LET’S BE PERFECTLY clear — there’s no such thing as a “houseplant.”

Plants are a part of the natural world; they grow outside, most of them in soil, in varying amounts of sunlight, with at least some water. The key to successfully cultivating plants indoors is to replicate those conditions that allow them to flourish in their natural habitat.


Horticultural pro Katie Hinson works at Urban Earth, a tiny retail nursery in Fremont that’s gone big on indoor plants. It all comes down to lighting. And, of course, it’s during winter when daylight hours, let alone sun, are precious and few.

Hinson has a “handy” trick (sorry) to help you accurately assess your indoor lighting conditions. “Hold your hand up in front of an interior wall,” she says. “If you see a sharp shadow, you’ve got direct sun or bright light.” She goes on to characterize increasing degrees of diffused shadow as representing indirect bright light, and moderate to indirect light. “If you don’t see a shadow, you’ve got very low light levels,” she says.

“Many popular houseplants are from the tropics, where they live in the understory of large trees,” Hinson advises. “These plants are naturally tolerant of low light conditions.”


From Aspidistra to ZZ, the following plants all flourish in low light:

Aspidistra elatior. As its common name implies, the cast iron plant is nearly bulletproof. The lower the light, the less often the plant needs to be watered. Broad deep-green leaves have an upright habit; look for variegated forms for added interest.

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) is a popular no-fuss indoor plant with slow growth and an upright habit. Things get interesting (and expensive) when choosing from among myriad variegated and stunning forms with beautiful shell-pink or red new growth. Low light preserves leaf color. Allow the surface soil to dry before watering to avoid root rot.

Ferns are well-suited to low light conditions; however, they require humidity to thrive, a factor that’s often lacking with indoor heating. “All of our plant advice comes with an asterisk, because everyone’s home is different,” Hinson warns. “If you feel dry in winter, your plants are going to be affected even sooner.” Group your plants on a pebble tray, and mist them regularly to increase ambient humidity. In addition to familiar fronds, check out blue star fern (Phlebodium aureum), with fingerlike blue-green foliage. Another unique fern with antler-like foliage, staghorn fern (Platycerium sp.), is a showstopper. Moss fern (Selaginella), which technically is neither a moss nor a fern, has finely divided fernlike foliage and comes in a variety of color forms, including an unbelievable peacock blue (S. uncinata).

Prayer plants (Maranta sp.) sport dramatic zebra-striped foliage, often with pink or lemon accents. With a similar form and habit, Calathea are often called prayer plants, but only Maranta fold up their leaves at night. And, as with all things variegated, collector Calathea command premium pricing.

Vining pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a generational favorite, a testament to the ease and longevity of this easy-to-grow plant. “My pothos are all from my grandmother,” Hinson says. “That’s why they’re one of my favorites.” Hinson trims her rambling plants and roots the cuttings in a glass bottle. “It’s lovely seeing that root system emerge,” she adds, along with directions to change the water weekly to keep it refreshed.

ZZ plants (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) thrive on neglect, which makes them an indoor favorite and perfect for beginning houseplant husbandry. “Set it, and forget it,” Hinson says of this indoor beauty with thick, glossy foliage. ZZ plants are extremely low-maintenance and need water only about once a month during the growing season, and even less in winter, due to a rhizomatous root system that stores water.