Low-Light Houseplants: Why Some Prefer Shade And 9 Types

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Plants are like sun-worshipping beach bums, right? But hold up! Ever wonder why some green pals thrive in dim corners? Welcome to the Dark Side! Get ready to unravel the mystery and meet 9 low-light champions eager to transform your space!

Short Sum-Up: A houseplant’s shade tolerance is dictated by its adaptation to light conditions in its native habitat as it evolves to excel in specific environments. Plants from low-light habitats optimize light use and metabolic functions to thrive in shade.

It’s time to uncover the shady secrets of these light-defying gurus and pick the perfect low-light legend to brighten up your dark spaces!

Why Do Some Houseplants Do Well In Shade?

The specific natural habitat of a plant type defines how well it does with shade. Each plant type has evolved to thrive in particular environments or environmental niches. This implies that every plant has adapted to specific conditions relating to light, water, and nutrients.

Example: Consider a cactus flourishing in the arid landscape of the Mexican desert, contrasted with an undergrowth plant blanketing the floor of a dense tropical rainforest in Brazil. These plants have developed distinct metabolic and survival strategies tailored to the unique environmental circumstances in which they reside.

Plants native to habitats with low-light conditions have gradually adapted to thrive in shade and optimize their utilization of limited light. This adaptation allows them to not only survive but also flourish in shaded environments. These so-called shade-tolerant plants will prefer shade over direct sunlight.

If you expose shade-tolerant plants to bright, harsh sunlight, it will cause them issues such as scorched leaves. On the other hand, plants native to habitats with bright-light conditions have gradually adapted to an abundance of light and will struggle in low-light conditions.

So, how well a houseplant does with shade depends on the light conditions it has adapted to in its natural habitat.

What Shade-Tolerant Means: Think Of Shade, Not Darkness

In terms of indoor plants, plants used to low light can be described as shade-tolerant plants, as opposed to plants that need full sun or half-shade / half-sun. These light requirements are usually also indicated on the plant labels at the nurseries.

I find it important though to clarify what full-shade and shade-tolerant actually mean for plants. Often, people simply equate shade with darkness. This can lead to the false assumption that shade-tolerant plants barely need any light at all and can even be put in a room without windows.

However, all green plants need light for photosynthesis. Shade is not darkness but the absence of direct sunlight, in other words, a space sheltered from direct sunlight.

Example: Shade is what you get when sitting under a tree or walking in a forest outside in summer. Does sitting under a tree or walking in the forest feel ‘dark’ to you? Not really, right? It is that kind of shade that plants do well with.

Indoors, because of our four walls that block natural light, we have created rooms that are often much darker than the shade outside would be. Hence, even shade-tolerant plants are best not put in the darkest corners of your home where barely any natural light reaches.

Plants in ideal spots will thrive better than plants in suboptimal spots. An ideal spot for any houseplant always involves a little more light than the minimum they need to survive. Especially indoors, the intensity of light diminishes fast with each half a meter you move away from the windows.

The darkest spots in your home probably are:

  • The spots furthest away from the windows in each room
  • North-facing windows get the least amount of light
  • Rooms and spots where the light is obstructed by a big obstacle outside such as the neighboring house

If you want to know more about what direct and indirect light or shade means and what spots in your home provide what kind of light, then click through to my post:

Do you want to know exactly how much light a specific spot in your home gets? Use a light meter! Many plant care apps have accurate light meters integrated these days and will even give you recommendations for plant types for each spot. Find the best free plant care app that suits you in this post:

Do Plants Need Direct Sunlight?

Plants do not rely on direct sunlight but need direct or indirect light for their photosynthetic activity. Blue and red wavelengths have proven the most efficient light for plants and are also summed up under the term photosynthetic activity radiation (PAR).

Most houseplants prefer bright indirect light. There are a few exceptions such as cacti or succulent specimens that thrive under full direct sunlight, but generally, you can’t go wrong with bright indirect light.

Become an expert and understand better what kind of light plants need by checking out the following post:

Can artificial lighting replace natural sunlight? It can indeed add some brightness to a dim corner! Even energy-efficient LEDs can work as grow lights. Check out this post to find out what LEDs work for indoor plants and brighten up your home:

LED grow lights are not even as expensive, and they look just like regular bulbs. Check out those LED grow light bulbs (Amazon) for only around 25 USD.

I recommend always looking for bulbs that are ‘full-spectrum’ and for all stages of plant growth.

Not every type of houseplant needs direct sunlight. Most houseplants prefer indirect light. (Image source: author photos)

How Plants Adapt to Shade: Metabolic Tricks

Plants are clever sessile creatures and have developed many tricks to do well in shade. First, let’s start with this quick definition of shade tolerance:

“Shade tolerance is a concept that refers to the capacity of a given plant to tolerate low light levels.”

Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, 2001

Light and water are the most essential resources for plant growth and plant survival heavily depends on their supply limits as well as on the competition for these resources. To survive in suboptimal conditions, many plants have evolved various strategies to maximize their metabolic efficiency.

