Decorating with office plants is one of the best ways to combat the often sterile, cold feel of the workplace. The color and softness they bring also help remind us of the natural world that can seem so distant when we’re busy doing our jobs.
The only problem is that finding suitable office plants that not only look good, but can thrive in typical office conditions can be challenging. Moreover, most nursery center stock sold as indoor plant material comes with little or no information about the particular species, even if the scientific name is provided (which it usually is not).
Consequently, many office plant shoppers are likely to purchase plants that are claimed to be “low light” but are in fact destined to perish in the relatively dim confines of the typical workplace. Trial and error when it comes to selecting office plants is definitely not the best – or most economical – way to go.
Helping You Find The Most Suitable Office Plants
The good news is that you don’t have to kill a bunch of innocent plants until you find one that can withstand your office. We’ve endeavored to take the headache out of the selection by featuring some of the most attractive, adaptable and easy to grow office plants available.
Each of these office plants has passed our criteria for dealing with: (1) low light levels; (2) low humidity; (3) poor ventilation; and (4) typical, occasional neglect.
Without further ado, let’s get to the picks.
Native to the warm, humid regions of Asia, where these plants occupy the dim light of the forest floor, the common name “Chinese Evergreen” encompasses over 20 named species in the genus Aglaonema, not including a constantly growing list of Aglaonema cultivars.
These office plants are very tolerant of low light levels generally, but take note that the various cultivars are not equal in this regard. As we’ve said before whenever considering houseplants, remember that varieties with darker, deeper green foliage are usually much better at dealing with very low light compared to more variegated forms, whose bright streaking and coloration normally displaces leaf area that could otherwise support light-capturing chloroplasts.
For example, Aglaonema commutatum ‘Silver Queen’ is an outstanding and extremely popular office plant that is low-light by most standards; however, its broad areas of pale, silvery-grey coloration make it significantly less hardy in darker, windowless office spaces compared to say A. commutatum ‘Maria,’ which is typified by reduced variegation and a deeper, dark green background coloration.
Consequently, the lighter, paler leaf-forms of Aglaonema can be used where there is at least some bright indirect light, and they should thrive if placed withing several feet of most windows.
If, however, your office is illuminated solely by overhead lighting, or the plant is bound for a dim spot far from any window, definitely opt for the darker forms of Aglaonema, such as ‘Maria.’
Do not expose any form of Chinese evergreen to sustained direct light, as they are sensitive to burn. Well-filtered direct light, or early morning sun from an east-facing window, is appreciated if the plant is gradually acclimated to it. Plants that are getting too much light will often develop pale, somewhat bleached or washed out-looking foliage.
Assuming the very modest light requirements of this genus are met, there is little beyond ordinary houseplant care that’s required. In other words, use proper watering techniques, provide good drainage, and watch out for pests. These plants enjoy humidity, but are extremely good at adapting to dry air. Still, it’s a good idea to mist them occasionally and wipe their broad leaves with a damp cloth now and then.
Due to their very slow growth rates, fertilizing should be performed regularly, but at 1/2 the suggested dose – unless the plant is growing in vigorously in bright light, in which case full strength indoor fertilizer can be used.
Not actually a relative of true lilies, the genus Spathiphyllum, sometimes collectively referred to as “Spath” plants, are a large group of Aroid plants that inhabit the forest understory in tropical regions from Asia to the Americas.
Generally speaking, virtually all of the cultivars commonly available are tolerant of very low light levels, which is whey they are often seen in group-type plantings in commercial areas such as shopping malls. Indeed, with their uniformly deep green leaves, peace lilies can tolerate some of the dimmest locations indoors, and can even do well under good overhead artificial lighting in otherwise windowless locations.
Spath plants are often purchased while in flower. The characteristic white spathe (hood) and enclosed spadix are more likely to develop in plants grown in strong indirect light; they often persist for a few days to a week, after which time they will begin to discolor and fade. If you are not partial to these flowers, it’s often a good idea to pinch them off early to divert more energy into producing foliage.
Peace lilies do enjoy high humidity and grow best in warm environments, but are quick to adapt of virtually any conditions so long as their very minimal light requirements are met. Fertilize plants according to growth and light exposure; i.e., give more vigorous plants in brighter light the full recommended dose and specimens in dim lighting at most 1/2 manufacturer’s recommended strength.
These plants will tolerate considerable overwatering compared to most houseplants and as they enjoy moisture, but don’t push it. It’s a good idea to follow basic watering techniques and allow the surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings. If, however, you see wilting, you’ve held off too long!
If all that weren’t enough, Spathiphyllum are among the best air cleaners in the houseplant world, and were among the most efficient at reducing various airborne pollutants in NASA indoor air quality studies.
