- Low-light plants have adapted to their shady environments both indoors and in their natural habitats.
- Most low-light plants don’t need to be watered very often, making them even easier to keep alive.
- Bird’s nest fern and calatheas are both shade tolerant and non-toxic to pets.
- Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.
Most beginner plants have one thing in common: low-light tolerance. These plants are favorites for dimly lit apartments, dark offices, and shady corners of the home. While all plants need light to create food through the process of photosynthesis, some can survive and continue to grow in less than sunny conditions.
Erin Marino, editorial lead and plant expert at The Sill, shares her top eight choices of plants that tolerate low light, making them perfect houseplants for the duskiness of autumn and winter.
What makes certain plants tolerant to shade?
Houseplants, like humans, are adaptable to change. In the case of shade-tolerant or low-light plants, Marino explains that it is adaptation over time in the plant’s natural environment, adaptation over time through cultivation in a controlled environment like a greenhouse, or a combination of both that makes these plants resilient in low light.
“Some plants like ferns are native to dark forest floors. Thanks to a dense canopy of trees above, they receive little direct sunlight, but have adapted over time to thrive in this shady environment,” says Marino. “This natural tolerance in their native habitat makes for a popular houseplant, so they are then cultivated by growers to strengthen that tolerance even more over time.”
1. Snake plant
The snake plant, also known as the mother-in-law’s tongue and Saint George’s sword, is the low-maintenance houseplant every novice plant parent needs. It also claimed a top spot in NASA’s Clean Air Study in 1989 as being able to reduce indoor air pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde.
“The snake plant is also a succulent plant that tolerates low light,” says Marino. “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!”
2. ZZ plant
The ZZ plant is not only able to survive the shade but is also drought tolerant. “Having evolved in arid environments, ZZ plants have developed rhizomes that store water to help them survive droughts in their natural habitat,” says Marino.
3. Bird’s nest fern
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 your space. This charming houseplant is also pet-friendly — a perfect foliage friend for your fur baby.
“Ferns get a bad rap for being difficult to care for, but the bird’s nest fern variety is relatively low maintenance,” says Marino. “It is epiphytic in its natural habitat, meaning it grows on other things like trees or rocks to reach more light.”
The crowd-pleasing pothos plant has been one of the most popular houseplants for decades, not just for its attractive trailing vines and different shades of green, but for its enduring nature in several types of environments.
“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 environment,” says Marino. “It’s even sometimes referred to as the ‘cubicle plant’ because of its tolerance to less than ideal conditions like low natural light.”
Philodendrons are revered for their unique heart-shaped green leaves, easy-going nature, and trailing vines that make it a popular pick for beginners and collectors alike to put high up or in a hanging basket.
“It often gets confused with the pothos, which makes sense, as aesthetically these plants look similar and require similar care,” says Marino. “Both also climb and trail in their native habitats to maximize sun fleck capture.”
6. Chinese evergreen
The hardy Chinese evergreen plant is frequently seen in more dimly lit offices and darker corners of the home because of its adapted resilience to low light. “Native to the tropical forest floors of Asia, the Chinese evergreen plant prefers indirect sunlight — direct can scorch their variegated leaves — and has adapted to survive lower light levels,” says Marino.
7. Prayer plant
Calatheas are renowned for their low-light tolerance. Often called “prayer plants,” Calathes raise and lower their leaves from day to night in a praying motion as part of their circadian rhythm — a phenomenon called nyctinasty. “It is theorized that these movements are meant to follow the sun and catch as much light as possible, an essential trait for a forest-floor-dwelling plant,” says Marino.
Almost all dracaenas are popular houseplants due to their low maintenance and tolerance for low light. With over 100 different species within the genus, there is a dracaena for every plant parent out there.
“They are sometimes referred to as dragon trees,” says Marino. “Dracaena comes from the Ancient Greek word drakaina meaning ‘female dragon.’ Their thin, sword-like leaves can come in a variety of colors and are perfectly shaped for maximizing sun fleck capture.”
While low-light or shade-tolerant plants are preferred among new plant parents who want to test out their green thumb with hardy plants, they are also favorites of plant experts because of their reliability and simple care routine. With an infrequent yet consistent watering schedule and careful observation to avoid pests and problems, low-light plants can reward you with thriving foliage for years to come.