The uncommon beauty, hardiness, and medicinal value of succulent houseplants have seen them become one of the most popular plants for gifting. Succulents are generally native to harsh, unforgiving environments and can often survive with far less maintenance than other plant species require. Still, all plants require some amount of nutrient-rich water and sunlight, and succulents are no exception.
There are, however, certain succulent varieties that seem to fare better in shady, low-light areas than others. If you’re considering an indoor succulent houseplant as a gift, particularly for someone in a city apartment or office building, consider these nine varieties first. They are all known for thriving in low-light conditions, and are perfectly suited for life indoors.
What succulents grow best indoors?
Succulents are often easy to propagate and grow. Succulents in general are also known to respond well to the low-light and low-humidity conditions we find indoors, which might seem at least partly counter-intuitive when you think about where most of these plants come from originally.
All of us either own, have gifted, or have at least seen a small aloe or jade plant adorning a co-worker’s desk. A small, potted succulent brings an easy splash of color and life to any space, but somehow takes it a step farther with their bold, non-conformist personality (assuming you’re like us, and recognize the personality of the different plants in your garden).
Bold and unique can be beautiful…
Photo by Alvin Engler on Unsplash
Here is a brief rundown of our nine favorite shade-loving succulents that are far more accommodating to having less sunshine. These are all perfect for growing indoors; in apartments, office spaces, or anywhere else that gets some light, but not a lot.
It’s worth noting that most succulents, and especially the ones on this list, will also grow well with artificial light that falls between 5,000K and 6,500K in wavelength. In terms of color, 5,000K is brilliant yellow on the spectrum and 6,500K is in the blue, and this part of the spectrum most resembles natural daylight. Many commonly-available fluorescent bulbs fall in these ranges, so a small lamp dedicated to your indoor succulent plant is definitely worth considering.
Most succulents require a minimum of 6-8 hours of indirect sunlight to remain healthy and 10 or more hours to thrive, but these can do the same on less – much less in some cases!
Aloe Vera is an evergreen perennial that originally comes from the Arabian Peninsula. Today, it grows wild in tropical, semi-tropical, and arid climates all over the world, and is cultivated and sold everywhere for agricultural, decorative, and medicinal applications.
Throughout history, aloe vera has been known for its medicinal properties. Initially used as a remedy to aid the healing of wounds and to treat baldness, it has come to be associated with a much wider variety of treatments in the modern day. This, in itself, is remarkable.
More remarkable is the scientific evidence that supports the topical use of aloe for acne, burning mouth syndrome, lichen planus (an itchy rash on the skin or in the mouth), oral submucous fibrosis, epidermal burns, and radiation-induced skin toxicity. As if that wasn’t enough, oral use of aloe vera for weight loss, diabetes, hepatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease (although the research on aloe’s effects on IBD appears to be inconclusive).
If you’re a pet owner, you may ask yourself: are succulents harmful for pets? – the truth is that some in fact are, including aloe vera. Please read our full article on this for more information.
Dracaena trifasciata (Snake Plant)
The Snake Plant (sorry, that’s way easier) is originally thought to be from the tropical regions stretching from West Africa’s Nigeria, to the Congo in the east. Other names for the plant include Mother-in-law’s tongue, Saint George’s sword, and Viper’s bowstring hemp, and other colloquial names as well.
Mature leaves will be dark green with a lighter gray-green cross-banding. They will usually range from 28–35 in (70–90 cm) long and 2.0–2.4 in (5–6 cm) wide, but can grow as tall as 6 ft (2 m) in the right conditions. The plant employs the crassulacean acid metabolism process to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, which allows it to stay perfectly healthy in intensely arid environments.
One interesting bit of trivia is that the trifasciata part of the scientific name means “three bundles,” referring to the triplet of leaves that grow within one another. Also, the name “Viper’s bowstring hemp” refers to the historic practice of using the plant’s fibers to craft bowstrings. Today, however, the plant is purely decorative in function (although is often regarded as an invasive weed in Australia).
The Echeveria is a succulent plant that can be found in both evergreen and deciduous varieties, and originally hails from the semi-desert areas of Central America, Mexico and certain northwestern regions of South America.
The flowers of Echeveria bloom in rosettes made up from the thick, fleshy leaves that succulents are known for, and are polycarpic, simply meaning they will flower multiple times. Flowering often results in the main bloom being surrounded by younger and smaller offspring, hence the colloquial name “Hen & Chicks”.
