An avid gardener for over 40 years, Dolores has landscaped for private clients and maintained one client's small orchid collection.
When shopping for a houseplant, it's tempting to pounce on a favorite, one that catches our attention for its beauty, color, or form. But before buying a plant, consider the light conditions in the area you wish to place the plant. Lighting should be the number one consideration informing houseplant selection.
It's easy to find a plant that grows in a bright, sun filled area. Growing houseplants in low light conditions can be a challenge.
Of course, all plants need light for photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn light into energy. Low light does not mean no light. So what, exactly is low light?
- Light from a north facing window.
- Eight feet or so away from an east facing window.
- No direct sunlight.
- An object set in a low light area will cast no shadow.
- Light that is bright enough to read by without using a lamp.
Remember that lighting conditions can change with the season. A window that is shaded by a tree in summer may be in full sun when the leaves fall off in autumn. A window may get more light for a longer period in summer. Another window may get more light in winter when the sun is lower in the sky.
Study the light in your own home to really get a feeling for it. You may have to change the position of a plant due to seasonal light shifts. For example, I keep several low light plants in a north north east facing window in the winter. As the sun moves north in spring and summer, I move the plants to avoid a morning blast of sun.
Remember that plants kept in a lower light will need less watering than one in a more brightly lit area. Check the soil before you water. Overwatering is the number one killer of houseplants.
Buying a Houseplant
Check out all the houseplants in the store or nursery to make sure they look healthy. Take a good long look at the plant you wish to purchase. Check to see if there are any odd marks, spots, yellow leaves, or brown edges. Look at the bottom of the pot to see if roots protrude. If they do, put that one back. If you see several plants that look droopy, dusty, yellow, or spotted with brown marks; if you see signs of pests or webbing on the plants, shop elsewhere.
When you buy a plant, make sure to place it in a container that has a hole at the bottom for drainage. Often, when you water, some of the water drips down to the bottom of the pot. Water pooled in the bottom of a container will cause root rot.
Remember that you may have to move the plant around to find the best spot. Light conditions vary, and so does the opinion of plant experts. I have seen the same plant recommended for bright light in one place, then opened a book and seen the same plant suggested for low light.
Cast Iron Plant
Cast Iron Plant - Aspidistra elatior
The Cast Iron Plant or Barroom Plant is tolerant of smoke and evocative of an Edwardian men's club. This slow grower features attractive, tall, and shiny, dark green leaves. It will reach between 24" to 30" tall. Cast Iron Plant enjoys moderate to dry humidity. Allow the soil to dry out between watering. Fertilize and dust off with a damp cloth monthly.
Cast Iron Plant does not mind cool temperatures, preferably 55 - 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the most forgiving of plants, Cast Iron Plant gets its nickname from its tough durability. You just can't kill this one!
Chinese Evergreen or Aglaonema commutatum
This favorite of shopping malls and restaurants is tolerant of low light and low humidity. Chinese evergreen is a tough, hard to kill plant that makes it a great specimen for beginners. Beautiful variegated leaves add brightness to a dingy room. Plants with more light areas will need more light as only the green part of the leaf is involved in photosynthesis.
Chinese evergreen is a light feeder. Fertilize once or twice in spring and summer. Water once a week in spring, summer, and fall. Water every other week in winter. Mist occasionally.
Chinese evergreen is easy to propagate. Just set a cutting in water, remembering to change the water weekly to keep it fresh. In six weeks, the cutting should be setting out new roots.
Dumb Cane or Dieffenbachia amoena
Dieffenbachia or Dumb Cane appreciates low to moderate height and 60 - 80 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Huge oval leaves are speckled with a cream or white pattern. Leaves grow on thick canes that can reach five feet tall.
This easy to grow and popular plant is poison and can cause a painful swelling of the mouth. Don't grow this plant if you have children around the house. Wash hands after touching.
Water once a week in growing season, every other week in colder months. Feed every other week in spring and summer, once a month in fall and winter.
If leaves begin to curl or yellow, your dumb cane may be getting too much sun. Move away from the window, out of any direct light.
It can be very hard to tell the difference between Dumb Cane and Chinese Evergreen. In general, a very large plant will be a Dumb Cane. Also, the leaves of the Dumb Cane seem a bit wider when compared to the Chinese Evergreen's longer oval leaves. The color pattern on Dumb Cane will not appear as silvery as they do on the Chinese Evergreen.
There are many types of Dracenas. Dracena marginata has long, pointed green leaves with delicate red edging and a thin, cream colored stripe down the center. (Dracena tricolor is more vividly colored.) Placing this plant in bright indirect sunlight will emphasize the colors which fade in low light conditions.
Young plants appear a bit shrubby. As they age, the lower leaves turn brown and fall off, exposing a woody stem. Mature plants resemble thin palm trees.
Keep soil moist spring through autumn. Allow soil to dry out between winter watering. Water with a liquid fertilizer once a month except in winter.
Lucky Bamboo or Dracena sanderiana
Lucky Bamboo is not actually a member of the bamboo family but a dracena. Lucky bamboo, or Dracena sanderiana has gained popularity in recent years due to its reputation for enhancing chi energy and bringing good luck to feng shui devotees. Keep three stalks for happiness, two for love, five stalks for health, eight for wealth, and nine stalks for good fortune.
