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Houseplants and Low Light Conditions

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

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Winter is a difficult season for houseplants. Many plants don't receive sufficient light because of the short winter days, low angle of the sun, and often overcast weather. While houseplants differ in their lighting requirements, all benefit from supplemental lighting during the winter months.

Light can be broken down into various wavelengths. Those wavelengths that are perceived as colors are in the visible spectrum. Plants make use of all visible light. Red and blue, however, are the most important for plant growth.

The key to growing healthy houseplants is the light source. Most homes are lit with incandescent bulbs. Unfortunately, they are not a good light source for houseplants. Incandescent bulbs emit light primarily in the red portion of the visible light spectrum. They are also inefficient, 75 to 85 percent of the energy is lost as heat. Foliage which comes into contact with a hot incandescent bulb will be burned.

Fluorescent bulbs are better sources of light for houseplants. Fluorescent tubes give off little heat and produce two and a half to three times more light than incandescent bulbs of the same wattage. They also produce light over a broader range of the visible spectrum, however, blue is predominant. In addition, they are available in square, tubular, and round shapes. Special fluorescent lamps are available in various colors, such as cool and warm whites, daylight, and natural. Warm white fluorescent tubes emit a higher percentage of red light.

"Grow lights" are also available to indoor gardeners. They emit light primarily in the red and blue regions of the light spectrum. However, "grow lights" give off less light than standard fluorescent lights and are quite expensive. A standard fluorescent unit containing two standard 40 watt fluorescent tubes or one cool white and one warm white tube provide adequate light for house plants and are much more economical.

In well-lit locations, artificial light may be needed only for a few hours in the evening during the fall and winter months. In darker areas, operate the lights for 12 to 16 hours per day. Since light intensity drops rapidly as the distance from the light source increases, houseplants should be placed within a few inches of the lights. Place plants that have a high light requirement directly under the lights and plants that can tolerate lower levels to the side.

Houseplants can be successfully grown without artificial light if you select plants that can tolerate low light levels. Low light areas receive enough light to read by during the day and are typically found within a few feet of a window.

Houseplants that will perform well in low light conditions include: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.), cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), fishtail palm (Caryota mitis), parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans), spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia spp.), and false aralia (Dizygotheca elegantissima).

Other houseplants that will perform well in low light conditions include pothos or devil's ivy (Epipremnum aureum), English ivy (Hedera helix), split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa), peperomia (Peperomia spp.), philodendron (Philodendron spp.), aluminum plant (Pilea cadierei), artillery plant (Pilea microphylla), Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.), arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum), and wandering jew (Zebrina pendula).

Even though these houseplants will tolerate low light conditions, it is best to move these plants closer to windows during the winter months.

(This resource was updated January 2007 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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