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"Bullet-Proof" Houseplants; Perfect for Low Light

Q. I work at an office building - you know the type - row after row of cubicles. I'm not near a window, so I get very little natural light, but I'd still love to try and "spruce" up the place with a few plants. The problem is that I've had no luck with houseplants in the past—and that was with light! Can you recommend a few "OK with low light" plants for me? Thanks!

----Elyse in Center City Philadelphia

A. Well, I was ready to just tell Elyse to read the houseplant articles at our 'Garden Answers A to Z' section, but decided to check what we had up there first. Good thing, too; as we got articles on things like houseplant pests, indoor citrus, which plants are bad for cats to eat…but no list of 'easy to grow; low light' plants. Shame on us—and thanks to Elyse; 'cause now we'll have one.

To help me assemble this bulletproof brigade of attractive, but dim bulbs, I called Horticulturist Justin Hancock, a ten-year senior garden editor in the Better Homes & Gardens empire before joining Costa Farms, America's largest indoor producer of houseplants, earlier this year. He quickly steered me to their "Plants of Steel" collection—varieties that survive so nicely in low light conditions that "you could put them in a closet for a week, take them out and they'd look the same." (Although Justin does want to point out that he's not recommending you do that.)

So, in no specific order, here's the list of Sure Survivors:

  • Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema species). Despite the common name, it doesn't look at all like an 'evergreen', nor does it look especially Asian. It's a stylish and tough plant with big attractive upright leaves that can get by nicely on ambient light and very little water. The basic type has shiny, dark or light green variegated leaves, but there are also varieties whose leaves are all green, some that are heavily mottled, and one that looks to be almost pure silver. And Chinese Evergreen is a 'clean air' plant; known for its ability to reduce common pollutants in indoor air.
  • Sansevieria. Another good indoor air cleaner, this one is much better known by its common names of 'Snake Plant' and the extremely ingracious 'Mother-in-Law's tongue'. The long, sleek glossy leaves of some of the older varieties often got too tall—which is why my 1974-era specimen is cleverly twist tied to a cold-water pipe for support (and to hide the pipe). That long, leggy look is still available, but Justin notes that there are also newer dwarf varieties whose leaves are wider and shorter. (Like most plants, you can also control the height somewhat by restricting the size of the pot.) This member of the bulletproof club is unusual in that it can produce flowers—pretty little white scented ones. But few people ever see them, as they require lots of light (which the basic plant does not).
  • "ZZ Plant". No, it doesn't have a really long beard or play rocking guitar licks. This ferny-looking Philodendron relative has such a tongue-twisting Botanical name that people just call it by its initials. The only way to kill it is by overwatering, and if you avoid that, it will develop multiple crowns that are easy to divide and pot up as baby plants. (So everyone in the office with have one if you work there long enough.)
  • Sago palm. Now we're out of the realm of the standard 'big leaf' houseplant and into the world of the weird. Not a true palm, but a cycad—one of the world's oldest known plants—this thing looks like it belongs in Jurassic Park, with a big swollen bulb-like stem down low and really cool fronds up top that emerge lime green and darken as they grow. Justin feels that this one has the most entertainment value sitting on a desk, but don't let people touch it. He warns that those fronds are really prickly and can deliver a nasty rash. So have a sign made up that says "Man Eating Plant! Keep fingers away!" and glue it to the pot.
  • Ponytail Palm. Also not a true palm, so forget about the little coconuts you were hoping for. It IS a true succulent, which means that the ponytail can go the longest without watering. And its sparse look makes it a great choice for people with neat, clean desks. (Which must mean that my desk needs a big pot of kudzu to reflect its Feng Shui.)

OK—now for the basics. All of these plants can get by with ambient (low) light. They can also take fairly bright light—real or artificial—but then they'll grow faster, get bigger and use up water more quickly. So if you want your desk plants to stay tiny, don't buy lights for them. But if you do want them to grow larger, give them more light. And more water, but…

always remember that overwatering is the single biggest human cause of plant death! It is much easier to revive a slightly dry plant than to bring a drowning victim back from the dead.

Here's the best way to water: Sit the pot in a sink with some water in it for an hour. Let it drain. Feel the weight of the pot; it is now heavy. When the pot is noticeably lighter, repeat the watering. If it still feels heavy a month later---clean up your emails or find something else to do that doesn't involve a faucet!

Oh, and you can certainly sit your pots in saucers to protect the surfaces underneath, but never allow water to pool up in those saucers—indoors or out!

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