Whether you have a green thumb or not, indoor house plants can add a lot to your home. A lot of us don’t spend as much time outdoors as we should, and bringing plants inside is one way to counteract the effects of stale indoor air and even combat stress and anxiety.
It’s common knowledge that indoor house plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, but they also release moisture vapor (increasing the humidity of a room, which can actually reduce cold symptoms) and purify the air (removing volatile organic compounds). Studies have shown that putting indoor plants in workspaces can boost productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. Children have even been shown to be more attentive in rooms with plants.
There are lots of great reasons to fill a home with indoor house plants, but what if your home doesn’t get much sun? If you’ve been operating under the assumption that having no sunny sills means you can’t keep house plants, this post will set you straight.
I had a (very) low-light spot in my guest bathroom that was screaming for an indoor houseplant container garden. I put off the project for a long while because the spot got hardly any sun, but I finally got tired of looking at the bare corner and turned to the internet for help.
I learned that I’m in zone 10b and that there are over 900 recommendations for plants that can grow in my area. I narrowed my search by clicking houseplants that can handle full shade and moist conditions because I tend to water more frequently than I should. Nearly a hundred choices popped up.
What I Learned About Shade-Loving House Plants
I was so surprised to find out that there are so many house plants that can be grown indoors and don’t require much sun at all to thrive. There are actually different levels of shade tolerance.
All plants need some sunlight to live, but more isn’t always better. Some house plants prefer diffuse light and will droop, fade, and even die if exposed to full sun. Others need a little bit of direct sunlight every day but not too much. What all shade tolerant plants have in common is that they use energy efficiently. They usually have broad or long but thin leaves that allow them to catch more light, and these plants can use more nutrients found in the soil.
Then there are shade-loving plants that have adapted to life in the shade and can photosynthesize using extremely small amounts of diffuse light. These sciophilous plants can survive in shade levels that would be deadly to most other plants. That means that it’s often possible to have beautiful house plants in the darkest corners of your home. Some of these plants can survive in indirect sunlight, too.
20 Indoor House Plants That Thrive in Shade
A lot of people think that all plants love sun or that the ones that don’t must be boring and flowerless, but there are beautiful shade-tolerant house plants and shade-loving house-plants — some with flowers and some with gorgeous, colorful foliage. These plants aren’t exotic or hard to find, either.
Here they are for your consideration (and mine). I already own a few of them.
Shade-Loving House Plants With Flowers
There’s a lot of color in the shade! Most of the flowers that either tolerate or thrive in low light conditions are also low maintenance and easy to care for.
Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids): These very pretty blooms come in a variety of colors and can thrive in a number of conditions. Some people say that these are the easiest orchids to maintain, but don’t make the mistake of using ice cubes to water your orchids because their natural environment isn’t cold. See eight ways to kill your orchid for more advice.
Flame violet (episcia cupreata ‘silver skies’): This easy to care for perennial sprouts a pretty flower in summer and fall amid silver-green leaves that grow 2-3″ long. It’s a great way to add color indoors, and depending on what type you have, you’ll get red, orange, yellow, pink, white, or lavender flowers.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum): These common houseplants are easy to grow, but they are not true lilies. That said, peace lily is still toxic, so it’s not the best option to have around kids and pets. What is cool is that they’ll tell you how they’re feeling.
Drooping means they’re thirsty and yellow spots mean they’re getting too much sun. They can do well under just fluorescent lighting in lieu of any sunlight at all. They are also a house plant that cleans air.
Thanksgiving cactus (schlumbergera truncata): Its name is appropriate because it typically blooms around Thanksgiving. It’s a true cactus with smooth, fleshy leaves and pink, red, purple, orange, cream, or white flowers, and it is very hardy. You can even propagate cuttings without root hormones and pass the babies along to friends.
Shade-Loving Indoor Palm Trees
Growing tropical plants indoors is wonderful because your home feels extra summery all year round. Palms are big and beautiful, so if you have space, they’re a perfect shade-tolerant showpiece plant.
Sentry palm, Kentia palm, paradise palm (howea forsteriana): I have heard these durable, elegant plants called Kentia Palms around San Diego. They can grow up to 60′ tall outdoors, but in containers, these indoor palm trees grow very slowly to about 10′ tall.
Burmese fishtail palm (caryota mitis): Named for uniquely-shaped leaves that look like the tails of a fish, this gorgeous tree is allegedly one of the easiest indoor palms to grow. It can grow up to 6′ tall indoors so make sure you have enough ceiling room.
Parlor palm, dwarf mountain palm, good luck palm, Neanthebella palm, table palm (chamaedorea elegans): This bushy, low-maintenance palm needs regular water, but let the soil dry out in between. It can grow up to 6′ tall but rarely reaches even 4′ indoors. You’ve probably seen these trees in hotels and banks, but they look great in houses and apartments, too.
Lady palm (rhapis excelsa): I have 7 of these lush palms that can filter compounds like ammonia and formaldehyde from the air growing outside in both partial sun and shade. I will say that they do better in the shade and the leaves stay a more gorgeous, dark green color when they are houseplants. They are also known as fan palms and easily pruned for a tall, lean appearance versus the bushy look they have in this photo.
