The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Matching Light Levels to Houseplants

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

I imagine that one of the first human beings to make a home brought in a plant or maybe a flower or two to dress up the place. One of them also put up curtains and added a matching throw pillow, but that's another story.

House plants bring the outdoors in ... something I consider particularly important as we enter some dreary days of winter. Studies have shown the positive effects of having live plants in an indoor environment.

One of the important elements to having successful house plants is matching the plant to the light level. Light can be increased to some extent by adding supplemental fluorescent light fixtures, washing the windows, or removing shear curtains. Here is a list of light levels and possible plants for those locations. Some plants will tolerate lower light levels but may decline over time.

Low light is about 75 foot candles at locations a few feet away from a north window, 3-10 feet away from an east/west window or more than 10 feet away from a south window. Place a white piece of paper on the area where the plant will sit. Put your hand 12 inches above the paper. If you can not clearly see the outline of your hand, then the area is low light and getting less then 100 foot candles.

Chinese evergreen also known as Aglaonema is a durable low light plant that comes in a variety of leaf patterns. Most have some degree of silver markings. Chinese evergreens have rather unshowy flowers, appreciated only by other Chinese evergreens. As they age they may lose their lower leaves. They can be propagated by air layering to get a shorter, more compact plant. Air layering does take a bit of skill and time so some folks may decide it's time for a new aglaonema.

Parlor palms are one of the few palms that tolerate low light. They tend to be about 2 to 3 feet tall bushy plants with dark green leaves. Parlor palms are nice plants to dress up a corner of a room. Spider mites can sometimes be a problem on all palms. If the plant loses its dark green color, place a white piece of paper under the leaves. Shake the leaves then look for dark specks that move. Those are the spider mites. Insecticidal soaps are effective for many houseplant insect problems. Both Chinese evergreens and parlor palms should be kept moist, but can take some drying between watering.

Peace lilies also known as spathiphyllums are one of the best flowering plants in low light. The flower is a white spathe and spadix which resembles a candle with a white reflector. Bright white flowers next to dark green glossy leaves is very attractive. Depending on the species, peace lilies may be 1 to 3 feet tall. Peace lily does need to be kept moist. They will get brown tips if they dry out too much between waterings or are overfertilized.

Philodendron and snake plant are very forgiving plants. They tolerate low light and minimal care.

Medium light, at 150 foot candles, includes areas directly in front of a north window, a few feet away from an east/west window or 5-10 feet away from a south window. Plants for these areas include asparagus fern, dracaena, pothos, dumbcane, schefflera, fig, spider plant, grape ivy, rubber plant, birdsnest fern, prayer plant and pepperomia.

High or bright light is about 300 foot candles. This includes areas directly in front of an east/west window or up to 5 feet away from a south window. High light plants include Norfolk island pine, areca palm, ponytail palm, croton, zebra plant and false aralia.

Check out the U of I Extension website for pictures of the plants and more information on houseplant care.

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