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How to choose the best office plants

Sam_Coppard
Published on March 8th 2019
7
A laptop computer sitting on top of a wooden table with houseplants

The benefits of plants in the office

Plants are one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your office's working environment. A huge list of studies has found an impressively wide variety of benefits associated with making your office a little greener.
Nobody likes breathing polluted air, and indoor air quality is often worse than it is outside, even in major cities. By drawing contaminants into the soil, some plants have been found to filter up to 87% of harmful pollutants from the air in just 24 hours. Also, when those harmful compounds have been sequestered, they get turned into plant food. Win-win!
You might be surprised that there are also some strong financial incentives for businesses to bring plants into the office. Research has shown that working in a plant-filled environment decreases stress and increases productivity by at least 10%.
A few large plants together will also increase humidity, which tends to be low in most offices. Why does this matter? Because low humidity makes people ill.
Dry air increases the risk of contracting respiratory illnesses as the linings of your nose and throat need to be moist to effectively keep out harmful particles.
So, employees will be happier, healthier and more productive in an office full of plants. Great! However, with hundreds or even thousands of plants to choose from, how do you know which ones you should buy?

Define your plant's purpose

I'm not talking about whether the plant should spend more time meditating in an Indian ashram to find itself, but plants that look good on your desk are very different to impressive statement plants for the reception area.
You should always know where a plant will be positioned before you decide on the plant itself, as its location can dictate the happiness and health of a plant.
Tropical flowers or plants with colourful, variegated leaves are ideal for brightening up dull areas but regularly require more heat and daylight. Alternatively, you might want to increase the oxygen levels in a room, in which case you’ll wish to choose green foliage plants with lush, oversized leaves. Yet another set of plants will be best for removing pollutants. And while plants like ivy will thrive in a relatively dark corner, cacti and other desert species love nothing more than basking in the sun.

Location location location

Humans don’t like stuffy cubicles with no airflow, and plants feel the same. Squeezing plants into tight corners, between or behind furniture is never a good idea, although some hardy plants (like cast iron plants) will survive even that. As a general guideline, you should give plants at least 6” of space on all sides. They'll also do best with good airflow, so make use of areas near hallways or windows, as well as desks and tabletops.
Plants in enclosed areas like conference rooms will be a lot happier if you leave the doors open when nobody’s in there.
And never underestimate human clumsiness. Small or delicate plants always end up damaged in high footfall areas, so these areas need large, strong, woody plants like fig and umbrella trees that aren’t easily knocked over.
Last but not least, you'll want to keep most of your plants away from heaters and A/C units, although there's always the odd plant that thrives where everything else dies. Tropical plants like it hot, but the soil will quickly dry out near a radiator, and they’ll need frequent watering and misting to do well. On the other end of the spectrum, soil stays moist for longer near A/C units, so consider putting ferns and other cold-tolerating, damp-loving plants here.
concrete plant pots holding succulent houseplants

Size matters

Anything under 60-75cm should be fine on a desk or other surface, while floor plants up to at least 1.5m tall will fit in most places. For a true statement piece, you might want to consider something taller, especially if your office has high ceilings. It’s often helpful to think of plant height in comparison to eye level to make your potential office plants easier to picture in place.
But remember size isn’t everything - it’s all about proportion. A single small desk will look ridiculous next to a giant tree, while that baby succulent you love so much will be dwarfed on a massive windowsill beneath huge windows.
Read more about succulents here:
A close up of a green succulent plant

Succulents

Succulent Plants

How bright is your plant's new home?

A bright and airy office is fantastic, but there’s always a dark spot somewhere. When choosing office plants, it’s important to consider the hyperlocal light conditions that they'll experience.
South-facing windows naturally receive the most light through the day, while north-facing windows only ever get lower levels of indirect light. But beware - this can also be impacted by external factors. A large tree or towering office block across the road could block most of the light your plants would otherwise enjoy.
As a general rule, the more light you have to play with, the wider your options are going to be. But the rainforest floor isn’t exactly bright, and there’s no shortage of greenery there! Some plants (like the ZZ plant or nerve plant) will even be perfectly happy in a windowless office lit entirely by fluorescent lighting.

