Thursday, January 13, 2011

List: Plants for Offices

I've been asked by a reader to suggest some plants that would work well in an office setting. Unfortunately, the list I came up with is kind of boring, because offices, taken as a group, present a very specific kind of unnatural environment. Generally, one is talking about low light, very low humidity, and occasional drought (if the office is closed on weekends and holidays, as is typical). Occasional cold may also be a problem in some places, because not all businesses bother to heat buildings which aren't in use, like on weekends, nights, and holidays. It's not a combination that's good, or even tolerable, for very many plants.

Obviously people whose workspace has a window, or who can add a small desk light, have more options to consider, but for purposes of this list, I'm assuming you can't add a light.

Chinese evergreen, Aglaonema cvv. (shown: 'Maria') Some varieties are better with cold than others, and there's no easy way to tell which are and which aren't, so this isn't a great choice for offices where the heat is turned off on the weekend, but they're good with drought, low humidity, and low light. They typically need to be cut back every couple years, and they're slow to resprout, so this may not be a good choice if you're looking for a plant to stay in the same spot for years and years.

Shoebutton tree, Ardisia elliptica. Very well adapted to office conditions in general, though drought may result in some leaf drop. The biggest drawback to Ardisia as an office plant is that they're very fast growers: they need frequent repotting, and the growth habit becomes less compact once they hit maturity, though they remain easy to care for.

Cast-iron plant, Aspidistra elatior. Sort of the opposite problem from Ardisia: Aspidistras are very slow-growing plants, and take a long time to get around to doing anything. On the other hand, low light, low humidity, occasional cold, and occasional drought are all taken in stride. Hot, dry offices may encourage spider mites, but that's about it for cultural problems. Aspidistras tend to be hard to find, and are more expensive than most other plants of the same size when you can find them, though.

Clivia miniata. Wasn't sure whether to include Clivia on this list or not: though dry air is well-tolerated, and they actually require cooler temperatures and drought for part of the year in order to bloom, light is potentially a problem. Ideally, these need bright indirect light, though plants can survive in less. In an office setting, you should probably not expect flowers, though they could make perfectly fine foliage plants.

Pothos, Epipremnum aureum. (shown: 'Marble Queen') Dry air and occasional missed waterings aren't problems. Low light is fine, though variegated varieties like 'Marble Queen' may revert to all-green if the plant is in too dark of a spot. Cold below 50-60F (10-16C) will slow or stop growth, and prolonged cold can damage or kill plants, depending on how cold and for how long, but most people, in most offices, should be able to grow pothos. May need to be cut back every few years for best appearance.

Heart-leaf philodendron, Philodendron hederaceum. Fine with low light, low humidity, occasional drought. Somewhat more cold-tolerant than pothos, but otherwise very similar in form and care.

Snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue, Sansevieria trifasciata. (shown: NOID birdsnest-type) Very tolerant of drought, though if you have helpful co-workers who water it for you, it may not last long, especially in combination with cold. Low light and low humidity are fine. In darker locations, leaves tend to become weak and floppy. The shorter birdsnest types seem to be touchier than the versions with longer leaves, particularly when it comes to overwatering.

Strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera. Extended drought is a problem, but dry air and low light are tolerated well, and cooler temperatures don't appear to be a problem at all, at least not the degree of cold one would expect in a reasonably large, insulated building.

Peace lily, Spathiphyllum cvv. Boring, boring, boring, but cold-tolerant into the 40s (F; 4-9C), low-light-tolerant to make you weep, and unbothered by dry air, whatever people will tell you. The only thing is: they don't allow a lot of margin for error when it comes to watering, and either you know how to water one or you don't. (The answer, for the record, is to wait until the day the leaves first start to droop, then water thoroughly, drain off the excess, and then do not water it again until you see the leaves begin to droop again. Letting the plant get too dry between waterings will cause some older leaves to drop, and not letting it get dry enough will lead to dead leaf tips and margins.) Flowers are most likely following a dose of fertilizer, but can happen at any time.

Arrowhead vine, Syngonium podophyllum. I'm not a huge fan of Syngoniums, because it's been my experience that unless one goes to a lot of effort, the best they're ever going to look is the moment when you buy them. Once they start to vine, which is usually within a few months, the new leaves get smaller, the plant's form gets stranger, and then you either learn to live with it or you cut back the vining bits to the base and hope they resprout in a timely manner. However, Syngoniums are still technically suitable for office settings, being fairly tolerant of missed waterings (or excessive waterings, for that matter, unlike a lot of the plants on this list), dry air, and low light. Cold may slow Syngonium down, but is unlikely to kill them.

For the recommends, well, these are all pretty sturdy plants, so doing recommends is kind of unnecessary. I've personally had the most positive experiences with Aglaonema, Ardisia, and Philodendron, and the most trouble with Sansevieria. Your results may vary.