The “Hen & Chicks” nickname isn’t exclusive to Echeveria, by the way, but Echeveria is what people are usually referring to. There are actually over 150 species of Echeveria, specifically, and botanists have faced no small task in organizing the taxonomy of this popular succulent.
Echeveria is a beautiful ornamental plant that can thrive with low-light and regular feeding. Tweaks in the lighting can result in a myriad of color possibilities in the succulent’s thick leaves, which can range from pale green to hues of orange, red, and purple. Propagation is among the most simple, and can be accomplished by separating the offsets (chicks), regular leaf-cuttings, or even by seed in non-hybridized strains.
Hoya obovata (Wax Plant)
The Hoya is a succulent native to Yemen’s Socotra island specifically, making it endemic to the region. Its lineage traces back to the Caryophyllaceae family, making it something of a “cousin” to the carnation.
In fact, the Hoya Carnosa may be the most popular form of this succulent, which is also called the “porcelainflower” and “wax plant”. The Carnosa strain is native to Southeastern Asia and Australia, and its waxy leaves and sweet-scented flowers have seen its propagation spread vigorously over the last 200 years.
In fact, in the United Kingdom the plant was honored with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. This award is bestowed on plants after a rigorous evaluation of their viability in the garden, and looks primarily at performance under growing conditions in the UK.
The Hoya line of succulents is hardly limited to the UK, Yemen, Asia, or anywhere else, these days. It is a garden favorite around the world for the color and fragrance it brings, as well as its allure to hummingbirds and bees for those same reasons. Outdoors, it can reach heights of 13-26 ft. (4-8 m) and has a spread of ~3-5 ft. (1- 1½ m). Indoors, it is often grown under glass to satisfy the plant’s need for high humidity.
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (Flaming Katy)
The Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is originally native to Madagascar. Other common names for blossfeldiana include Flaming Katy, Christmas Kalanchoe, Florist’s Kalanchoe and Madagascar Widow’s-thrill.
This plant matures into a bushy succulent within 2–5 years, and can reach heights between 12-18 in. (30–45 cm). The plant’s spread will usually fall between 4-20 in. (10–50 cm) The flaming katy is both evergreen and perennial, meaning it keeps its leaves year-round and lives year-after-year.
As you might imagine, the Flaming Katy is a colorful plant. It flowers naturally in early Autumn, and each four-petaled flower can grow into one of a myriad of vibrant colors, ranging from deep crimson to carnation pinks, as well as hues of orange, gold or white.
The succulent Rhipsalis is technically a parasitic laurel, and is one of the oldest species of cacti in existence. In fact, Rhipsalis is the only group of cactus plants still around that occurred naturally in the Old World. It is very similar to mistletoe for these reasons, and even resembles it in appearance a bit, but it is not to be confused with cactus mistletoe, which is a distinct species.
Rhipsalis is found growing wild in regions of Central America, the Caribbean islands and certain northern parts of South America. They can also be found growing in isolated parts of Africa and Asia, though the center of their diversity is found in the Mata Atlantica rainforests in southern Brazil.
The actual succulence of Rhispalis can vary widely, from the thick-stemmed Rhipsalis neves-armondii to the thin, filiform stems of Rhipsalis baccifera or Rhipsalis clavata. Another characteristic that makes Rhipsalis stand out as unique is it being the most widely distributed genus of epiphytic cacti, meaning that its parasitic nature causes no harm to its host.
Schlumbergera (Holiday Cacti)
More commonly known as Holiday Cactus, other common names for this succulent usually refer to their flowering season in late Spring. North of the equator, they can be called Christmas cactus, Crab cactus, Holiday cactus, or Thanksgiving cactus. In Brazil, they are often referred to as Flor de Maio (or Mayflower), which is an obvious nod to their flowering season.
The colorations of the Holiday Cactus can range from flowers in red, white, pink, purple, yellow, or orange. Most popular houseplant varieties of Schlumbergera are actually cultivars rather than distinct species, meaning they are deliberately curated for desirable characteristics. The cultivars fall under two distinct groupings: the Truncata and Buckleyi groups.
Truncata varieties can be identified by their “stem segments with pointed teeth; flowers held more or less horizontally, usually above the horizontal, whose upper side is differently shaped from the lower side (zygomorphic); and pollen which is yellow”.