The main difference between the various cultivars available is size, with most topping out under 3 feet tall. However, there are some hybrids that make stunning, large indoor plants, such as Spathiphyllum ‘Sensation,’ the largest cultivar commonly available that produces huge ribbed leaves and can grow up to 6 feet tall!
Golden pothos is the Jeckyll and Hyde of indoor plants. Let me explain.
Indoors, the familiar golden pothos or “centipede tongavine” as it’s sometimes called, is the respected and mild-mannered – Mr. Jeckyll. This species makes one of the most attractive and durable container or hanging plants you can get, and normally takes the form of a thin (pencil-width) vine adorned with bright green, cream-colored variegated leaves about 6 inches long that are particularly colorful in bright indirect light. The vine can be trained to climb posts, walls and other objects.
Outdoors in its native haunts in tropical regions of southern Asia and the western Pacific, however, and particularly across the various regions where it has escaped cultivation and threatens native trees, it is the evil Mr. Hyde.
Indeed, when let loose in tropical forest, E. pinnatum sheds it’s “baby” leaves and assumes monstrous proportions. Leaves on a mature plant typically go from being heart-shaped, intact and unbroken (i.e., entire) to long, irregularly dissected and pinnate. They also get absolutely huge, and can grow to over a meter long and a foot and a half wide! A fully mature E. pinnatum can grow to over 60 feet tall and develop a 2 inch diameter trunk.
No, you will never need to worry about your golden pothos climbing out of its pot and attacking you in retaliation for neglect. But you should mind its extremely short list of requirements; which are: (1) give it bright indirect light; (2) water thoroughly but let the surface soil layers dry slightly between watering; and (3) give it an all purpose fertilizer once and a while to keep it fed. A daily misting is recommended, but not essential. Like the spath plant, the golden pothos is one of NASA’s air-cleaning species.
Beyond that, there are few ways you can kill a golden pothos, and they can endure just about all of the rookie mistakes that might kill other so-called office plants, including under and over-watering. They are also among the easiest office plants to propagate; just place short sections of the vine in water – or simply stick them in a light soil kept continually moist.
Finally, its quite rare for this species to be blighted by pests or disease. Overall, this is a easily one of the best – if not the best – office plant for newbie to experienced houseplant growers alike.
Take note that all parts of the golden pothos plant are toxic, thanks to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. So keep them away from curious pets/children.
The heart-leaved philodendron is probably the hardiest office plant currently known to man! OK, perhaps there’s something even more durable out there, but I have still yet to find it.
P. scandens var. oxycardium is native to balmy south America, where it can grow several meters tall and boast leaves a food wide. Indoors, however, it is a moderate to slow-growing vine with bright to dark green heart-shaped leaves that rarely exceed 6 inches in diameter. It has a climbing habit that can be encouraged by temporarily tying the vine to objects such as walls, posts and staking material.
Although they are not closely related, care of P. scandens is virtually identical to that described for the golden pothos. However, P. scandens can even tolerate lower light with it’s uniformly green leaves. This obviously would not apply to the variegated form of P. scandens that is currently popular.
With it’s tolerance for very low light levels, relative comfort in dry office air and remarkable resistance to under/over-watering, this is the first office plant I would choose for the inexperienced grower and dimmest, darkest office environments.
Of course, in a completely windowless space this plant would gladly welcome even weak florescent lighting from a small desk lamp aimed in its direction. If your lighting is even too weak for this plant, it will let you know with very slow, leggy growth (i.e., the space between leaves will be exaggerated and the plant will look very spindly). This spindly look can be mitigated to some degree by pinching the growing tips of the vine to encourage side-branching.
On the other extreme, direct light can quickly burn the leaves of P. scandens, so keep it in bright indirect light and be sure to filter any direct light.
A plant growing in dim conditions may need fertilizer just once every few months, and then only at 1/2 the recommended dose. In contrast, specimens in strong light that are putting on lots of growth will require more regular feeding to sustain vigor.
Like the golden pothos, the heart-leaved philodendron cannot be easier to propagate, and cuttings placed in a vase of water or a moist, light medium will normally root within 4 weeks or so, depending on light, temperature and the health of the plant.
Bear in mind that like the golden pothos, P. scadens is armed with toxic calcium oxalate, so consuming any part of this plant can cause an acute poisoning in people and pets.
No list of hardy indoor or office plants would be complete without mention of the virtually indestructible snake plant.
Sansevieria trifasciata is native to West Africa, but is cherished around the world for it’s exotic look and legendary tolerance to a variety of home environments and light levels.
This plant consists of long and stiff, strap like leaves that contort slightly as they extend toward sharp tips. There are many varieties of snake plant, with some possessing subtle vertical striping and others coming in a bright slate grey. Perhaps the most common and recognizable variety is that typified by deep green leaves bordered by prominent yellow margins.
