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4 Houseplants for Low Light

Looking for plants for your home or office that don’t need much light?

It’s always a good starting point to mention that light is what powers plant growth.  We talk about “plant food”, but fertilizer serves the same roll for plants that your mineral supplements do for you: it provides minerals essential for growth, like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium…but it’s light that provides the fuel for plant “body-building” processes to work.  Without sufficient light, plants are just on a low energy diet and eventually waste away.

Unless it’s right in front of a sunny window, a plant receives pretty poor light in your home.  Light intensity drops quickly with distance from the window, and it also travels in straight lines, it doesn’t bend around corners…so that table next to the window where a plant would look great…that’s a pretty dark spot.  The only light it’s getting is the bit that’s reflected back toward it from where the light strikes the walls or ceiling.

The good news is, there are some foliage plants that will survive in low light spots for months and even years; I’ll describe four of my favorites below.  You can extend the life of even low-light tolerant plants with a few tricks.  Place the pots on saucers with attached wheels: you can roll them toward the window during the day, and back to the corner at night.  Another strategy is to rotate plants: put a plant in your corner for a couple of weeks, then replace it with another, moving the first plant to a brighter area.  You can also rejuvenate them by putting them outside in the summer (in a protected spot, not in full sun as they will sunburn badly).

Peace Lilies (Spathiphyllum):  Spaths have glossy green leaves, and occasional long-lasting white flowers if they get enough light.  Varieties cover a range from table-top to floor plant size.  The key with spaths is water: if they dry out they wilt dramatically, but if you haven’t let them go too long, they will quickly spring back when watered.  As with all potted plants, the frequency of watering will depend on the size of the plant and how root bound it is.  I water my tall floor plant about once every two weeks; on the other hand, a smaller plant that really fills the pot needs water about every five days.  Lift the pot; when it gets light, it’s time to water.  You may get some yellow leaves; this is typical of a plant entering a low light situation; it no longer gets enough light to power older, less efficient leaves, so it allows some to yellow and die.  You may also see this a week after the plant dries out to the point of serious wilting.

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema): there are a number of varieties, with green leaves with silver accents, and non-descript flowers similar in shape to the peace lily.  These are table top or floor plants, staying rather short.  Slow growing, they can handle drier soil.

Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria): when the common names got handed out, this one needed a better press agent.  Rather slow-growing, and very tolerant of dry soil, this is a great plant with a strong vertical architectural line.  Like a series of swords in a pot, it’s an undemanding plant that you can throw in a corner and sort of forget about.  On rare occasions, it may produce a spike of small white or cream-colored fragrant flowers.

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamifolia): has been on the market for less than 20 years. We call it the Zee-Zee plant–I suppose in most of the English-speaking world it would be Zed-Zed–it’s about the closest you can come to a plastic plant that’s actually alive.  It has glossy green leaves, and I have never seen a ZZ bloom.  The thick, succulent stems store water, and when dry, they seem content to just sit, as if in a state of suspended animation.

ZZ’s are very tolerant of low light, providing you keep them on the dry side–I water mine two or three times from November to March, and that’s more out of guilt than anything else. Although they can get pretty big, you can buy small ones suitable for a desk at work.  Of course, if you want yours to grow, give it more light and more water in the summer, and it will send out new shoots.  I keep mine outdoors in the summer in a decorative pot on the shady front stoop, and it has been pest free and its exotic shape is very eye-catching.

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. The ZZ plant in Europe is called Madagascar Palm, although it is of course not a Palm. I am not even sure if it is from Madagascar ? A friend and I brought one home from Floriada ( Holland’s overwhelming, every-10-years plant expo) in 2004. We had never seen anything like it before! Her’s is huge, mine died, but I now have an offshoot. It does not like a lot of water but unexpectedly did fine outside this rainy summer in the shade. Strange plant…

    (In case you’re wondering, Floriada sells certified, sealed and importable-to-USA plants at the expo.)

    1. The folks in the Netherlands do have an amazing network for growing plants and flowers, as well as serving as a major international redistribution center for bulbs, plants and flowers from other countries. Maybe I’ll try to get to Floriada in 2024 if they have it again. The big wholesale flower/plant auction at Aalsmeer, close to Schiphol Airport, is really impressive. At one time it was the largest enclosed building in the world, if I recall correctly.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aalsmeer_Flower_Auction

      Your comment prompted me to read up on the ZZ plant, Zamioculcus zamiifolia. I was actually shocked to discover that it’s in the aroid plant family (the Araceae). I haven’t seen it flower, but that makes it related to peace lily (spathiphyllum), dieffenbachia, Jack in the pulpit, calla lilies, anthurium. Doesn’t look at all like any of them, superficially, just looking at the foliage.

      Some folks say it is native to Madagascar, but the University of Connecticut says eastern Africa from Kenya to the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, but excludes Madagascar. Madagascar is home to a number of other tropical plants that are commonly used in tropical landscaping, though.

      Larry Hurley

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