Is your space lacking in natural light? Whether you’re looking for a plant for a ground floor apartment or office cubicle, opt for a low light tolerant plant to set yourself up for plant parenthood success.
What is a low light plant?
Describing a houseplant as a “low light plant” signifies it is tolerant of lower light conditions. A low light plant can grow when placed further away from a window, its source of natural light, or by a window that doesn't receive much light for one reason or another. It doesn’t necessarily mean the plant will thrive in low light, but it will survive and continue to grow.
Outside, low light tolerant plants are often referred to as shade tolerant plants. Generally speaking, shade tolerant plants are tolerant of their natural light source, the sun, being obstructed. Some plants prefer a shady spot outside where the sun is stronger and can burn them, while others are only tolerant of the outside shade but can handle more direct sun.
Indoors, however, the sunlight is already less strong than it is outside. It enters a room from usually one or two directions, unlike outside where it surrounds plants. And the windows the sunlight enters through diffuse and reflect it, reducing its intensity further*. That's why most common houseplants prefer bright to medium indirect light indoors. But of those, there are some that can tolerate low indirect light, too.
*Although less intense than outside, the sun's rays indoors can still be strong enough to burn some plants if they’re placed directly in front of the window.
What makes a plant suited for low light?
Plants need light to eat—they make their food from a process called photosynthesis and light plays the most crucial role. So it’s not surprising to hear that most plants prefer more of it. But what happens when they can’t get more?
Light tolerance is a complex characteristic but can be simplified to stem from two common scenarios: adaptation over time in the plant’s natural environment, and/or adaptation over time in a controlled environment like a greenhouse. Usually it's for former, further intensified by the latter. Take ferns for instance—in their natural habitat, you’ll find them growing along a dark forest floor. Thanks to a dense canopy of trees above, they receive little direct sunlight, but they have adapted over time to thrive in this shady space.
Similar to how there are physical adaptations that make plants succulent—think thick fleshy leaves or compact root systems—there are physical adaptations that make plants low light tolerant. These adaptations can include broad, thin leaves that spread wide to capture sunlight, or deep, complex root systems to take in extra soil nutrients. It’s been theorized that the Monstera deliciosa’s famous natural leaf-holes, called fenestrations, are adaptations meant to maximize sun fleck capture on the forest floor. They increase the spread of the leaf, while decreasing the mass of leaf cells to support it. How energy efficient!
How do you care for low light plants?
How to care for a low light plant will depend on the plant variety but there are a few key things to keep in mind:
1. Be mindful not to overwater a low light plant. The more sunlight your plant receives, the more thirsty it will be over time. This applies to most plants, unless they are a water-storing succulent. The increased need for water due to increased light is for a few reasons, but the biggest reason is that plants utilize water during a process called transpiration, and the rate of transpiration is dependent on, and increases with, the amount of sunlight the plant receives.
When watering your low light tolerant plant, always make sure the potting mix is dry. If it’s not dry, wait until it is before watering again. Keep in mind that because your plant is in lower light, it might not need to be watered as often as another plant of yours in brighter light. If you are nervous you might overwater, you can wait for signs of thirst: wrinkling leaves, leaves curling at the edges, wilting stems, all coupled with dry potting mix. Remember, it’s easier to add water than to remove it! So lean towards the side of under-watering to be cautious.
2. Remember ‘low light tolerant’ does not mean ‘no light tolerant’, and light intensity can change with the seasons. Make sure your low light plant is in a space with a window that brings in natural light, or in a space with sufficient grow lights. Without either, your plant will eventually perish.
The natural light your space receives is not stagnant, it changes as the seasons do. Maybe during the winter months, your low light tolerant plant would be happier closer to the window to capture what little light the shorter days provide; while during the summer months, that same plant could need to be relocated, further into your space and away from the intense summer sun that hits your sill.
What are some easy low light tolerant plants?
The Snake Plant is the low-maintenance houseplant every novice plant parent needs. Not only does it claim a top spot in NASA’s Clean Air Study, but the Snake Plant is also a succulent plant that tolerates low light. What does this mean if you’re brand new to taking care of plants? You can forget to water it and put it almost anywhere in your home.
Another low light tolerant plant, the ZZ Plant is not only able to survive the shade but also drought. You might not characterize it as a succulent just by looking at it, but look closer and you'll spot large, potato-like shapes right below the surface of its potting mix. Having evolved in arid environments where droughts are common, the ZZ Plant has developed rhizomes that store water.
We can’t say enough good things about the Pothos plant. There’s a reason you see it just about everywhere, from malls to doctors’ offices to your friend’s living room—it’ll tolerate just about any indoor environment. It’s even sometimes referred to as the “cubicle plant” because of its tolerance to less than ideal conditions like low light.
Ferns can get a bad rap for being difficult to care for as houseplants but the Bird’s Nest Fern is relatively low maintenance. Known for its wavy fronds that grow out of a central rosette, the Bird's Nest Fern will add a vibrant pop of green to any space. Added bonus, it’s considered non-toxic, making it safe to keep around your furry friends.
The heartleaf Philodendron is one of our most popular plants thanks to its heart-shaped green leaves, easy-going nature, and quick-growing trailing vines. It often gets confused with the Pothos, which makes sense, as aesthetically these plants look similar and they require similar care.
Known for their attractive foliage and easy-going nature, the Aglaonema or Chinese Evergreen is a popular variety of houseplant. They’re native to the tropical forest floors of Asia, so they prefer indirect sunlight (direct can scorch their variegated leaves), and have adapted to survive lower light levels. That said, the more medium to bright, but still indirect, light you can provide it—the more vibrant its variegation can be.
Words By The Sill
Empowering all people to be plant people—a collection of articles from The Sill’s team of plant experts across a variety of plant care topics to inspire confidence in the next generation of plant parents. Welcome to Plant Parenthood™.