50 Houseplants That Don’t Mind Dry Air

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Most houseplants just don’t do well in desert-dry air! Source: pexels.com

Dry air is a major problem for houseplants in the winter… and indeed, any indoor plant (seedlings, cuttings, etc.). When the atmospheric humidity is less than 40%, certainly common enough in many homes, plants try hard to compensate by transpiring more heavily, that is, by releasing water to the air through their stomata (breathing pores). The drier the air, the more they transpire, and that can lead to their tissues losing water more rapidly than their roots can replace it. This can result in all sorts of symptoms of stress: wilting, flower buds turning brown, leaves curling under, brown leaf tips, even the death of the plant.

And if that weren’t enough, leaves stressed by dry air are also more subject to pest damage (red spider mites, whiteflies, thrips, etc.)

Some Plants Can Cope

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Plants with thick, waxy leaves cope better with dry air than those with thin ones. Source: davisla.wordpress.com.

That said, many plants, especially those native to arid climates or ones where they are exposed to long periods of drought, have developed ways of compensating for dry air. Cacti and succulents are usually very resistant to dry air and so are some epiphytic plants, like hoyas.

Some plants resist dry air by producing leaves with fewer stomata than normal, thus reducing water loss. Many have abandoned leaves altogether and breathe through their green stems (many cacti, for example). Others keep their stomata closed during the day, when the sun is hottest and water loss is greatest, breathing only a night. (This is called Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM.) In other words, they essentially hold their breath 12 hours a day! Also, plants resistant to dry air often have extra-thick leaves or leaves coated with wax, powder or hair, all of which reduce evaporation.

Plants That Don’t Mind Dry Air

What follows are a few houseplants that don’t really mind it if the air in your home is on the dry side. Not that they will suffer if you increase the humidity to levels more acceptable to plants in general (most plants prefer a relative humidity of 50% or above) and that indeed is good for your health too, but if improving the atmospheric humidity something you just can’t do, at least these plants will pull through without a complaint!

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Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’: one example of a plant that tolerates dry air. Source, Bernard Dupont, Wikimedia Commons

  1. Aeonium spp. (tree houseleek)
  2. Agave spp. (century plant)
  3. Aglaonema spp. (Chinese evergreen)
  4. Aloe spp. (aloe)
  5. Ananas comosus (pineapple plant)
  6. Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant)
  7. Beaucarnea recurvata (ponytail palm)
  8. Cephalocereus senilis (old man cactus)
  9. Cereus peruvianus (Peruvian apple cactus)
  10. Ceropegia woodii (rosary vine)
  11. Clivia miniata (clivia)
  12. Crassula ovata (jade plant)
  13. Crassula spp. (crassula)
  14. Cryptanthus spp. (earth star)

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    The thick leaves of the dieffenbachia can generally cope quite well with drier air, but you can see just a bit of damage at the tip of this one. Source: Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons

  15. Dieffenbachia spp. (dumbcane)
  16. Echeveria spp. (echeveria)
  17. Echinocactus grusonii (golden ball cactus)
  18. Epipremnum aureum (pothos, devil’s ivy)
  19. × Epicactus (orchid cactus)
  20. Euphorbia lactea (candelabra spurge)
  21. Euphorbia milii (crown of thorns)
  22. Euphorbia tirucalli (pencil cactus)
  23. Ficus elastica (rubber tree)
  24. Ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig)
  25. Gasteria spp. (ox tongue)
  26. Gymnocalycium mihanovichii friedrichii ‘Hibotan’ (red ball cactus)
  27. Haworthia spp. (zebra plant)
  28. Hippeastrum cvs (amaryllis)
  29. Hoya carnosa (wax plant)
  30. Kalanchoe (kalanchoe, panda plant)
  31. Ledebouria socialis (silver squill)

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    Few plants tolerate dry air as well as living stones (Lithops). Source: Dysmorodrepanis, Wikimedia Commons

  32. Lithops spp. (living stone)
  33. Mammillaria spp. (pincushion cactus)
  34. Opuntia spp. (bunny ears)
  35. Pachypodium lamerei (Madagascar palm)
  36. Pelargonium graveolens (rose-scented geranium)
  37. Pelargonium × hortorum (zonal pelargonium, zonal geranium)
  38. Peperomia obtusifolia, P. clusiifolia (baby rubber plant)
  39. Philodendron hederaceum oxycardium (heartleaf philodendron)
  40. Rhipsalis spp. (mistletoe cactus)
  41. Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
  42. Schlumbergera (Christmas cactus)
  43. Sedum spp. (sedum, donkey’s tail)

