Houseplants Can’t Survive In The Dark (At Least Not For Long)

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Honestly?

HONESTLY?

No.

I’m sure a ZZ plant would try super super hard to survive in, say, a bathroom with no lights. But it wouldn’t grow very quickly, if at all, and it wouldn’t thrive.

A lot of plants aren’t fussy: give them enough water, light, and something to grow their roots in, and they’ll grow their little hearts out.

Plants need light to live.

Sure, some need more than others, but even those that grow on the rainforest floor are hoping someday to grow around that tree trunk and emerge, blinking, above the canopy.

They have no desire to live out their life slowly rotting in your dark, cold bathroom. 

That being said, those plants that wouldn’t receive much natural light in the wild can survive in the darkest corners of your house for a while.

In general, plants that are deemed as easy to care for are tolerant of low-light conditions. By low light, I don’t mean no light.

I’m talking that weird dark corner on the opposite side of the room from the window that gets a bit of indirect light for an hour or two.

Any part of the room that’s not bright bright, but is bright enough to read a book in without an additional light source is deemed medium-light. There are several plants that will survive in those conditions, and a few that’ll still grow in medium light, but since plants use light as energy, all plants need some light.

Why do plants need light?

Plants need light so that they can make energy through photosynthesis.

Think of a plant as being a human being, and light as being food. No human can survive with no food. They’ll starve to death. However, there are a plethora of factors that will determine how much food each individual requires:

  • How big they are
  • Whether or not they’re growing
  • The time of day
  • How much energy they’re expending

Humans and plants want to survive. A human can survive without food for a decent amount of time. Will they thrive? No. Will they shrivel up a bit? Yes.

Plants with bigger leaves are better able to absorb light, so you might be able to get away with keeping a monstera in a spot that has a lot of medium light all day, rather than somewhere that has bright light for an hour or so.

The more light you give a plant, the quicker it can grow, provided you’re bringing your A-game with regard to watering.

Not only that, but by limiting your plant’s light, you’re limiting its potential. Look at this Monstera:

mature golden pothos

Cool, isn’t it.

And you know the coolest thing?

IT’S NOT A MONSTERA. IT’S A FREAKING POTHOS.

Yup, just a regular old golden pothos, that’s been given a TONNE of light.

Plants can’t live in the dark. Here’s a screenshot of my search console, showing queries people have asked about plants in the last 6 months:

screenshot of Google Search Console showing queries about whether plants can live in the dark

This is only a tiny portion of the queries. i also had a lot of stuff along the lines of:

  • Which plants thrive in the dark? None
  • Which plants only grow in the dark? None
  • Can a plant stay alive without light? No
  • Plants that do well in the dark? None
  • What will happen to plants that are kept in the dark? They’ll die

So I understand that if you came here looking for a plant that will do ok in a dark room, but the fact remains that no plant will be happy kept in the dark.

There is anecdotal evidence of plants that have done ok in dark rooms, but they will need EXCEPTIONAL care and will have been of sturdy stock to begin with.

There’s also the possibility that the plant is just being replaced regularly!

What happens if you keep a plant in the dark?

If you keep your plant in the dark, it won’t have as much energy. This is just a fact. Plants get their energy from light. It doesn’t matter how well you care for it otherwise.

Plants kept in the dark won’t grow

Plants need energy to grow, and they get their energy from light.

Plants that don’t grow aren’t necessarily an issue, especially if you buy something specifically for it’s size and shape, but remember that leaves don’t last forever, so over time your plant will look less and less full.

Old leaves won’t be replaced by new ones, and any new growth will be stunted and small.

Oh, and any problems you have will be more difficult to solve because the plant has no energy.

Plants kept in the dark are more susceptible to root rot

There are a few of reasons for this.

  1. The first is that root rot can stem from overwatering. Plants that are kept in dark corners will use far less water than the same plant kept in higher light, and the soil stays wetter for longer, encouraging rot
  2. Dark rooms tend to be colder, and a cold room will again ensure that the soil stays damper for longer
  3. Once root rot is established, the plant won’t have the energy to fight off the rot. If it does survive, it will likely lose all its leaves. If you have to chop and prop, then you’ll struggle to root a plant in the dark

Plants without light are more susceptible to pests

House plant pests like thrips and spider mites are attracted to plants that are lacking energy because it’s easier for them to establish an infestation.

Healthy plants can release hormones to deter pests and even encourage predators, but those that have been deprived of light will struggle to do this.

