Plants always make places seem magical and unique. And there is a reason for that; bright green leaves have the power to transmit peace and tranquility (Lee et al 2015).

For those of us who want to make plants part of our daily life, there are a few things to think about when it comes to our selection of indoor plants. For instance, due to seasonality, outdoor plants only last so long.

Fortunately plants are very flexible. They can grow in various conditions, even extreme conditions like caves. However, the vast majority of plants depend on light to grow.

Most plants, except a few, use sunlight to obtain energy. But when it comes to indoor plants, thriving in lower light conditions becomes a challenge.

How plants adapt to low light conditions

Before going further into your indoor plant selection, it is essential to understand how plants adapt to low light conditions. Whether they live high on the hilltop or down on the forest floors, plants adjust where they live and make the best of their surroundings.

Plants have developed sophisticated strategies, with fascinating evolutionary differences to cope with rapid variations in light fluctuations.

Consequently, researchers have classified plants into two main categories depending on their response to shading by leaves: shade-tolerant or shade-avoidant.

Shade tolerance is defined as the species-specific minimum light required for survival (Valldares et al. 2016).

When selecting an indoor plant for your desk, office, or house, the next question becomes, what allows a plant to live under low light conditions?

Evidently, shade plants have developed morphological, physiological, and biochemical characteristics that allow them to survive in light deficient conditions like those occurring in the understory. Among those features, you will find the following:

Large and thin leaves

Shade plants typically have large leaves because they provide a larger area for light absorption during photosynthesis.

Furthermore, shade plants have thin leaves because they have fewer plant cells inside. Less cells require less energy; therefore, shade leaves are "emptier" than sun leaves.

High chlorophyll content

Most of the plants in the understory will be dark green. The darker color is due to an increased chlorophyll content, which is the primary pigment involved in photosynthesis.

This provides a higher proportion of light-harvesting chlorophyll in the chloroplasts of shade-tolerant plants.

Lens-shaped epidermal cells

Have you ever made a fire with a magnifying glass? Even if you haven’t, you might still be familiar with the concept of using a magnifying glass to amplify and concentrate light.

The same principle applies to shade plants. They have lens-shaped epidermal cells in order to focus incoming light into and within the mesophyll (plant cells inside leaves containing the chloroplasts). Usually, shade plants with this feature have a glossy appearance.

A red abaxial cell layer

Plants don't miss any amount of the sun’s fleck. Therefore, some shade-tolerant plants developed a layer of color on the underside of their leaves (abaxial) to reflect outgoing light back into the mesophyll. This "layer of color" is a group of cells with a color pigment (anthocyanins), which also helps absorb longer wavelengths more available in the understory.

Red abaxial layer of a plant

Heart-shaped leaf

Although it is not completely clear why leaves look the way they do, some researchers suggest "the shape of a tree's leaves are a response to the tree species' long-term ecological and evolutionary histories." In any case, a good indication of an indoor plant is looking for those sagittate or heart-shaped leaves common among understory species.

heart shaped leaves - these benefit plants in low light situiations

Color patterns

A mottled leaf is a leaf which has a pattern of irregular spots, streaks, or patches of different size and colors on the surface. Furthermore, mottled leaves are attacked less than unmottled leaves.

Herbivores get confused with mottled leaves because they don't recognize where a leaf starts and ends. Mottled leaves are also an excellent defense strategy as the effective cost of leaf tissue lost to herbivory is larger in slow-growing shade plants than in sun plants.

Hairless leaves:

Hairs on the leaf’s surface can decrease the absorption of light. In this way, smooth, hairless leaves are common in understory plants, and they can absorb up to 54% more light than a hairy leaf.

hairless leaves vs. hairy leaves

Alternate leaf pattern

Leaves with two vertical rows on opposite sides of the axis are known as .

For shade plants, there is an advantage to having a distichous leaf structure because it allows them to occupy a 180° radius, facilitating a bigger light absorption. Therefore, shade plants typically display this leaf arrangement.

Distichous leaf pattern

Extended vegetative stage

The phase between germination and flowering is known as the vegetative stage for plants. Most shade plants will remain in a longer vegetative stage because of the energy cost required to produce flowers and seeds.

Colored flowers

In some cases, shade plants display pink, violet, mauve, and purple flowers. These colors are the result of the pigment called anthocyanin. The conditions needed to express anthocyanins are provided by acid rich soil in leaf compost, such as the forest floor. The acid rich soil conditions may also contribute to the red abaxial leaves.

Shade plant characteristics

Tips for selecting the perfect indoor plant

It can be hard to select suitable ornamental indoor plants without understanding the adaptations of plants that grow naturally in such conditions.

However, one way to easily find plants adapted for indoor growth is to do a Google search. You could also visit local plant nurseries or garden centers to talk with their experts about which plants will be more suitable.

But what if there is a plant you’re just in love with, but there isn’t enough information. Or maybe, you’ve found a plant that is notable for growing outdoors, but are curious if it would survive indoors.

In this case, the best approach is to refer to the characteristics above to determine whether it might still thrive. Are the leaves waxy? Are the leaves smooth? Are they large or do they have a distichous arrangement?

If the plant you’re interested in seems to be checking off most or all of the boxes for low-light survival, it might be worth it to try.

To help you through this process, we’ve provided a checklist of the characteristics to look out for.

Just note, we will caution that these characteristics only give you a clue about survivability. Every plant is different, and other variables such as care and soil conditions may reduce its chances.

indoor plant survivability checklist

tips for selecting an indoor plant

Examples of good indoor plants

The following plants do very well indoors, even if you aren’t a gardener They are well-adapted to low light environments.

Snake plant

This shade-tolerant plant is low maintenance and can support low and high humidity; hence, it is excellent for seasonal places.

You only need to water it every two or three weeks. It has a modern look, and it is perfect for frequent travelers. This spiky beauty can put up with almost anything. But note, it is not pet friendly.

Red aglaonema

Also known as a Chinese Evergreen, this species is a trendy indoor plant due to its fantastic look and easy care requirements.

Red Aglaonema is vibrant and colorful, with beautifully mottled leaves. Because of its tolerance for both moist and dry conditions and low light, they are a perfect choice for beginners, houseplant lovers, even for very busy researchers! But this plant is also not pet friendly.

Money plant

Money plants are easy to grow indoors. They usually purify the air of toxins, and they add instant color to your environment.

They can be used in a cozy study, office, even in your meeting rooms. Just be cautious if you have pets, because this plant can be toxic to animals.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

This lovely plant will quietly battle toxins, and it is low-light demanding. It is one of those indoor plants that do not have adverse effects on pets. And it is pretty and easy to grow in both small and large places.


Dracena is one of the easiest indoor plants to grow. It is perfectly suited to the dry and low light conditions of homes, offices, and other indoor places.

Dracaena is a slow-growing plant with low maintenance and has beautiful ribbon patterns. These plants also make a perfect gift!

Benefits of indoor plants

  1. Improves the indoor air quality (Susanto et al., 2021).
  2. Reduces stress (Toyoda et al., 2020).
  3. Improves memory, cognition, and mental well-being (Raanaas et al., 2011).
  4. Clean airborne microbes (El-Tanbouly et al., 2021).
  5. Increases the humidity and moisture in the air (Kerschen et al 2016).
  6. Improves productivity in workspaces (Bringslimark et al., 2007)

Indoor plants form an essential part of our daily lives thanks to their ability to physically, aesthetically, and psychologically enhance and enliven our surroundings. Hopefully, you have enjoyed this article!


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