Not pictured:
  • Ardisia crenata (coral berry) As for A. elliptica.
  • Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant) Best in offices that never get cold and have pretty good light. Minerals, especially fluoride, can cause leaves to get dead tips. Keep away from heat / air conditioning vents.
  • Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash' (Fire Flash, Green Orange, Mandarin plant) As for C. comosum; keep out of direct sun.
  • Dieffenbachia cvv. (dumb cane) Warm, bright offices only. (Doesn't need sun, just bright indirect light.) Grows fast and needs to be cut back regularly; the larger varieties seem to be easier on all counts.
  • Dracaena deremensis cvv., including 'Janet Craig,' 'Warneckei,' 'Lemon-Lime'/'Goldstar,' 'Art,' 'Janet Craig Compacta,' 'Malaika,' etc. Not good for offices with helpful watering buddies. Mineral buildup or overwatering can lead to dead leaf tips and margins. Also not good for offices which may go below 60F/16C.
  • Dracaena fragrans (corn plant) As for D. deremensis cvv.
  • Dracaena marginata (Madagascar dragon tree) As for D. deremensis cvv., plus overhead light is much preferred to light from the side -- side-lit plants tend to look droopy, as the leaves adjust their position to take advantage of as much light as possible.
  • Dracaena sanderiana ("lucky bamboo," ribbon plant) Ugh. If you really have to. It's probably best to grow this in soil, rather than water, and if you do grow it in water, you'll need to do regular complete changes of the water, and add a little fertilizer from time to time. I don't think they're particularly good about cold, but they'll survive dry air, drought, and low light just fine.
  • Radermachera sinica (China doll) Generally tolerant of dry air, temperature extremes, and low light, but an aggressively fast grower, likely to look gangly once the dwarfing hormones wear off, and somewhat fussy about water, so definitely not ideal.
  • Rhapis excelsa (lady palm) Mineral buildup and dry air can cause burnt leaf tips, so these are also not ideal office plants, but they're flexible on temperature, drought, and light. They do need to be repotted every couple years, at least, to avoid root rot.
  • Sansevieria cylindrica ("wisdom horns") Tolerant of office conditions generally (though don't push it on cold unless you can also keep it pretty dry), though it would be happier in direct sun. Almost certain to be slow-growing in an office setting.
  • Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ plant, eternity plant) Another one to avoid if you have helpful co-workers or if the office is ever unheated during cold spells. Otherwise very adaptable but slow-growing. Plants grown in very low light will produce weak, pale, stretched leaves.


Geoffrey said...

Thanks for this! I currently only have one plant at the office (I have no idea what it is; my boyfriend gave it to me as a low-maintenance plant ideal for the office). I am definitely looking to spruce up my working space, and I'll take these suggestions into consideration!


CelticRose said...

I like this list. Since I've only got the one window, and it's filled with cacti & other succulents, I need low-light plants. Also, the air is drier than dry here in AZ and I can be lazy about watering sometimes.

The timing is good too. I did some decluttering this morning and found room for another plant. ;)

Kenneth Moore said...

Perfect timing, Mr. S! My boss's boss's boss came in to ask me what plant would be good for her office (some sun from the window, overhead lighting, warm/cold variance depending on what the facilities staff deem appropriate for that day), and I shared a Chlorophytum "Fire Flash" seedling with her. Glad to see it's on your list (which I forwarded to her to see whether anything else would be more to her liking).

Paul said...

"Boring, boring, boring"

Hilariously true. My supervisor just loves hers, though.

Liza said...

Nicely done, mr_s. Most of the plants on your list can adapt to offices that have no windows - they seem to be fine with the fluorescent lights.

Sentient Meat said...

I remember your profile on Sansevieria cylindrica--and the person, probably a low-rent marketer, who called it 'wisdom horns'. I prefer 'snake plant'. I think this applies to Sansevieria spp generally, but like 'snake plant' best for Sans cylindrica. At least its leaves remind me of a snake's tapered tail, whereas Sans trifasciata doesn't resemble a snake at all (or a relative's tongue).

That darn Spathiphyllum... I think my succulent-tuned watering instincts (i.e. lazy and forgetful) are just not right for her. My husband and I called her "drama queen" for the drooping act right when she was getting dry. Good to know that's more or less the correct time to soak her again.

Eric said...

What? No cacti? Or maybe you were just going for something that looks more like a plant to most people. (And I see CelticRose wouldn't have been too keen on that list, anyway.)

I can certainly second the Syngonium. We bought one when we still lived in our first apartment. (When you're 20, what do you know?) It's endured many hardships and extremes in light, temperature, and watering. I've repotted it exactly once, and that's in 30 years of existence. Now I know better, but it's just sort of a game to see how it will last, and it still looks decent, if not always splendid.

It's a good list (except maybe for Spathiphyllum. What do they have against me?). Thanks for the great work, today and every day.

mr_subjunctive said...


I'd take a stab at IDing your plant if you e-mailed me a photo of it.


I actually like them too, but everybody has them already, therefore boring. Also nobody treats them right, which is sad.


I wouldn't consider any cacti appropriate for a low-light office, is the problem. Not all offices are low-light, but I was trying to suggest plants that would be okay in any office.

Anonymous said...

Philodendron erubescens. Tolerates very low light, the drought of neglect, and low humidity, though the new leaves are much smaller in very low-light situations. It's one plant that's "a little different," you don't see it too often. Very beautiful, too. Only drawback is it can be a little large for a desktop.


grumblebunny said...

Oh hai! Delurking for a question, if I may. Is the pictured cast-iron plant an Aspidistra elatior 'Sekko Kan' or just a really photogenic variegata? I'm a little obsessed with the former, but haven't seen it often enough to really know what I'm looking at. Whatever/whichever it is, it's gorgeous.

mr_subjunctive said...


Neither; it's plain green. It just looks variegated because of reflections off the leaves from the window that was just behind and to the left of it.

Martin said...

I spent a couple of years working at a coffee roastery and a generous patron gave us a coffee tree. It was so sad to see that tree die a slow death while being moved from one unsuitable place to another within the facility and suffering the occasional rescue attempt from well meaning green(ish) thumbs.

Candy said...

Very informative post, as it stated the different information that we need about the office plants.

I learned so much from here.
Thanks for the good read.

Geoffrey said...

Hi Mr. S,

Sadly, no new plants in my cubicle yet, however, I have managed to ID the one I do have (mentioned in my comment above) as being Peperomia obtusifolia. It hasn't been growing much in past months, but I suspect that's because the little guy's hungry. I brought in some dilute fert solution today and I'll start regular feedings.