Obviously, this is varies a lot, but often dark corners tend to attract a lot of dust, and therefore plants in dark corners will get dustier.

You’ll need to be VERY diligent about keeping your plants clean (dusty plants will struggle to get light even more) because dust seems to attract pests.

Once plants in dark rooms get pests it can be very difficult to eradicate them because the plant is very weak – any pesticides can weaken the plant further.

You’ll need to be very consistent with showering your plants down (dry them afterwards – wet leaves don’t photosynthesise well) – do it twice a week until you’re sure the pests are gone.

Can low-light plants live in the dark?

There are very few plants that actually live in the dark – most plants sold as low-light plants come from the rainforest floor and like a decent amount of light, just no direct light.

There are no true low light plants. Medium light is pretty much as low as we go.

If you’re a beginner looking for an easy-care plant AVOID LOW LIGHT PLANTS. Also medium light.

This includes:

Low light and easy care tend to be mutually exclusive when it comes to house plants. These plants are tolerant to lower light because they come from the tropical rainforest. Great.

BUT

They come from the tropical rainforest. As well as lower light they also require:

Good quality water

Rainforest water is pretty pure, and plants that come from the undergrowth require the same. Tap water might be fine – mine is – but it could also cause brown leaf tips.

Filtered water, again might be ok – depends on the plant.

Distilled water is expensive but usually fine*, but all the minerals are removed so you’ll need a fertilizer with a complete macro and micronutrient profile. I’d recommend hydroponic nutrients, even if they’re in soil.

Rain water is the preferred option.

Aquarium water is usually pretty good for lower-light plants.

*Random plants HATE it, such as orchids.

High humidity

If a plant requires high humidity, you need to provide it with that. It’s not optional – the plant won’t be able to grow properly without it. I have an article here that explains why some plants need high humidity to live.

The rainforest is a pretty humid place, especially beneath the canopy where the lower light plants live.

You’ll need to increase the humidity (you can test it with a hygrometer – Amazon sell them cheap) using a humidfier. Misting does not equal humidity.

There are some plants, like snake plants, that can SURVIVE in low light, but they won’t grow. These plants come from arid environments, so they’ve evolved to withstand high winds and dry air (but, interestingly enough, very bright light).

Plants that might do ok in lower light (and are generally hard to kill)

These plants are forgiving of low light conditions, under watering and general neglect.

If you’re an over-waterer, you need to sort that out. Low light and overwatering are a recipe for disaster.

By the way, if you just can’t stop overwatering, I’d go for carnivorous plants like Sundew. They love to stand in water. Just make sure that it’s rainwater, otherwise, you’ll kill ’em.

ZZ plant

This is the closest thing you’ll get to a plastic plant. You can keep it in the darkest, dingiest corner and it’ll survive.

They have big tubers in which to store water, so a big drink every month (or more) will be enough to stop it from dying.

zz plant rhizome

I got my ZZ plant from Sainsbury’s for £9, but you can also get them from B&Q for around a tenner.

  • ZZ plants have thick, waxy leaves that don’t require high humidity
  • They’re quite slow growing, and may not grow at all in a dark room
  • They have dark leaves that help them absorb light
  • They grow best in bright, indirect light (no plant likes the dark)
  • They’re super easy to propagate
  • They can go for up to four months without water
  • They like to be watered as soon as their soil is dried out
  • Native to South Africa, and part of the aroid family
  • Like snake plants, they’ve evolved to withstand adverse conditions, but still won’t thrive in the dark
  • Fairly pest resistent, but look out for mealy bugs.

monstera leaf

Snake Plant

Snake plants are a plant that can famously be kept in low light.

I don’t recommend it – they’re can be pretty susceptible to root rot, and they’ve evolved to thrive in bright light.

They’re super fun to propagate:

propagating snake plant, which can survive in a dark room

Dracaena

My Dracaena was one of my first house plants, and it can take everything you throw at it. Mine is currently living about two metres from a north-facing window and it’s doing pretty well.

However, put it on an east or south-facing windowsill and give it plenty of water and watch that baby GROW. It’s also a good plant for the casual over-waterer because Jesus Christ that thing is always thirsty.

That being said, a really good soak every fortnight is perfectly sufficient.

large dracaena marginata

Can it survive in the dark? No, not for long, and not if you want it to thrive, but it won’t die in low light conditions either. Well, mine didn’t, and it was tiny when it arrived. It’s hardy as hell.