One such strategy involves being able to tolerate shade. Shade tolerance is the capacity to tolerate low light levels. Plants acquire this tolerance through several metabolic and structural mechanisms among which are the following:

  • Using infra-red light: Some plants have equipped their chloroplasts with special kinds of chlorophyll that can absorb low-energy light in the infra-red wavelengths. These plants can do without much white light.
  • Higher chlorophyll content: More chlorophyll means more photosynthesis. Hence, shade-tolerant plants pack their leaf area with as much chlorophyll as possible which is the reason why most of these plants have dark-green leaves.
  • Conservative use of resources: In general, shade-tolerant plants are the super-savers among plants as their whole metabolism is built to preserve resources wherever they can.
  • Reduce respiration losses: By closing and opening the leaf stomata only at certain times, plants can significantly reduce the loss of water through the respiration of their leaves. This is a trick that also sun-exposed plants in hot climates know well.
  • Thinner but broader leaves: Thin leaves take less energy to produce, and a bigger surface provides more area for photosynthetic activity.

Botanical Moochers: The True Dark Side Of The Plant World

Is there any plant that needs no light? One would generally argue no, there isn’t, as all plants need to photosynthesize for their food. However, some cheeky plants among our green fellows have evolved to live off the food that others produce for them – whether the others want to feed them or not.

Plants that live off the nutrients of a host plant are called parasitic plants or parasites. According to the British Natural History Museum, only about 1% of all flowering plants are parasitic.

A famous representative of parasitic plants is the mistletoe. The mistletoe is semi-parasitic which means it produces some sugars itself through photosynthesis while it steals water and other nutrients from the tree it grows on. By doing so, it slowly kills its host.

Parasitic plants in some way could be considered the most shade-tolerant plants, but as their nutrients are only stolen, I refuse to award them that title. After all, even parasitic plants depend on the photosynthesis of their host plants. They are simply cheating!

Still, it is remarkable to become aware of all the variations and adaptations the plant world has to offer.

Suited For Low-Light: 9 Shade-Tolerant Plants

Now that you are an expert on shade tolerance in plants, you surely also want to have some recommendations for plant types that belong to this group of shady fellows. Here are 9 common houseplant types that do well with shade:

Tip: Even though all of these plants do well in shade, they will grow better and faster if you give them bright indirect light.

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

The ZZ Plant, also called the Zanzibar Gem, grows naturally on dry African grasslands in the shade of trees. It is known to be very undemanding in its light requirements and prefers irregular watering only every 2-3 weeks.

This plant will do well in shade. It won’t grow many new branches in full shade but as it looks stunning anyhow, it doesn’t matter that much.

It is a great beginner plant that will not let you down and is very forgiving. The only thing to avoid is overwatering. Let the soil dry out in the top layers before watering.

Philodendrons

Any type of Philodendron is well-suited for growing in shade or half-shade. As natural tree-climbers in dense tropical forests, they are used to low-light conditions under the canopy of trees.

They don’t grow as much in the shade as in indirect light, but they will bear with low-light much better than other plants.

A common indoor plant is the Heart-Leaf Plant (Philodendron hederaceum). It is an undemanding, beautiful addition to your green home.

Snake Plant (Dracaena – formerly Sansevieria – trifasciata)

The Snake Plant spreads a calm, zen-like aesthetic in any room. Its sword-like leaves arching upwards with their intricate contrasting pattern give it a unique look.

The Sansevieria does surprisingly well in the shade for being a succulent. It is a great plant to put in your bedroom with its calm appearance.

Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)

The Cast Iron Plant is known to be a very hardy houseplant that is incredibly hard to kill. Even in very shady spots, it will survive in good shape.

As a very undemanding plant, it is very forgiving and well-suited as a beginner plant.

Wax Plant (Hoya carnosa)

A stunning and well-growing addition for your indoor jungle is the Hoya carnosa, also known as Wax Plant because of its waxy flower pods.

This houseplant is just a stunner – with its lush dark-green foliage and its soft-colored waxy flowers with their droplets of nectar.

Even though this plant is a total survivalist and will do in any light conditions from full shade to full indirect light, it is important to mention here that this plant will not produce its iconic flowers in a shady spot.

So, keep in mind: For flowers, it needs bright indirect light. For just growing without flowers, shade is just fine for it.

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

The Pothos Plants are also called the Devil’s Ivy because they seem just impossible to kill. It will grow, even if you neglect it for ages or put it in a shady spot.

Variegated types such as the Golden Pothos might loose a bit of their variegation in low-light conditions but generally they do very well in shade.

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)

The Peace Lily is another plant that has evolved to do well in low light. As an undergrowth plant native to swamps and wetlands in Central America, it is used to growing in the shade of large trees.

Keep the soil moist but not soggy for the Peace Lily to thrive, and make sure to keep it out of direct sunlight.

Monsteras

Monstera Plants, such as the Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa), definitely thrive better in bright light, but as they are such popular houseplants and can survive in shade, I still wanted to mention them here.

In their natural habitat, they climb trees in dense rainforests and usually only reach higher light levels once they reach the upper canopy as a mature plant. Hence, they are very shade-tolerant plant as they need to compete for light throughout their lifespan.

In low-light, the Monstera Plant will grow much slower than in bright indirect light, and it might produce less perforations on its leaves. Still, it will look great in a half-shady or shady spot, it will just take its time to grow.

If you are fine with less growth, then the Monstera can be a good choice for a low-light spot.

Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia seguine)

The Dumb Cane, often refered to by its botanical name Dieffenbachia, prefers medium bright light but also tolerates shade very well.

Even in low-light conditions, it will amaze with its decorative foliage.

Dieffenbachias like their soil to be moist but not soggy. Do not let the soil dry out completely between waterings.

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