Indoor Plants for Shade With Gorgeous Leaves
Because they need special leaf structures to thrive in low light, shade-loving indoor plants have some of the most beautiful, colorful, and interesting foliage. Bigger leaves with lots of texture help they get the light and the nutrients these plants need to grow.
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema commutatum): There are actually quite a few species of Chinese evergreen, each with different — and fabulous — patterns on their elongated leaves. This species is a popular, easy-to-care-for shade-loving house plant that grows up to 1′ tall. It sprouts a green flower in the summer.
Coleus (solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Wizard Mix’): Most coleus plants like shade and work well indoors. However, I like the vibrant Wizard Mix best because buying a 6-pack container is like getting to sample a variety of kaleidoscopically colorful plants that can be lemon yellow, bright pink, lime green, and even chocolate brown. Typically, if you buy Wizard Mix seeds, it’s a combination of 12 gorgeous coleus plants.
Snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue (sansevieria trifasciata ‘golden hahnii’): This succulent has striking, sword-shaped leaves and is known for being the type of plant to help improve indoor air quality (removing formaldehyde and benzene). It grows from 2-4′ tall and does not like excessive moisture, trust me. There are two types — one with green banded leaves and one with leaves that have a bright yellow border.
Prayer plant (maranta leuconeura ‘erythroneura’): My prayer plant has thrived under severe neglect. I adore the leaf color. The plants grow slowly from 12-18″ tall with the leaves about 5″ long, so they’re happy in containers or hanging baskets. At night, the plant neatly rolls up its leaves, like hands coming together in prayer. Mine is a late riser, taking until mid-morning to unroll.
Dumbcane, tuftroot (dieffenbachia amoena): This extremely popular yet resilient house plant can grow up to 5-6′ tall and has a unique leaf pattern with spots of yellow and green in seemingly random patterns. It is toxic if eaten, so make sure to keep members of the family and pets from gnawing on this indoor plant for shade.
Fancy-leaved caladium (Caladium bicolor): It’s a type of elephant’s ear plant with big and showy red or pink and green heart-shaped leaves that can grow from 12-36″ tall. The leaves have an intriguing pattern that can be mottled or striped, and interestingly, there are no true stems on this plant that sprouts from a tuber.
Wandering jew, silvery inch plant, zebra plant (tradescantia zebrina): The silver, green, purple leaves make this a gorgeous addition to an indoor container garden. It is also popular on its own in a hanging basket, because the leaves will flow over the sides. Wandering Jew grows from 12-36″ and is very easy to take care of.
Peacock plant, cathedral window (calathea makoyana): Not too long ago, I stopped at Home Depot for some light bulbs and also came out with a beautiful peacock plant. So far, mine has stayed relatively small, but they can grow up to 4′ tall and sprout white flowers, at times. When new leaves appear, they provide a splash of pinkish red until they unroll fully.
Philodendron (philodendron ‘xanadu’): This pretty plant grows extremely well in containers both indoors and outdoors up to about 4′ tall, but usually much shorter, in my experience. In fact, I have it in a small container garden, and it’s stayed about 1′ tall for the last two years. Some varieties are used as a ground cover in tropical gardens, while others grow upward if given a trellis.
Shade-Loving Indoor Ferns And Ivy
While ivy will spread like mad outdoors, it stays relatively contained inside and looks beautiful trailing along a bookshelf or cascading out from a hanging basket. And while you might think of ferns as forest plants, they’re great indoor air scrubbers.
Asparagus fern, foxtail asparagus, emerald feather (asparagus densiflorus ‘myers’): This is a cool-looking, easy-to-grow, shade-loving plant that grows to about 2′ tall and 3′ wide. It’s really related to the asparagus and not a real fern, but it also grows extremely well outdoors in gardens all over San Diego. Grown indoors, asparagus fern is beautifully bushy and has delicate lacy foliage.
Common maidenhair fern, southern maidenhair fern, Venus maidenhair fern, Venus’ hair fern (adiantum capillus-veneris): These ferns stay compact at about 12-18″ tall and look stunning as part of an indoor orchid garden.
English ivy, Baltic ivy (hedera helix): It’s an indoor houseplant, a ground cover, and a vine. This versatile plant is easy to grow and prune, though it’s another plant to keep well out of reach for kids and dogs. It looks beautiful trailing around a room.
Can Houseplants Really Purify the Air?
The quick answer is yes, but probably not as effectively as the plants in what has become a pretty famous NASA experiment. NASA researchers (who wanted to find out if plants could be used to cleanse the air in space shuttles and space stations) found that big, leafy indoor house plants and the microorganisms in their soil can indeed remove volatile organic compounds from the air.
However, NASA’s experiments were conducted under ideal laboratory conditions, so in a typical household, chances are plants won’t clean the air in your home quite as effectively as they did in the 1989 experiment.
You can still use plants to purify the air in your house or apartment, however, and a good rule of thumb is to have at least two large indoor house plants for every 100 square feet of space. Plants are absolutely capable of scrubbing some toxins from the air in your home, and as I wrote above, there are plenty of other good reasons to bring some plants indoors.