This small sized plant features bright green leaves on a cane like stem that resembles bamboo. If grown in water, change the water every other week to keep it fresh. If planted in soil, keep the soil moist from spring to fall. Water with liquid fertilizer once a month except in winter.
Lucky Bamboo can be kept in low light to bright, indirect light.
Shefflera or Umbrella Tree is an attractive, large houseplant that needs bright to medium light. But the dwarf variety is perfectly happy in low light conditions and thrives in the cooler air near a north facing window.
Keep soil slightly moist and temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Fertilize with a weakened mix once a month.
If the plant becomes thin and spindly, move it to a brighter location but never into direct sun. If the leaves turn yellow, cut back on water. If the leaves are brown, the plant is getting either too much sun or too much fertilizer.
Keep Dwarf Shefflera pruned for bushiness by pinching back in spring.
Pothos or Epipremnum Aureum
Pothos, or Devil's Ivy resembles Heart Leaf Philodendron but with thicker leaves that are variegated in white or pale yellow. This vine can go crazy to keep it pinched back. My mother had one that took over a corner of her living room. She let it grow up the wall and it looked beautiful. When the time came to paint the room, it suddenly wasn't such a good idea.
Pothos looks pretty climbing up a support or displayed as a hanging plant.
Water Pothos once a week. Fertilize once a month. Pothos is very forgiving to those who forget to water it regularly and is an easy plant for beginners.
You can start a new plant with cuttings. Place a cutting with a few leaves in water. Change water once a week to keep fresh. Roots will soon develop.
Parlor, Kentia, and Lady Palm Trees
Kentia Palm, Lady Palm, and Parlor Palm are all easy to grow, low light loving trees.
Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana or Howea belmoreana) and Parlor Palm have the feathery , elegant look often associated with a Victorian parlor. Kentia is sensitive to chlorine in the water so set water out the day before to allow gases to dissipate.
Lady Palm or Bamboo Palm has leaves with blunt ends and a fan like growth habit. Lady Palm looks great in a room with Oriental style décor.
Keep soil moist except in winter when the plant should dry out between watering. Fertilize once a month during the growing season. Mist occasionally and dust leaves with a damp cloth.
Peace Lily or Athiphyllum wallisii
Glossy, deep green leaves grow right up from the rhizime without a stem. Beautiful white or pink, single petaled flowers bloom at the ends of 12 inch stalks.
Peace lily like moist soil and humid conditions. Set the pot on a tray of wet pebbles to ensure adequate moisture. Fertilize with a weak fertilizer every two weeks.
Snake Plant or Sanseviera trifasciata
Snake plant is one tough cookie, an almost indestructible plant that is tolerant of bright sun, low light, drafts, dry air, lack of water and fertilizer. I inherited mine from a deceased relative 40 years ago and who knows how long she had it?
Tough, thick sword shaped leaves are narrow, growing vertically and pointed at the ends. Some types feature leaves that curve slightly along the edges and resemble kelp.
"Laurentii" is a type with yellow bands outlining the leaves.
This succulent will not appreciate wet conditions, so allow the soil to dry out between watering. Fertilize with 1/2 strength liquid fertilizer once a month.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: How big do red aglaonema get and is there a small variety?
Answer: Red Aglaonema is a form of Chinese Evergreen, a popular easy to grow houseplant. The large leaves are highlighted with red or pink. Though most Aglaonemas are tolerant of low light conditions, the red variety will show the best color in bright, indirect light. In low light areas, the plant will show less color. Keep out of the direct sun. An east-facing window covered with a sheer curtain. Avoid temperature extremes and drafty areas (keep away from heat and air conditioning vents).
Allow the plant to dry out between watering. Feed with weak fertilizer. That means, whatever the fertilizer package suggests, cut the dose in half. Decrease watering in cold months during the plant's resting stage.
Plant in loose, well-drained soil.
Aglaonemas are slow-growing plants that may reach between two and three feet tall depending on the variety. There are several types of red Aglaonemas so it depends on the type you have.
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 02, 2018:
Hi Eileen - Peace lily is a nice one. The leaves are so pretty and they seem to flower easily.
Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on June 29, 2018:
We do not have many house planrs these days. We do still have a oeace lily though. Thanks for an informative article Dolores
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 22, 2017:
Hi Casey - remember that the greatest killer of houseplants is over watering which often shows up as yellowing leaves.
Mike and Dorothy McKenney from United States on May 20, 2017:
Great article. I can plant and grow a beautiful garden outside, but my "green thumb" turns a pale shade of yellow when I try to grow house plants. I'm just going to keep on trying though, and thank you for the enlightening information.
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on March 16, 2017:
Hi Peggy - last fall we had a sudden cool snap. Thankfully, I paid attention to the weather report and brought my tender plants indoors. These days, I leave the houseplants inside. I think if you find a good spot and they are happy, why confuse the issue. I'm glad the shefflera came back!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 13, 2017:
I have grown quite a few of these plants at different times and agree that they are hardy ones. Right now we have the Pothos ivy and Lucky Bamboo plants grown inside of our home.
We have the shefflera growing outside in a mostly shaded area up against our garage. Last year we had a couple of unusually low freezing temperatures that went down to 20 degrees. The shefflera froze back but is sprouting again near the ground. What made those freezes so devastating to our tender outside plants was the fact that most of our winter temperatures were above normal even breaking many high temperature records. I am glad we did not lose the shefflera like we did our crotons.