Can you cope with high maintenance?

Even if you’re famous for letting your plants die, there are plenty of low maintenance plants that thrive indoors without being too needy. However, it goes without saying, notoriously tricky plants like orchids aren’t usually a good idea for a modern office.
A white orchid growing
All plants need watering, but some need more than others. Overwatering kills more office plants than thirst, especially when several people are jointly responsible for looking after them.
You can even get self-watering planters that reduce the care requirements to almost zero if that's what you want. Otherwise, it’s generally best to quickly check the soil moisture before watering. For most plants, if the soil is still moist, it doesn’t need any more water.
A small round furry Cactus
Plants, like us, need more than just water - they need food too! Feeding your plants shouldn’t be necessary when you’ve just bought them, but the soil's nutrients deplete over time as your plants extract them from the soil. Water-soluble plant food is an easy way to fertilise your plants that only takes a few extra seconds.
You’ll need to do a bit of other maintenance as well for some office plants, but nothing too tricky. Cut back dead leaves when necessary, trim back overgrown stems occasionally, and dust them! Dust always builds up on indoor plants, so you should wipe their leaves with a damp cloth every few weeks to enable light to get to their leaves.
A bowl of succulents
The guide below should help, but if you're not sure whether your next pretty office plant is going to be too much work, a good rule of thumb is that leafy foliage plants usually have easier care requirements than colourful exotics.

Living for the weekend

Most plants aren’t designed to cope with significant fluctuations in light, temperature and airflow. If the office is empty for extended periods (a weekend or longer), it’s a good idea to leave as many doors open as possible, and make sure the temperature doesn’t drop below around 15C.
Now you're armed with the basics, how about some specifics? Here are some of our top recommended office plants - some are happy under fluorescent lights while others need windows, some are tiny and delicate while others are huge and sturdy, and some need regular care while others can be ignored for weeks without any ill effects.

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

A medium-sized succulent with small flowers, the jade plant is always popular in homes and offices because of its resilience and tolerance of neglect. The jade plant is also known as the “money plant” and is associated with financial success, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve made their way into western offices!
Size: 1-2m spread x 1-3m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial shade
Soil moisture: Dry
A close up of a flower garden, peace lilly.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.)

One of the most recognisable indoor plants, the peace lily’s distinctive white flowers have made them a regular feature in homes and offices across the world. They can grow quite large, and they’re particularly good at filtering pollutants out of the air. Peace lilies are also surprisingly resilient, able to cope with both occasional overwatering and underwatering, as well as thriving in the shade.
Size: 0.45m spread
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist to dry

Cast Iron Plant

Aspidistra elatior

Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)

You’ll struggle to find a hardier leafy plant than the cast iron plant, which is so well suited to indoor life that it may as well have evolved there. Cast iron plants are completely happy in dim light and cool temperatures - perfect for that awkward shady spot by the A/C unit where nothing else will grow.
Size: 0.2-0.6m spread x 0.6-1m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist
A close up of a flower, Gerbera

Gerbera (Gerbera spp.)

Gerberas have showy, daisy-like flowers that last a long time. They’ve been intensively cultivated and hybridised for years, and there's bound to be one that takes your fancy among the thousands of available varieties.
Size: 0.2-0.4m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

African violet (Saintpaulia spp.)

