We’ve all made that impulse purchase and brought home a beautiful plant to brighten up a dark corner. Then, a week or so later, the plant gives up the ghost, and no matter how much we water, feed and tend to it, eventually, it dies.
But it doesn’t need to be this way! There is a booming interest in houseplants at the moment, and there are many low light houseplant varieties to choose from.
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Why do houseplants need different light levels?
To understand this, you must consider that plants, like pets, originally came from a variety of wild habitats.
Many shade-loving houseplants are from the undergrowth of tropical jungles, or grow as climbers, only reaching sunlight in maturity.
Ferns, such as this maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum), often prefer relatively bright light and can be demanding, requiring high humidity levels.
Feeding and watering
When houseplants are kept in shade, they tend to grow considerably slower than when they have access to higher light levels. For this reason, it is preferable to keep feeding, watering and repotting to a minimum to avoid lanky, weak growth or rotting-off.
Remember that light intensity drops significantly as you move away from a window. Even a metre or so accounts for a 50% drop in light levels, and you cannot grow a plant in a room that receives no light at all.
Most lightbulbs in the home do not have the full light spectrum needed for plant growth.
Grape ivy (Cissus rhombofolia) is one of many houseplants that was widely grown in the 1970s and is once again finding popularity for its tough, shade-tolerant nature.
Foliage vs. flowers
Creating flowers uses up a lot of a plant’s resources, and most flowering plants will wither in the shade, or revert to producing only leaves.
The peace lily is one of the only plants that will regularly flower in low(ish) light levels.
African violets, anthuriums and bromeliads will also bloom where other plants go blind, but still require brighter light than most on this list.
Variegated plants often require higher light levels. However, many variegated and patterned houseplants can tolerate lower light conditions (see further below).
The elegant white flowers of the peace lily (Spathiphyllum) are more popular than ever due to their tolerance of low light levels.
Cast iron constitutions
When it comes to low light houseplants, the following are the toughest you’ll find.
Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior): A Victorian favourite, few houseplants tolerate lower light levels or neglect as well. Elegant deep green, glossy leaves on slow-growing plants, plus a variegated variety is available.
ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia): Another slow-grower with minimal demands. A modern counterpart to the aspidistra with long, thick pinnate leaves. This plant easily brushes off neglect, storing large amounts of water in its roots and leaves.
Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens): A popular choice as the heart-leaf will climb or trail, depending on the setting. The matt, heart-shaped leaves are medium-sized and have an attractive copper hue when first unfurled.
Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana): A large indoor palm with beautifully arching leaves, the Kentia palm can make an imposing specimen, growing up to two metres in the home.
Parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans): In terms of scale, the parlour palm is the polar opposite to the Kentia, with dainty little palm leaves and a fully grown height of around 30-45cms indoors.
A tough little cookie, tolerating extremes of heat, light and water levels.
The Ficus family also has some stunning foliage plants for low light, such as the fiddle-leaved fig, weeping fig and the rubber plant (pictured).
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Carefree fancy foliage
These plants are not as borderline-indestructible as those above, but will still perform in lower light levels without giving you too much trouble.
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittatum’): One of the most famous houseplants. Not in the list above as it needs slightly more light due to its white-ribbed leaves, but tough-as boots and will produce arching stems with spiderlings.
Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa): The iconic large, cut/lobed leaves of the cheese plant, and its imposing size make it a popular houseplant. For more holes in the leaves, you’ll need higher light levels, but still easy to care for in low light situations.
Dracaeana spp.: There are many different Dracaena varieties for the home. The best for low light are D. marginata, D. fragrans and D. deremensis ‘Janet Craig’. Usually sold singly or as a trio of stems at varying heights.
Devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum): A relative of the heart-leaf philodendron, with a very similar growth habit. Devil’s ivy also has similarly heart-shaped leaves with vibrant yellow streaks.
Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’): An elegant fern with arching, ladder-like fronds. Enjoys high humidity and seems to thrive in a bathroom environment.
Be careful with watering as leaves will rot if too wet or become brown if too dry.
Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema spp.) make a striking and easy-to-grow houseplant, but are seen more often in public buildings and offices.
Part-shade prima donnas
These beauties are mainly from the floor of tropical jungles and, although they enjoy low light, they also require high humidity, stable temperatures and careful watering to reflect their forest homes.
Calatheas (Calathea spp.) Calatheas are currently enjoying a renaissance with their varied leaf shapes, intricate, contrasting patterns and eye-catching colours.
With so many varieties to choose from, it’s hard to list them all, but watch out for C. zebrina (zebra plant), C. lancifolia (rattlesnake plant), C. makoyana (peacock plant) and C. rufibarba (furry feather/velvet calathea).
Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura vars.): Maranta and Calathea are often grouped together under prayer plants. They get their name from the fact that their leaves close together at night.
Their finicky requirements of high humidity and stable temperatures are also similar. Try M. var. kerchoveana (rabbit’s foot) and var. erythroneura (herringbone plant).
Don't let the fussy demands of the prayer plants, which also include the never never plants (Ctenathe and Stromanthe spp.) put you off - they are very much worth the effort!
The never never plant ‘Triostar’ is arguably the most spectacular shade-tolerant houseplant, but has the family’s typically demanding nature.
Nerve plant (Fittonia spp.): A love-growing, spreading plants with the most intricately-veined oval leaves. Unfortunately, the nerve plant has a deserved reputation for shrivelling up when its high humidity or careful watering demands aren’t fulfilled (main image).
Rex begonia (Begonia rex vars.): A somewhat retro houseplant these days, the rex begonia is still a charmer. Leaves come in a range of unusual colours, including grey, purple and near-black.
The variety ‘Escargot’ wins hands-down for quirkiest foliage – its leaves are shaped like snails!
The peacock begonia (_Begonia pavonina_) might have the most naturally beautiful foliage of all low light houseplants.