The Buckleyi varieties, conversely, will have “stem segments with rounded, more symmetrical teeth; more or less symmetrical (regular) flowers which hang down, below the horizontal; and pollen which is pink.”
Sedum morganianum (Burro’s Tail)
Also called the Donkey’s tail or Burro’s tail, this succulent is native to regions of Southern Mexico and Honduras. It is a perennial plant that produces trailing stems that can grow as long as 24 in (60 cm), that produce fleshy bluish-green leaves throughout the year and pinkish-red flowers in the summer.
In the wild, morganianum’s growth is exclusive to a very limited geography, having only been found in a handful of places. This makes it a micro-endemic species, technically, in its naturally occurring form.
As a houseplant, it is usually seen in hanging containers that allow the stems to hang downward, vertically. The plant has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, which indicates the plant’s propensity for growing in British growing conditions.
Tulista pumila – formerly Haworthia margaritifera (Pearl Plant, Zebra Cactus)
The Zebra Cactus is an evergreen succulent with long, sharp leaves that grow in rosettes of 7-8 in. (20 cm) in diameter. The leaves are firm, stand upright, are sometimes curved inward, and are usually covered with raised white bumps called tubercles.
That all being said, there is incredible diversity in the color, leaf shape, growth patterns, and the shape or presence of tubercles. The environmental conditions have significant impact on the characteristics as well, with most plants taking on reddish hues during the drier summer months, as opposed to their normal green and brown color.
This is a slow-growing succulent, with some individual plants having lived for over 40 years. The pumila species is actually one of the only succulents on this list that can not only survive in direct sunlight, but will thrive in it!
As you can see, succulents offer a diversity of beauty and unique distinction among houseplants. They can range from the subtle to the bold in both form and fashion, which has made them ideal gifts for at least the last couple of centuries. The species listed above, in particular, are easy to grow indoors and will survive in low-light conditions.
This all translates into the succulent being not only a favorite of experienced gardeners, but also the ideal instrument for inducting the novice into the fold of propagating plants of their own.
Most succulents will require deep-watering to reach their optimal health. While there is no official definition for deep-watering, the idea is that superficially sprinkling some water on top of the soil does little but water the tops of the roots. Therefore, alternative methods are employed to ensure water reaches more deeply into the soil. This can involve an automated irrigation sequence timed to allow water to drain through, or simply a flood-and-drain system spaced farther apart.
Most succulents are far more vulnerable to overwatering than underwatering.
In addition to deep-watering, succulents typically require a loose, airy soil (such as sand) that quickly drains off the water, as succulents are all incredibly sensitive to any exposure to water at all. Therefore, growing succulents hydroponically is something requiring careful consideration and alternative application of existing methods. They don’t root well in stone-exclusive applications, and need soil or a soil alternative to be healthy.
How do I know if my succulent needs more light?
It never ceases to amaze how a succulent can grow – no, thrive, unattended and in a harsh environment like a desert, yet perish under the attempted care of a well-intended indoor gardener. With succulents, light and water are almost always the culprit.
Succulents require 6-8 hours of indirect sunlight, so sitting them in a windowsill without ever moving them might not be the best idea. Sitting them in a windowed room, on the other hand, is perfectly fine. Succulent plants do a better job at telling us what they need than some other plants. Unfortunately, some damage, like overexposure, can be non-reversible.
Overexposure, or succulent sunburn, is initially spotted by a pale, whitish coloring to the succulent’s leaves. The white will be patchy and spread throughout the leaf, and unfortunately the damage is irreversible. You will need to move your succulent out of direct sunlight and continue working to keep it healthy while it grows new leaves. Sometimes the damaged leaves will wither and die, falling off on their own. In other cases they will not. You can remove one or two damaged leaves if you wish, but it’s not necessary and generally not recommended.
Underexposure, or “not enough light,” is indicated by leaves and stems that are stretching out noticeably longer than usual, as well as discoloration or uneven coloration of the vegetative leaf itself. Underexposure is often the result of not enough sunlight entering a room, as in a northern-facing window instead of a southern. Good light, but not enough of it is the most common factor affecting these varieties of succulent we’re covering here.
Remember that almost all succulents need a minimum of 6-8 hours of indirect sunlight, and 10-14 hours is even better in most cases.
Alternatively, succulents can be sustained with artificial lighting that falls in the 5,000K to 6,500K portion of the spectrum (yellow & blue, respectively). For an informative but easy-to-understand explanation of the LED grow light spectrum. Or keep reading to learn about succulent-specific artificial lighting options.