Plants that climb probably started on the rainforest floor, and using other trees, climb towards the sun.

That doesn’t mean you can keep an orchid in your windowless hallway it’s whole life. But you might be able to do it for a month, if you really want to.

I’m saying ‘if you really want to’ because I’m petty, and I want you to either leave your dark rooms plant less or use one of the unkillables in the list above. But I know that some of you just want the plants for aesthetic reasons, and that’s ok.

Pothos

Last year these were pretty much only available online in the UK, but now loads of garden centres do them, and I got a decent-sized golden pothos from Sainsbury’s for a fiver.

(It was overwatered as hell though, so if you get one leave it alone for at least a week, make sure it’s properly dry before watering it again, and give it plenty of light before you move it to the darker spot you intended it for).

Pothos are cheap, are perfectly tolerant of low light conditions, and don’t need much in the way of watering. I have a Marble Queen pothos that flops dramatically when she needs water, which is super helpful. I’m talking completely wilted, to the point that she looks dead. A quick drink and she’s right as rain the next day.

marble queen pothos in self watering pot

As I showed at the beginning of the article, Pothos given bright light look like a completely different plant to ones grown in the dark (if they’ll grow at all).

Pothos will grow in a very leggy way if they’re not given enough light, which makes them look straggly – they grow like this in a desperate attempt to find light.

Monstera Deliciosa

The more light they have the quicker they grow. That’s the Monstera rule.

monstera deliciosa in basket next to window

I have two in fairly low light, and if I notice they’re putting out a new leaf, I move them closer to the window to hurry the process up, but they’re growing albeit slowly.

Monstera, in my experience, are hard to kill. If you want one for aesthetic purposes, buy one that looks the way to want it to, size-wise. Keep it watered and pest free, and it’ll be fine in lower light conditions. No light might be a bit of a stretch though.

Any growth it produces will be small and spindly, and the internodal spacing (the space between the nodes) will be very big. Monstera with large internodal spacing will struggle to maintain their turgor pressure (a network of fluid that keeps them upright) so you’ll need to stake them up to stop them from falling over.

How to keep a plant in a dark, windowless room

In short, don’t.

I know that there’s always someone on Facebook that claims their Pothos grew in the windowless bathroom but those plants are few and far between, and you can’t reliably buy a plant like that.

Every now and again a plant will just be very resilient – growers are improving them all the time. There’s a lot of money to be made in indestructible house plants that can survive in the dark.

However there are a couple of things you can do:

Suggestion 1: Grow lights

Grow lights can be magical, but the general rule of thumb is that the grow lights that work the best are the leas aesthetically pleasing, because they’re designed to be used for growing crops, not home decor.

You can get cheap Amazon ones which will be FINE for keeping a Pothos alive in a dark corner.

I have a whole post on grow lights here but the general rule of thumb is that they should be no more than a foot away from your plant, and they need to be on for twelve hours a day.

Another option is using grow bulbs in your regular lamps, but they need to be close to the plant. These SANSI ones are great.

Suggestion 2: Moving your plants

Buy yourself two ZZ plants and two snake plants. A pothos would probably be ok too.

Find a bright light situation for three plants. Then once a week switch the bathroom plant.

Essentially, your plant will have three weeks in which to grow, and one to look pretty in your dark room.

I’m suggesting ZZ plants and snake plants because they’re the ones that don’t seem to care how they’re kept, but if you keep them in good conditions for three weeks out of four, they’ll continue to grow.

Some people swear by this method, but personally, I could never keep track of them (or be bothered to do it).

Final thoughts

If you have a dark corner, dark room, or windowless, no plant will thrive in there. It’s not botanically possible.

Your best bet is to invest in some grow lights, or getting a fake plant.

Caroline Cocker

Caroline is the founder and writer (and plant keeper) of Planet Houseplant

2 thoughts on “Houseplants Can’t Survive In The Dark (At Least Not For Long)”

  1. Don’t forget the Aspidistra! I have several decedents from a 1960’s garden in Manchester (given to my mother) still going strong. One survived being outside for several winters completely forgotten about until I moved house. I cut the leaves back, repotted, sprang back to life!

  2. They’re so difficult to find nowadays, but yeah, apparently their ‘cast iron’ nickname refers to how hardy they are! I\ll have to keep my eye out for one.

    No plant survives my mother, so unfortunately I have no hand-me-down plants BUT my jade plant is a cutting from my dad’s and that thing is a beast now!

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