During the winter, houseplants may be one of the few things that keep us connected to things green and growing. But many of our homes offer growing conditions that are challenging, at best. Low light is a common problem, particularly this time of year when sunlight is weak and days are short. Lack of light coupled with warm dry air is a recipe for houseplant disaster -- or deterioration.
You can reduce the negative effects of warm, dry air by keeping your home a few degrees cooler during the day and lowering the thermostat by 5 to 10 degrees at night. It's harder, however, to improve light conditions. Unless you set up supplemental lighting for your plants, you'll be stuck with less-than-ideal light, especially from north-facing windows.
Since you can't reorient your house or apartment to avoid northern exposures, your best bet for those sites is to choose plants that are known for their ability to thrive in low light.
Here are some tough, low-light plants to try if your home is a little on the dark side:
Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) has tall pointed leaves that arise from the base of the plant rather than from vertical stems. The leaves of this plant -- which also is known as mother-in-law's tongue -- are variegated green, some with yellow bands along the margins. Although most are sold in smaller pots, it's possible to find a snake plant large enough to use as a floor plant.
Sansevierias have thick, succulent, leathery leaves, which makes them exceptionally easy to care for. Insects rarely bother them, and they can tolerate a fair amount of dryness between waterings.
Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is not the most attractive houseplant around, but, as its name suggests, it's tough as nails. As with snake plant, its leaves arise individually from the base of the plant. Its leaves are generally dark green, but there's a variegated form as well.
Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens oxycardium) and pothos (Epipremnum aureum) have heart-shaped leaves on long, flexible stems, but the foliage on heart-leaf philodendron is dark green while pothos is a lighter green with yellowish variegation.
These shade-loving vines grow up the sides of tree trunks in tropical forests. In the home, they can be trained up a bark slab support or left to climb by means of aerial rootlets that form along the stems. (I am the proud owner of such a plant that is currently taking over my kitchen.) They also look attractive trailing from hanging containers, cascading from a shelf or spreading out on a table.
Though recommended for low light, leaves will grow further apart if light levels are too low. (Even then you can loop the long stems in circles so leaves appear closer together.)
Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema species) are a diverse group of plants with tidy, compact, mounded shapes and leaves reminiscent of dieffenbachia. Plant breeders have developed dozens of cultivars, each with it's own pattern of silver, ivory or green markings on the foliage.
Chinese evergreens are prized by interior landscapers because their slow growth habit allows them to maintain their original shape for a long time. Once in a while they even flower, with little boat-shaped structures that produce bright red berries. The berries are toxic, though, so if you have young children or grandchildren in the house you may wish to nip off the flowers if they appear.
Cornstalk plant (Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana') has modest light requirements, but a close relative, the Janet Craig dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig') is even more tolerant of low light. Unlike the cornstalk plant, which has yellowish striping through the leaves, Janet Craig foliage is solid green.
Both dracaenas grow taller as they age, and can be suitable for display as floor plants. As with Chinese evergreens, dracaena are sensitive to cold temperatures and drafts.
Deb Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Yard and Garden Line at 612-624-4771.