Houseplant Selection

The need to bring nature indoors in winter is universal. As far back as archeological records go, there is evidence of man decorating his domicile with plants.

Vigorous, healthy plants adorn a house beautifully, while a sickly plant is an ugly sight. To ensure success remember the edict “right plant, right place.” Some plants require humidity and temperature conditions best achieved in a greenhouse. The plants discussed in this article can have their needs met in normal household environments.

First, assess the light, temperature, and humidity of the space where your plant will live. Plants, like people, have their own likes and dislikes. What works for a plant that is adapted to damp, shady locations will kill a succulent that thrives in baking sun and dry soil.

A bright sunny windowsill facing south is considered bright light. Low light might be a cubicle sans windows, devoid of natural light. A north-facing window or a location further into a living space is also low light. East and west-facing exposures are considered medium light. While plants might tolerate a range of light conditions, the suggestions below match indoor plants with their preferred light conditions.

For low light conditions consider this trio:

Cast iron plant (Aspidistra spp.) lives up to its name, tolerating neglect and low light with occasional watering. It spreads slowly and rarely needs repotting. Cast iron plant grows two to three feet tall and produces dark green lance-shaped leaves. Seek out some newer varieties including variegated “Amonogawa” and “Okame”, and the deepest green “Fuji No Mine”.

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.) is not fussy about light or moisture — another great plant for beginners. Available in a range of leaf sizes from narrow to big and bold, it can sit on a desk or grow big enough sit on the floor. Look for Aglaonema cultivars “Cecelia”, “Calypso”, “Maria” and “Romeo”.

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) is an African native that will do just fine even if the only light source is a fluorescent bulb in an office or shop. It tolerates dry conditions and is ideal for someone who travels frequently. Water ZZ plant when the top inch of soil dries out. ZZ plant foliage is dark green and shiny — an attractive addition to any space.

All three of the above can move to the medium light of an east or west sun exposure.

Medium light is best for the contemporary looking mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant (Dracaena spp.), which sports tough, dramatic, upright, linear leaves. Grown from a large rhizome lying just below the surface to the soil, snake plant will put up with anything except overwatering in winter. It is commonly found with mid-green leaf edged in lime and a slightly mottled center. Look for “Bantel’s Sensation” with its long, thin green and cream striped leaves and “Cylindrica” with its unique dark green, tubular leaves. Compact cultivars include gold and green “Gold Hahnii” and silvery “Futura Robusta”.

If you have a space with bright light from a south-facing window try parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans), popular since the Victorian era. A slow-growing Mexican native, it grows four feet tall and makes a bold statement in any room. Parlor palm only needs to be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch, but it does help to mist the plants occasionally in the winter to raise the humidity.

For moderate to bright light try succulents. The range of plant choices is enormous, but most are adapted to the low humidity and warm conditions found in most homes. All do best with a fast-draining potting mix.

The Aloe genus includes the classic first-aid plant, Aloe vera. Other species and cultivars include the gray-blue Aloe glauca “Silver Edge”, pink mottled Aloe “Pink Blush”, and Aloe “Walmsley’s Bronze”. Allow the soil to dry out in between waterings.

Classic jade plants are botanically Crassula ovata. Most species sport rounded fleshy green leaves, sometimes tinged in red when grown in brighter light.

Crassula ovata “Gollum” has funky, pipe-shaped leaves. Some jade plants can grow several feet tall and can be trained into a multi-stemmed bonsai. C. ovata cultivars do not require frequent watering, but one should not allow their leaves to shrivel from dryness. While they might perk up with watering, this cycle stresses the plant. Chinese pine jade (Crassula tetragona) has needle-like leaves and is often used in miniature gardens. C. marginata cultivars are low growing—less than a foot tall—and come in a range of colors from silver to burgundy. One popular cultivar “Calico Kitten” features leaves in a mix of pink, cream, and green.

Houseplants beautify our surroundings. They remove harmful compounds including carbon dioxide and ozone from the air, improving its quality. Give them proper care and they will flourish and enhance your home.


This educational blog is a series of informative articles from the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteers plus news concerning the group and their activities. For more information, click here.