Small and beautiful, African violets are a great option if you don’t mind a little bit more work. They’re easy to care for, but they are slightly trickier than most of the options on this list. If you put them on a bright windowsill, water and rotate them regularly, making sure the temperature doesn’t drop below 18C, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Size: 0.1-0.3m spread x 0.1-0.15m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Full sun to partial shade
Soil moisture: Moist

Parlour Palm

Chamaedorea elegans

Dwarf mountain palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

With a leafy appearance and the ability to grow in low-light areas, these small evergreen palms have become an extremely popular house and office plant. They also happen to be cheap, great for separating different areas of the office and excellent for air quality.
Size: 1-1.5m spread x 1.5-2.5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Universally popular, these low-maintenance succulents are found on desks across the world. They like full sun best, but they’ll still grow in semi-shade. Aloes are also easy to propagate if you want more - just leave a single leaflet on moist compost in a bright window and it will sprout roots and grow from there.
Size: 0.5-1m spread x 0.3-0.6m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Dry
aglaonema house plant

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.)

Renowned for their shiny, variegated and dramatically coloured leaves, these tropical Asian species thrive in low light conditions and require very little maintenance. A Chinese evergreen’s favourite spot will be warm with only partial sun and moderate humidity, but it can tolerate less ideal environments so long as it never gets too cold.
Size: 0.1-0.5m spread x 0.1-0.5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

Philodendrons (Philodendron spp.)

There are hundreds of different Philodendron species including shrubs, trees and climbers, but with their huge and impressive green leaves, they’re all renowned for their attractive foliage. Philodendrons also let you know if they’re unhappy pretty quickly, so it’s easy to keep them alive and healthy.
Size: 0.5-1m spread x 2.5-4m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry

English ivy (Hedera helix)

Always a safe bet for areas with low light and poor air circulation, English ivy is a classic climbing evergreen vine. You might prefer not to know that many homes and offices have faecal matter particles floating around, but the good news is that English ivy is especially good at filtering them out.
Size: Vast if you give it a big enough pot!
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist

Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa)

Quite tall and bushy for an office plant, ming aralia is actually a dwarf tree. Perfect for those who like their plants low maintenance, the ming aralia only needs to be watered once a fortnight. They’re distinctive trees that make for a perfect bonsai if you fancy something a little different.
Size: 0.5-1m spread x 1-2m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist
A close up of a green plant, snake plant

Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)

With stiff leaves that can grow 1m tall, snake plants can make effective and attractive partitions between office areas. Also known as mother-in-law’s tongue due to their sharp leaves, snake plants are almost indestructible - you can neglect them for weeks or leave them in full sun for long periods without any issues.
Size: 0.1-0.5m spread x 1-1.5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry

Cacti (Various)

There’s no shortage of cacti species to choose from, and they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the most popular cacti for the office are the bunny ears cactus, golden ball cactus and Peruvian apple cactus - you don’t want anything too big or everyone will be scared to go near it. Super low maintenance, cacti thrive on neglect. Just put them in your sunniest window and they’ll be happy.
Size: Up to 0.4m spread x 0.9m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun
Soil moisture: Dry

Lucky Bamboo

Dracaena braunii

Lucky bamboo (Dracaena braunii)

This isn’t a true bamboo, but it looks superficially similar. Lucky bamboo is one of the trickier plants to grow indoors, but they do well if cared for properly and can make a great office plant. You don’t even need soil to grow them - water in a vase is enough.
Size: 0.1-0.2m spread x 0.5-1.5m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

Azalea (Azalea mollis)

With pretty flowers that come in a wide range of colours, azaleas are a great choice to brighten up the office, especially if you generally prefer your office on the cooler side. You should prune your azaleas after they flower, but apart from that, they don’t need too much attention, although they do tend to dry out quite quickly due to their shallow roots.
Size: 0.5-1.5m spread x 0.5-1.5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

Song Of India

Dracaena reflexa

Song of India (Dracaena reflexa)

This tender evergreen Dracaena can grow up to 5m tall in the right conditions, although it rarely reaches those heights indoors. Still, it makes a fantastic focal point and is great for separating different office areas. Song of India is particularly suited for offices with hardwood floors, as it filters out oil and varnish particles that have escaped into the air.
Size: 5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Bright filtered light
Soil moisture: Dry to moist