S. trifasciata is one of the most adaptable houseplants, especially in terms of light requirements. It can thrive in part sun and also grow well in purely indirect light, and relatively weak light at that. Large specimens are often used as floor pots in lobbies and bright walkways, where their vertical orientation and strange, twisted whorls provide texture and color.
There are very few rules to remember when growing that snake plant. The biggest problem that most people run into is overwatering. While this plant is quite resistant to under-watering, continually wet soils can quickly lead to root rot. And unfortunately, due to their stiff leaves, the first sign of rot usually comes too late to save the plant.
Baring too much water and growing the plant in a closet, the snake plant is just about black thumb-proof. As such, along with the heart-leaved philodendron, I highly recommend S. trifasciata to anyone trying to break a houseplant killing streak.
The large genus Dracaena is a gold mine for finding low-maintenance and attractive office plants, and there are way too many varieties to describe in any detail here. However, a couple of my favorites are the cornstalk plant, Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’ and Dracaena marginata, the “dragon tree.”
The cornstalk plant, a native of equatorial Africa, comes in many colorful variations including the popular ‘Warneckii and ‘Lemon Lime’ cultivars. However, for the low lighting of most office spaces, I prefer dark-leaved varieties of D. deremensis, such as var. ‘Janet Craig,’ which features broad green leaves that are much better at capturing light.
D. deremensis can grow to great heights (up to 40 feet) in the wild and are a popular landscaping/hedge plant in Hawaii. Indoors they also adopt an attractive upright growth habit, and can quickly exceed 6 feet in height under good conditions if not pruned down.
They usually come as multi-stemmed pots with 3 or 4 plants staggered in height. The name “corn” plant comes from the cascading whorls of flat green leaves that do resemble the general look of a true corn plant.
Like most Dracaena, the cornstalk plant thrives in bright indirect light, but will tolerate very low light as good as just about any plant can. It is also not picky about temperatures either; however, cold drafts are to be avoided. And while high humidity is enjoyed, it is not necessary, and this species will usually adapt to drier air.
Water as any houseplant. Propagation is easy using air layering techniques or rooting topped plants in a light growing medium
A common complaint about Dracaena are their vulnerability to leaf tip burn. This is usually a result of fluorine and/or chlorine in tap water, and can also result from salt buildup in hard water areas. This tip burn is likely to be magnified in hot environments with dry air, since the rate of transpiration is elevated under such conditions.
A good way to deal with leaf burn (besides gently clipping the burned tips) is by thoroughly watering the plant with distilled or reverse osmosis water periodically, at least once a week. And when tap water is used, let it first stand overnight to let the chlorine volatilize. Raising humidity by misting the plant may also help minimize the rate of tip burn.
A healthy Dracaena will require fertilizer periodically to maintain strong growth, especially if grown in good light and after flushing with distilled water as described above (since this leaches out beneficial nutrients too).
Overall, D. dermensis is one of my favorite low light indoor office plants – and with its good height an upright growth, it makes an outstanding and low maintenance office tree as well.
Last but certainly not least is the “ZZ” plant, more technically named Zamioculcas zamiifolia – this is definitely one of the most intriguing office plants of all.
While this African native has been known to botanists for over a century, it seems like the ZZ plant has only recently taken hold as a staple figure in mainstream interiorscaping.
The ZZ plant presents a somewhat odd picture indeed, with cycad-like features, a thick tuberous base and almost scaly leaves that seem misplaced among other more familiar houseplants. However, it is a member of the Aroid family, a common source of many indoor plants including the peace lily discussed above.
Due to it’s adaptation to the slightly drier grassland and savannah habitats, you will want to keep this plant in fast-draining soil and take care not to leave it wet soil. Beyond that, however, simply water as you would any other houseplant by letting the surface soil layers dry slightly between waterings.
While the ZZ plant can store water as an adaptation to periods of drought, you should water it regularly to avoid encouraging dormancy and/or leaf drop.
Aside from it’s peculiar good looks, the ZZ plant is very well-known for tolerating varying light levels, including everything from bright indirect and filtered direct light, down to fairly dim lighting typical of most office spaces. Protect it from hot, direct light.
This is a very slow-growing species that usually tops out at a meter in height for a large specimen. Fortunately, it seems very resistant to most houseplant pets and requires very little attention overall. Fertilize as you would an ordinary houseplant.
Another very interesting fact about the ZZ plant is that it can be propagated from leaf cuttings inserted into a light seed starting medium. However, brace yourself; according to this source, you may have to wait at least nine months for a plantlet to form! It seems that truly everything about this plant is slow.
Featured (top) photo credit: by Kate Bunder under CC BY-NC 2.0