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Guide to Indoor Plant Sun Requirements

With autumn upon us and the winter season fast-approaching, it’s in many ways more difficult to maintain your outdoor garden. But just because the outside air is cold and dry, gardeners don’t have to stop doing what they love. A gardener can (and should!) continue to cultivate greenery in their own home by tending to indoor plants. However, if you’re thinking about growing greens inside, it’s important to understand how much sunlight indoor plants need–– or how little they can tolerate.

From bamboo to succulents, indoor plants each have different needs when it comes to natural light. Some thrive on direct light for multiple hours, while others can only handle small bouts of low light. For your indoor garden to reach its maximum potential, you should first determine how much light is available before selecting which houseplants to put on your windowsill. In order to make sure your plants receive enough sunlight, begin by considering which direction(s) your windows face. From there, choose from our list the best south, west, east, and north-facing window plants.

South Facing Window Plants

  • Hours of Sunlight: 8+
  • Sunlight Amount: High
  • Direct or Indirect: Direct
  • Plant Types: Cacti & Succulents

Starting off our guide to indoor-plant sunlight requirements are the houseplants in need of full-sun, direct-light provided by south-facing windows–– that is, at least for folks living in the northern hemisphere. There’s a common misconception that a window directed south is best for plants of any variety because of how much sunlight it provides, but only certain plants can actually handle such intensity. A south-facing window can expect nearly constant direct sunlight each day, making it the sunniest of window positions. With a plant’s leaves absorbing sunlight, too much heat and light can be harmful to houseplants that aren’t tough enough to handle it. For example, the smaller, harder leaves on cacti and succulents make them ideal south-facing plants.

Among the most popular indoor succulents is the Aloe Vera plant. These are naturally found in dry, desert settings anyway, so a hot and sunny windowsill shouldn’t prove any problem. In addition to its pretty appearance, the oils from an Aloe Vera plant can be medicinal, relieving minor issues like sunburns and itchiness. And if you’re new to indoor-gardening, look no further than the almost-indestructible succulent or cactus–– there are seemingly countless varieties and can even survive forgetful watering. Similar to Aloe, if utility is as important to you as aesthetics, edible herbs love as much sun as they can get. Thyme, rosemary, and parsely (just to name a few!) will provide your home with fresh smells, air purification, and a delicious ingredient in any home-cooking. The small, hardy leaves on herbs end even lettuce-like greens take well to the abundant, southern brightness. But if you’re intent on eating your indoor garden, but can’t find a south window, don’t worry–– a hydroponic system cuts out the need for (most) natural resources. 

South-facing windows do provide the indoor-gardener with ample lighting options if you have curtains or blinds. Certain plants love the long-lasting bright light but prefer it only indirectly, such as the African Violet. Filter out some of the light with a set of sheer curtains to satisfy an even wider range of sun-loving, south-facing indoor plants. 

West Facing Window Plants

  • Hours of Sunlight: 4-6
  • Sunlight Amount: High
  • Direct or Indirect: Indirect
  • Plant Types: Flowers & Colorful Plants

If we’re ranking which windows get the most sunlight, those facing west are in a close second place. Similar to the south, west-facing windows receive bright (while slightly less direct) sunlight for just over half the day And certain plants are an ideal fit for the high amount of indirect light provided by the west-facing window.

For those of you who love the look of blossoming flowers at home, west-facing window plants are often ideal. Small flower buds thrive on the bright yet often indirect sunlight of windows looking west. For example, the Strawberry Begonia (Saxifraga Stolonifera) is a beautiful addition to any western windowsill, needing just a bit of direct daily sunlight. Similar species work well, though be careful not to leave them in the midday sun for too long, or else the leaves and pedals might get bleached.

Another popular option is the Jade Plant (Crassula Ovata), with its tiny rubbery leaves being perfect for weathering the bright sun. Pair a west-facing window with a set of blinds or curtains, and the Jade Plant will grow strong in the lightly-filtered, bright light. 

The Ti Plant (Cordyline Terminalis) can also tolerate low-light conditions but won’t see its full potential without the brightness of a west-facing window. While the Ti Plant can be found with simple green leaves, more colorful options such as orange, pink, and red are also available. However, it’s variegated varieties–– those presenting a number of colors on a single leaf–– need the west-facing windows the most to maintain their vibrancy. 

East Facing Window Plants

  • Hours of Sunlight: 2-4
  • Sunlight Amount: Medium
  • Direct or Indirect: Indirect
  • Plant Types: Tropical

With only a bit of lower light exposure than from the west, an east-facing window is great for plants needing the bright, indirect sunlight found in the cool of the morning. This low-temperature sunniness is often ideal for high-humidity plants; they get the light they need without the heat cooking out much moisture. In fact, many tropical plants thrive in east-facing windows because they originally evolved in shaded, moist environments. Though, if you only have southern and western windows, bright indirect light can be mimicked by simply displaying a plant toward the interior of a room. 

The Monstera Deliciosa, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Cheese Plant because of the many holes in its leaves, is among the favorites for medium light indoor plants. The Monstera plant loves bright indirect light paired with high humidity, which helps to maintain its tropical appearance. 

Calathea plants are another great example of medium light plants that thrive on the light conditions from an east-facing window. The Zebra, Peacock, and Rattlesnake plants (among others) each fall under the Calathea category, though by no means should be considered low-maintenance. Their tropical nature requires humid, though not over-watered conditions paired with the right amount of bright light. However, with the right light levels and proper humidity, these can be among the best indoor house plants!

North Facing Window Plants

  • Hours of Sunlight: 2-4
  • Sunlight Amount: Low
  • Direct or Indirect: Indirect
  • Plant Types: Ivies & Some Succulents

Last but certainly not least, let’s look at low-light plants that work best in north-facing windows. While the idea of plants that don’t need sunlight is technically a myth, a low-light houseplant is the next best thing. In fact, low-light isn’t limited to north-facing windows, but is also common during the winter months, or simply on a wall opposite that of a window. Though plants in a north window will lack direct sunlight, it’s usually easy to care for them. Keep in mind that, while relatively simple to maintain, low-light conditions are tricky in that you must make sure the houseplant you choose can in fact thrive apart from direct, bright sunlight.

There are a great number of low-light, low-maintenance plants for north-facing windows, many of which are popular among houseplant gardeners. 

The Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum Wallisii), for example, is often gifted in mourning the loss of a loved one because of how long the plant can live with little care. The Golden Pothos (Epipremnum Aureum) is a type of ivy that’s also tough to kill, with the primary care being limited to trimming the vines to avoid overgrowth–– Ivies and vines more generally are great for this reason, including the Heart-Leaf Philodendron (Philodendron Scandens). In broad terms, the plant with darker leaves is better equipped for low-light conditions. Such is true of the Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema Modestum), the Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra Elatior), and the Bromeliads varieties (Bromeliacea). 

There truly are so many great houseplants that will live long and happy lives even in the low, indirect sunlight from north windows, and the list is virtually endless. The jungle-native Snake Plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata) and the surprisingly succulent ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas Zamiifolia) are a couple of my personal favorites because of their deep green hues and hardy leaves. Further still, the Spider Plant (Chlorophytum Comosum), as well as a number of ferns–– including the Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium Nidus)–– tolerates most any setting, while thriving in highly shaded and often moist environments.

No matter the direction your window faces, nor even your level of inexperience, there’s always a houseplant that can bring fresh life to any home, or a solution to sidestep your sunlight limitations.  Even in the cold and dry winter months when a green thumb is forced indoors, gardeners need not wait until spring–– keep your windowsill flourishing all year long!


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