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Particularly easy to grow indoors, spider plants are popular house and office plants, especially as they grow well in the shade and hanging baskets. Ideal for adding a bit of variety!
Size: 0.2-0.6m spread x 0.2-0.3m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist

Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)

While the weeping fig loves bright sunny conditions, it can still cope with poor light and is popular as a foliage plant for its waxy green leaves. It’s also known to remove airborne pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde. Weeping figs will grow as much or as little as you want - they can be kept as beautiful bonsais or grow to 30m tall in the wild.
Size: 1.5-2.5m spread x 2.5-4m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Also known as the fern arum, this is one of the lowest maintenance office plants you'll ever find. It’s pretty much impossible to kill a ZZ plant unless you overwater it. Or, set it on fire, I guess. With its tropical vibes and ability to survive under fluorescent light, the ZZ plant is a great choice for windowless offices.
Size: 0.5-1m spread x 0.3-0.6m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Dry

Dwarf Umbrella Tree

Schefflera arboricola

Dwarf umbrella tree (Schefflera arboricola)

The dwarf umbrella tree is small enough that it can be kept on a desk or other surface, while the full-size version is quite tall and can be used as a focal point or to give an area some extra privacy.
Size: 1.2-1.8m spread x 2.5-3m tall
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Moist

Mosaic/nerve plant (Fittonia albivenis)

It’s not hard to see where the mosaic aka nerve plant gets its names - its oversized evergreen leaves are bold and extremely distinctive. It grows well under fluorescent light and makes a great plant for the office.
Size: 0.1-0.5m spread x 0.1-0.5m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry

Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

Also known as devil’s ivy, golden pothos is a large climbing vine that copes well with low light. It will need trimming if you want to keep it small enough to fit on your desk otherwise you can let the plant grow wild with very little maintenance.
Size: 1-2m spread x 4-12m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun to partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry
A Ficus elastica houseplant with green leaves

Rubber Plant

Ficus elastica

Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)

The rubber plant’s large, glossy, green leaves give a tropical feel, especially when the leaves are flushed with red. Rubber plants are easy to look after and thrive in bright conditions.
Size: 0.75-1.5m spread x 0.5-4m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Full sun
Soil moisture: Moist to dry

Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)

You’ve almost certainly seen corn plants in people’s homes or offices in the past, as they’re well known to thrive in average office conditions. Corn plants are very tolerant of low light levels and their arching leaves are particularly attractive thanks to their sword shape and central yellow stripe.
Size: 1-1.5m spread x 2.5-4m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Full sun to partial shade
Soil moisture: Moist to dry
A fern sitting on a chair in a house

Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

A popular houseplant ever since the Victorians discovered that they were excellent at filtering polluted air, the Boston fern is extremely easy to care for - just don’t let it dry out and you've got nothing to worry about.
Size: 1-2m spread x 1-2m high
Difficulty: Easy
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist

Areca Palm

Dypsis spp.

Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens)

A feathery palm with leaves that look like they’ve been put through a shredder, the areca palm is a good choice if you have a large space with bright, indirect light.
Size: 2.5-4m spread x 4-8m high
Difficulty: Moderate
Light preference: Partial sun
Soil moisture: Dry
bromliad house plant

Bromeliads (Various)

Native to the tropical and subtropical Americas, bromeliads are epiphytic, meaning they grow directly on trees and other support structures without needing soil. Their bracts are typically bright and bold and will usually last for several months. If you need to add some spectacular colour to a dull hallway or reception area, you can’t go wrong with a bromeliad or ten. Some of the most popular are the flaming sword bromeliad and guzmania bromeliad and urn bromeliad. They all have slightly different preferences though, so it’s worth reading the label when you get them!
Size: Various, but generally 0.1-0.3m spread x 0.2-0.5m high
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Light preference: Partial sun to full shade
Soil moisture: Moist to dry