Can succulents live without natural light?
Succulents, like any plant, can not only live but can thrive without natural light – as long as there is ample artificial light of the correct wavelength present.
Succulents, again like any other plant, generally require light in a wavelength between 5,000K – 6,500K (yellow to blue light, respectively) during the begetative growth stages. While succulents may look different next to other common houseplants, as plants they will still require some amounts of nutrition, water, and light. The light serves as the catalyst for photosynthesis, which of course, is the process by which the plant absorbs the nutrient-fortified water and metabolizes it into food.
You can usually tell when your succulents aren’t getting enough light, as they will develop pale, whitish patches along their leaves. Because many succulents are variegated, or striped green and white, already, many varieties will actually become solid green when deprived of the light they need. This is known as underexposure.
These changes in the plant are a result of its inability to produce the chlorophyll they need to instigate their growth. You will also notice the plant stretching towards its light source; stretching, in succulents, often leads to longer and more slender leaf shape than normal.
Growing Succulents with Artificial Light
Truth be told, you can grow any kind of plant with artificial light – succulents included.
In fact, once you get through the modest learning curve of understanding how light and plants interact, you can expect your plants to grow better in artificial light! That link offers a detailed explanation of growing with artificial lights in general, so let’s take a quick look at how succulents, specifically, react to artificial light.
The first thing you’ll want to know before growing a succulent by artificial light is the color wavelength, sometimes called the color temperature, that is most beneficial to your specific species of plant. Generally speaking, succulents prefer light between 5,000K -6,500K during a vegetative growth stage. If you’re wondering whether one is better than the other (i.e., yellow vs. blue), the 6,500K lights will most closely replicate natural sunlight. This is always the safest bet, BTW.
Next, you’ll need to consider whether you want to go with LED, or fluorescent lighting. There are pros and cons associated with each, but generally speaking, LED consumes ½ the electricity for twice the light output, but costs much more up-front. Fluorescent bulbs are more affordable to purchase initially, although they not only put out less light than LEDs, but will consume more electricity over time as well.
To really make a good choice then, you’ll need to make a few other considerations. The lumen output of a bulb will allow you to compare the intensity of your lighting, and the wattage will indicate its power consumption. You want the highest lumen number and the lowest wattage number possible. Historically, this has been a laughable notion, but advances in modern lighting technology (particularly that of LED grow lighting) have flipped the script.
Lastly, yet just as importantly, is the matter of the light’s actual temperature. Relative to the more traditional Metal-Halide and High-Pressure Sodium bulbs, LED and fluorescent lights put out far less heat. For the indoor gardener, this translates into being able to put the light closer to the plants, to ensure they get as much of the precious light as they can.
However, after 8-12 hours of being continuously on, even these kinds of lights can reach harmful, or even deadly, temperatures. This is even more likely when considering lights of extremely high lumen output, such as commercial grow lighting systems. As such, many gardeners place a small thermometer in the garden – but still keep a sharp eye out for the signs of heat damage!
Succulents need a bare minimum of ~6 hours of light, be it indirect sunlight or artificial light, to live. To thrive, however, anywhere from 10-14 hours of artificial light will be enough to convince your plant that it’s summer. Commercial greenhouses often keep lights on their succulents for 24 hours a day to keep them growing quickly and healthily.
Be mindful that reducing light duration to less than 10 hours a day could trigger a flowering or dormant stage for your succulent. Most indoor growers will connect their plant’s light to a simple timer switch to ensure the right amount of light each day.
What direction should succulents face?
In the Northern Hemisphere, or anywhere North of the equator, South or East-facing windows will give you the best sunlight in the room. Most succulents need 6-8 hours of indirect sunlight each day, minimum. Therefore, a wall adjacent to the window may be a better location than the windowsill itself. It’s not such a huge deal if a sunbeam lands across the plant for an hour or two, but sunup to sundown is too much.
Another idea is to place the plant deliberately in a Northern or Western-facing windowsill. This could depend entirely on other factors, like where you live and the presence of buildings or trees that block the sun. But a windowsill in a room that gets sunlight all day despite never actually seeing the sun itself can be perfect.
It’s not a bad idea to rotate the plant periodically, either. This will help it to grow more evenly and ensure all leaves are getting a fair share of light. A good routine of rotating the plant can also help you to remain mindful of stretching, an indicator of too little light.