Episode 99: houseplants for low light

Rhoeo spathacea  or moses in the cradle does well in lower light conditions, especially this plain green version. Photograph: Jane Perrone

Rhoeo spathacea or moses in the cradle does well in lower light conditions, especially this plain green version. Photograph: Jane Perrone

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If you’re suffering from window envy, this is the episode for you! I talk to the Houseplant Guru, Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, about her new book Grow In The Dark, and all the wonderful plants you can grow even in dimly-lit rooms. Plus I answer a question about leaves with red undersides. You may remember Lisa from episode 28 where she talked about her first book, Houseplants: The Complete Guide.


Lisa’s tips for making the most of your light…

A white background helps to bounce around whatever light you have. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

A white background helps to bounce around whatever light you have. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

  • First, figure out what light you do have - finding out which way your windows face is a great starting point.

  • Then take a look at what’s blocking your light from coming in - that may mean removing awnings, cutting back trees and shrubs, and maybe even persuading your neighbours to paint their house white!

  • Although dark walls are popular right now, pale (ideally white) walls are best to bounce around whatever light you do have.

  • Plants that are suffering from too little light will often rot because they are given the same water as plants in brighter light. Remember plants will slow down growth rates in lower light, so drop your watering accordingly.

  • Other signs that plants aren’t happy in the shade include leaning towards the light and growing spindly, and sometimes yellowing leaves also show up.

  • Try buying two identical plants and keeping them in different light conditions and see which one thrives - you can always swap them around every so often!

  • That said, sometimes plants that prefer brighter light will adapt to lower light and become settled in a spot - they may not grow a lot, but won’t deteriorate.

  • If you windows are high, move plants up so they can catch more light, using hangers or high shelves.

Photograph: Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.

Photograph: Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.

Plants that can cope with lower light conditions…

  • Zamioculcas zamiifolia aka ZZ plant is probably the ultimate low light plant: that’s why it’s so popular in offices

  • Monstera deliciosa

  • Rhoeo spathacea

  • Spathiphyllum aka peace lily

  • Calatheas

  • Aspidistras

  • Epipremnum and satin pothos

  • Snake plants (Sansevierias) are often suggested for low light situations but they tend to suffer if placed in really dark corners long-term, so you may want to supplement their light with a growlight.

  • Nicodemia diversifolia is the mystery plant I talk about with Lisa. If you know anything about it, please fill me in!

Question of the week

Lara wanted to know why some houseplant leaves - Begonias and Calatheas for instance - have red undersides. The honest answer is that no one is completely sure. There are many theories. One is that the anthocyanins in the lower levels of a leaf (the red pigment) help to bounce light back up to the chlorophyll-filled cells above, thus maximising the available light for plants that generally live in low light conditions. However I found at least one academic paper that seems to suggest this theory doesn’t stand up when tested.

Another theory I found was that the red colouration actually stops light reaching the ground beneath plants, meaning that they can stop other plants that might offer competition from germinating and crowding them out: and there seems to be some evidence for this one. The paper about that is here. although it’s worth pointing out that this research involved a Saxifraga rather than a Begonia or Calathea. If any botanists out there have more info on this one, please let me know!

Want to ask me a question about your plant? Either way, tweet @janeperrone, leave a message on my Facebook page or email ontheledgepodcast@gmail.com.


Join me at Lullingstone Castle in Kent in the UK on September 21 and 22 2019 for Cactusworld Live where I’ll be doing a live recording of On The Ledge and holding a listener meetup.

The following weekend I’ll be at the Garden Museum on Sunday September 29 for their Houseplant Festival: I’ll be helping out with the houseplant clinic, and there’s also the chance to take part in workshops and browse an awesome range of stalls from some of my favourite houseplant shops!

This week’s sponsors…


Babbel is the language learning app that will get you speaking a new language with confidence. You can try Babbel for free by going Babbel.com or download the app and try it for free!


True Leaf Market

One of the most successful plants to grow for the On The Ledge sowalong is Mimosa pudica, or the sensitive plant. Why not try growing some yourself? Show sponsors True leaf Market offer the seed as part of their extensive collection of indoor and outdoor plant seed. Buy it here.

Thanks so much to True Leaf Market for backing On The Ledge. Why not help support the podcast by supporting our sponsor?

US listeners, get 10% off your first purchase at TrueLeafmarket.com now using the code ONTHELEDGE.


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This week's show featured the track Overthrown by Josh Woodward. Ad music is by the Heftone Banjo Orchestra:  Dill Pickles and Whistling Rufus. All tracks licensed under Creative Commons.

Logo design by Jacqueline Colley.  Podcast editing by Joff Elphick.