As the year begins our indoor spaces can seem dark—especially on overcast days. Any sunlight that passes through windowpanes now is less intense and of shorter duration than in summer. But that’s no problem for several indoor plants that can spotlight a drab corner with intriguing sword-like foliage or variegated leaves.
I’m talking about some old-fashioned favorites that your grandmother may have grown, but that are currently trendsetting once again. These include cast-iron plant, mother-in-law’s-tongue, and radiator plant. Some of these beauties originated in tropical understories where little light reaches the ground. Although far removed from their original habitats, they can thrive indoors and brighten the sometimes bleak winter months. Here are some workhorses for low-light settings.
(Dracaena trifasciata —formerly Sansevieria)
Who needs flowers when leaves offer a dramatic sculptural effect? Typically vertical and sometimes twisted, snake plant’s foliage creates a focal point in a less-than-ideal situation indoors. Its common name comes from the snakeskin-like mottling on the leaves. Newer varieties like ‘Moonshine’ are silver-gray, while others have yellow or gold edges, or wavy horizontal markings. And talk about lower maintenance—plants can be left in their pots for many years before repotting. Growth is quite slow in low-light situations, but plants perform well with minimal care. They tolerate being root-bound and can withstand dry conditions. The leaves are somewhat succulent, so the most common problem is overwatering.
Although its common name is ZZ plant, this beauty is no snoozer. Plants grow 2 to 4 feet tall and wide with arching stems of super shiny leaves. Don’t be tempted to baby this performer by overwatering it. Its bulbous fleshy rhizomes store water, making the plant highly drought tolerant. Water thoroughly once or twice a month in winter and let the soil dry between waterings. Insects typically don’t bother ZZ plants, but you may want to occasionally wipe dust from its waxy green leaves with a damp cloth.
Spider plants have been popular for more than a century. Placed on a plant stand, on a shelf or over a cabinet, many arching stems with little “spiders” (plantlets) cascade down from the pot and eventually sprout roots. You can cut off the “spiders” from their shoots and root them in water or in a pot of soilless potting mix to create more plants to share. Although some spider plants are solid green, most are variegated with leaves that have a creamy white center. All tolerate low light indoors.
Cast-iron plant was a favorite in Victorian parlors. Although it may not seem trendy or contemporary when it comes to indoor plants, cast-iron plant lives up to its name. It thrives in low light, shrugs off neglect, and is almost indestructible. New cultivars like ‘Ginga Giant’, ‘Milky Way’, and ‘Big Spotty’ have leaves speckled with gold, cream, or yellow. Others sport vertical light stripes. This plant is perfect for the indoor gardener who might be a tad forgetful.
Having grown up in a Chicago bungalow, I can appreciate growing plants on radiator covers, some of which ran across an interior wall with no window. Peperomias live up to their common name “radiator plant” because they’re so tolerant of less-than-hospitable conditions. You can often find them in the floral department at grocery stores in an array of different leaf colors and shapes. They do especially well in bathrooms, where the extra humidity bathes the leaves. Keep the soil on the moist side, but not soggy. If you grow them on a radiator cover, place some pebbles in the saucer and keep it filled with water for extra humidity.
Several palms make great indoor plants for low-light situations. Although they share a common name, many of these plants are unrelated. There’s Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), and one of my favorites, fishtail palm (Caryota), which has interesting, ragged leaf edges that live up to its name. Almost all have upright, arching stems that make an architectural statement in a low-light corner of a room or next to a desk. I keep a spray bottle handy to mist the leaves once or twice a week and water the pots when the top inch or so of soil feels dry.