maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-verneris

  • Graceful, arching fronds and wiry stems
  • Grows to 12 to 18 inches tall/wide
  • Avoid wetting foliage when watering
  • Propagate by dividing rhizomes 

Rabbit’s foot (Davallia fejeensis

  • Fuzzy, footlike rhizomes that climb over pot rim
  • Delicate, lacy fronds
  • About 12 to 16 inches tall/wide
  • Can be propagated from rhizomes

Bird’s nest (Asplenium nidus

  • Faster growth than other ferns
  • 2 to 3 feet tall/wide
  • Tolerates higher light levels if kept moist and warm
  • Avoid handling fragile new fronds
  • Don’t add water in “nest” to avoid rot

With so many gorgeous, low-maintenance options, it’ll be easy to surround yourself with low-light darlings. You may even forget all about those fiddle leaf figs.

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