Understanding Natural Light for Houseplants

Updated: 26 Oct, 2023


Natural light is a crucial factor in the health and well-being of houseplants. It is the primary source of energy for photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light into essential nutrients. Understanding how natural light interacts with plants can help you create an optimal environment for your indoor green companions.

The intensity, duration, and quality of light all play significant roles in plant growth. Intensity refers to the brightness of light, which varies based on factors like proximity to a light source and the time of day. Duration encompasses the amount of light exposure a plant receives daily, affecting its overall growth patterns and flowering capabilities. Quality, on the other hand, relates to the color spectrum of light, with different wavelengths influencing specific aspects of plant development.

The Biology

Plants possess the remarkable capacity to convert light energy into usable energy through the process of photosynthesis. This vital biochemical process takes place within specialized cells known as chloroplasts. Plants adapted to higher light levels typically exhibit elevated concentrations of chloroplasts, enabling them to efficiently harness light energy.

Moreover, chloroplasts serve as dynamic responders to shifting light conditions, modulating their density accordingly. When subjected to diminished light, plants allocate more chloroplasts to capture the limited available light, a phenomenon termed acclimatization. This adaptive mechanism elucidates how shade-tolerant plants can be gradually acclimated to thrive in higher-light environments.

The conversion of sunlight into accessible energy stands as a cornerstone of terrestrial life. Through plants, sunlight undergoes this transformative process, ultimately becoming a source of sustenance for animals. This energy cascades through the food chain as animals consume plants or other animals, highlighting the interconnectedness of life on our planet.

Measuring Light Intensity

Measuring light intensity is essential for providing the right conditions for indoor plants. One method is observing the shadows cast by the light source. A sharp, well-defined shadow indicates bright light, while a blurry, unclear shadow signifies moderate light. The absence of a shadow suggests lower light intensity.

Another common measurement is foot-candles, derived from the intensity of a single candela. Here’s a basic guide:

  1. 200–500 foot candles: Low intensity, akin to deep shade, unsuitable for most plants.
  2. 500–1,000: Still low, but sufficient for tasks like reading, resembling natural room light. Ideal for shade-loving plants.
  3. 1,000–2,000: Bright yet indirect sunlight, may not produce a sharp shadow. Suitable for plants needing indirect sunlight.
  4. 2,000–4,000: Equivalent to 40% of midday sun, or direct light through windows. Appropriate for plants requiring strong light.
  5. 4,000–5,000: About half of midday sun, or strong direct sunlight in a bright room. Beneficial for plants with high light needs.
  6. 5,000 and up: Very bright indoor light.
  7. However, it’s crucial to note that even the brightest indoor rooms rarely reach the levels of full outdoor sun (10,000–12,000-foot candles). Close proximity to windows can lead to sunburn, as glass acts as a magnifier. Pay attention to your plant’s response. Yellowing or burns indicate excessive light, while leggy growth suggests insufficient light. Ultimately, the plant itself is the best indicator of its light needs.

Plant Positions

When cultivating plants indoors, gardeners often grapple with the challenge of providing sufficient and consistent light. It’s crucial to understand that natural sunlight filtering through a window is less potent than direct outdoor sunlight, and the light’s strength diminishes as the distance from the window increases.

Moreover, the orientation of a window plays a pivotal role in determining the light’s intensity. In the Northern Hemisphere, the relationship between window direction and light intensity is as follows:

North-facing windows: These windows generally receive the weakest light, often remaining in relative shade throughout the day. While it might be feasible to nurture shade-tolerant plants in a north-facing window during summer, they tend to be less conducive to plant growth in winter.

South-facing windows: As the sun traces a slightly southern path across the sky, southern windows typically enjoy robust light intensity. Plants positioned in unobstructed southern windows usually receive the highest amount of light.

East-facing windows: Eastward-facing windows bask in the gentler morning sun, making them suitable for plants that thrive on moderate or morning sunlight.

West-facing windows: Westward-facing windows receive the full force of the afternoon and evening sun, which can be surprisingly potent, especially in summer. While not as intense as southern exposures, west-facing windows provide an excellent spot for sun-loving plants to thrive.

