Plant care is a welcoming space for curiosity. Houseplant lovers come from all walks of life, but one thing we share is a growing thirst for knowledge. We want to better understand the diverse plant world and get to know the green friends we share our homes with.
Plant care is not passive learning. It’s an interactive education that encourages play. You can go as in-depth about plants and their care as you have time to absorb the countless books, articles, podcasts and blogs written on the subject. There’s a lot of terminology and new vocabulary that comes with learning about plants, from long Latin botanical names to plants’ cellular functions.
Catchy terms have proliferated the houseplant world. They’re meant to distill dense houseplant information but they can quickly become reductive, leaving beginning plant lovers with a whole lot of lingo but not a lot of genuine understanding.
We’ve compiled the most common plant lingo and broken down their definitions into digestible parts to help you navigate the world of houseplant care. This list is aimed to increase your knowledge of plants and boost confidence in your ability to care for them.
Low-light doesn’t mean no light. All plants need some form of light because it’s the source of their food. Trust us, they won’t last long without it. Often, listicles market the easiest low-light plants to keep alive for beginners, but fail to explain what this characteristic really means for the plants and their quality of life. Without light, plants will suffer and become prone to sickness, even if they don’t immediately die.
No matter how houseplants are labeled, they will suffer without access to light. Not all houseplants require bright natural sunlight streaming through big bay windows, but some form of light, even if it is artificial, is necessary to sustain plant life.
When bringing a new plant home, your first question shouldn’t be, “How little care can I get away with?” but instead, “What will make an ideal home for this specific plant? What room will they be happiest in? How much attention do they need to thrive?” If you truly do not have time to provide basic care for a plant or you live in a glorified dungeon, reconsider if living houseplants are right for you.
Not all light is created equal
What most low-light labels mean is that the plant is a tropical understory, meaning that its ancestors enjoy the shaded canopy of tropical trees and don’t require direct sunlight to make food.
Outside, just like indoors, there are different qualities of light: Bright, medium, and low light.
For plants, bright light means direct or diffused exposure to sunlight for an extended portion of the daylight hours. Medium light can mean filtered, partially shaded, or diffused light that reduces the intensity of full sun. Low light means the plant is heavily shaded or is set a distance from the light source, i.e. the shady floor of a rainforest or a few feet away from your window.
What is easy to forget is that outdoor light differs a lot from indoor light. Light fades much quicker inside than it does outside because of the distance from the sun. The shadiest spot outside is still brighter than the sunniest spot indoors simply because of the barriers of wood, glass, brick and metal that separate us in buildings from the open sky.
No matter how sunny your home may seem to you, it’s much darker than your eyes perceive it to be. This is because the human eye constantly adjusts to changing levels of brightness in order to maintain clarity.
Get on your plant’s level
To find an adequately sunny spot for your plants, try to imagine what they see. Put yourself in their shoes — err, pot — by sitting or kneeling on the floor to get on their level. Observe your light source from their vantage point.
Ideally, you should be able to easily see out of the window, which means your plant should be centered in front of the window or at least within the edges of the frame, not to the far sides of the window. Don’t worry about your plant getting a sunburn inside — it’s more likely that your place is light-deprived than over-exposed.
Put your plants where they will be happy. Sun-loving plants like cacti, palms, succulents and Ficus have main character energy: They need direct sunshine and prefer to sit close to sun-warmed windows. They pair well with ferns and Calatheas, which can happily sit in the shade of others. This form of strategic clustering will keep your plants healthy and mimics a real forest. Just be sure your plant is no more than three feet away from an unobstructed window, otherwise it won’t absorb enough sunlight.
Supplement with artificial lighting
Two elements of light to consider are quality and quantity. Light quality is measured in wavelength (color) whereas light quantity is measured in lumens (brightness). The direction of sunlight and length of exposure makes a big difference in how your plant will thrive.
If for whatever reason, your home doesn’t get enough sunlight during the day, you can supplement with artificial lighting or grow lights. We recommend white fluorescent or LED lights for indoor plants to best mimic the sunlight they would get outside. You can check the Color Rendering Index (CRI) of your lights to verify how close their wavelengths match the sun’s. Choose light bulbs that have a CRI of 95 and up to ensure that even in the darkest room, your plants get the light they need.