Using a light meter

Here’s an alternative checklist for assessing bright indirect light, this time utilizing a light meter rather than the #WhatMyPlantSees method. Conduct measurements during the sunniest part of the day, typically around midday, and aim to obtain readings on both sunny and cloudy days. Position the meter so that the sensor is adjacent to one of the plant’s leaves, oriented towards the closest light source.

50–150 foot-candles:

This falls under the category of “low light,” although it’s nearly bordering on “no light.” Among the plants commonly found in households, only snake plants, pothos, certain philodendrons, and ZZ plants can endure this level of illumination. When you receive such a reading, it’s advisable to glance upwards! A location receiving only 50–150 foot candles at noon on a clear day likely offers a distant view of a window or is situated near a window with significant obstructions—either way, it provides a limited glimpse of the sky.

200–800 foot candles:

Within this light range, all tropical foliage plants can expect satisfactory growth, and those labeled as “low-light” performers above will thrive even more. In this bracket, your plant likely enjoys a broad view of the sky or experiences the sun filtering through a white curtain, and watering becomes a less worrisome task with a reduced risk of root rot. Compared to 200–400 foot-candles, a plant at 400–800 foot-candles will exhibit faster growth, increased water absorption, and quicker soil nutrient depletion.

However, it’s important to note that more light isn’t always advantageous: Opting for the lower end of this intensity range can make plant care more manageable, reducing the frequency of watering. While some growth may be sacrificed, the primary objective should not solely be rapid growth, but rather ensuring the plant’s overall well-being.

What is the ideal amount of natural light for houseplants?

The ideal amount of natural light varies depending on the specific type of plant. Some plants thrive in direct sunlight, while others prefer low-light conditions. It’s important to research the light requirements of each plant you have.

How can I determine the light levels in my home?

You can assess light levels by observing the intensity of sunlight in different areas of your home throughout the day. Additionally, you can use a light meter or smartphone apps designed for this purpose.

What if my home lacks sufficient natural light?

If your home has limited natural light, you can supplement it with artificial grow lights. These mimic natural sunlight and can be tailored to meet the specific needs of your plants.

Can plants get too much sunlight indoors?

Yes, plants can get sunburned if they receive too much direct sunlight, especially if they are not acclimated to it. It’s important to gradually introduce plants to higher light levels and provide some shade during the hottest parts of the day.

How does seasonal variation affect natural light for houseplants?

Seasonal changes can significantly impact the amount and intensity of natural light available. It’s important to adjust the placement of your plants to accommodate these fluctuations and ensure they receive adequate light year-round.

What are signs that my plant is not getting enough light?

Common signs of insufficient light include stunted growth, pale or yellowing leaves, leggy or elongated stems, and a lack of flowering or fruiting.

Can I rotate my plants to evenly distribute light exposure?

Yes, rotating your plants periodically can help ensure even growth and prevent one side from becoming overly leggy. This practice is particularly beneficial for plants that receive light from a single direction.

Are there plants that can thrive in low-light conditions?

Yes, there are several houseplants that are well-suited for low-light environments, such as snake plants, pothos, and ZZ plants. These species have adapted to thrive in areas with limited natural light.


Understanding the role of natural light in the growth of indoor plants is a fundamental aspect of successful plant care. Recognizing the individual preferences of your plants, and strategically placing them in relation to available light sources, can make a significant difference in their overall health and vitality.

Moreover, being aware of different methods to measure light intensity, such as observing shadows or using foot candles, empowers you to fine-tune your plant care routine. This knowledge allows for adjustments in lighting conditions, ensuring that your plants receive the optimal level of brightness they require for thriving growth.

Mary Lloyster

Mary Lloyster

Mary, the ultimate oracle of indoor gardening! With years of experience and a flourishing indoor expo, Mary has become our go-to expert for all things related to house plants and indoor gardening. Despite her background in Political Science, Mary has discovered a delightful way to blend her full-time job with a touch of relaxation through indoor gardening. Now, she eagerly shares her wisdom and experiences with our readers on a daily basis. If you have any inquiries about house plants, indoor gardening techniques, or caring tips, don't hesitate to leave a comment for Mary in the designated section below!

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