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    The nearly round leaves of Senecio rowleyanus are designed to reduce evapotranspiration. Source: Forest & Kim Starr, flickr

  44. Senecio rowleyanus (string-of-pearls)
  45. Senecio serpens (blue chalksticks)
  46. Stapelia spp. (carrion flower)
  47. Streltizia reginae (bird of paradise)
  48. Syngonium spp. (arrowhead vine)
  49. Yucca elephantipes (spineless yucca)
  50. Zamioculcas zamiifolia (zeezee plant)20171227A pexels.com

Overwintering “Geraniums” Without Torturing Them

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Zonal pelargoniums need to be overwintered indoors in all but the mildest climates. Source: Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons

When I was a very young child, my father always overwintered his “zonal geraniums” (actually, they are zonal pelargoniums: [Pelargonium x hortorum]) in the time-honored tradition, by knocking the soil off their roots and hanging them upside down in the root cellar. Then when we, like so many 1960s families, “redid the basement,” putting in a family room, extra bedrooms, etc.. Extra insulation was added and the root cellar, now seen as a source of undesirable cold, moist air, disappeared. After all, who needed a root cellar anymore? We all had refrigerators!

But his pelargoniums didn’t like the change. I can well remember them, now hanging upside down near his workbench, with newspaper spread underneath to catch all the falling leaves. By spring, there was little life left in them and many simply died. Even the best never recovered fully from the shock. He soon stopped overwintering pelargoniums and took up starting new ones from seed. Problem solved.

What Went Wrong?

Gardeners still try the old method, following methods handed down over the generations, and the results can still be pretty pathetic. Sometimes old methods are just great, but other times, they’re simply … wrong!

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Hanging pelargoniums upside down with no soil on their roots is little more than plant torture. Source: the2seasons.com

First, hanging pelargoniums upside down was never a good idea. People used to think it “directed energy from the roots back to the stems,” but nowadays, we know that’s nonsense! There’s no logical reason to turn any plant upside down for extended periods. Nor was knocking all the soil off their roots of any use: that just exposes roots to drying air and usually kills them, forcing the plant, if it survives, to produce new ones. This “upside down exposed roots” thing was just bad horticulture. Essentially, it was plant torture.

Secondly, it must be said that pelargoniums don’t much like being forced into dormancy. It’s simply not a normal state for them. Of course, the zonal pelargonium (P. x hortorum) is a hybrid species and never existed in the wild, but its parent species (P. zonale and P. inquinans, both from South Africa) were small, somewhat succulent shrubs that never went dormant. During dry periods, their growth slowed down, but didn’t stop, and they kept most of their leaves, living off moisture stored in their thick stems.

When forced into full dormancy (when you both withhold water and light from them), zonal geraniums will put up with it if necessary (like any plant, they’ll do their best to try and survive), but they won’t be happy campers.

Our parents and grandparents had better luck keeping pelargoniums dormant than we do because they stored them in root cellars, where it was very cold (usually less than 50˚ F/10˚ C), but above freezing, and where humidity was extremely high: about 90 to 95%. Thus the plants lost little moisture to the air.

In most situations where you could store pelargoniums these days, though, the air is going to be very dry, adding another layer of stress to the plants’ already dire situation. No wonder so many pelargoniums stored this way are so weak come spring they simply die when repotted.

Forcing Dormancy With Less Stress

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These pelargoniums in forced dormancy are losing a lot of leaves, but will likely survive the winter. Source: threepsandq.wordpress.com

If you want to force your pelargonium into dormancy, at least do so logically. A garage or cool basement where temperatures remain in the 40 to 50˚ F (5 to 10 ° C) range would be best. And try not to expose the roots to the open air, inevitably very dry. When you dig the plant up in the garden, it’s best to leave the root ball intact and to put it in a paper bag or to wrap it in newspaper to reduce water loss. If the plant was growing in a pot, leave it there, bringing in indoors pot and all. The room can be completely dark, as now the plant will be fully dormant.

During the winter, spray the rootstock or water it lightly once a month so as to maintain a minimum amount of moisture. You’ll still need to spread a newspaper under the plant or put it in a cardboard box to catch its falling leaves, but it won’t likely lose all of them.

Come spring (mid- to late March in many climates), repot the plant and move it in front a sunny window or under plant lights and begin watering again, slowly at first, then more as new growth appears. Start fertilizing as well. By early summer, it should have recuperated and be ready to plant outdoors.

Better Yet, Keep It Growing

The following method of maintaining pelargoniums over the winter has always been the safest and most successful: simply keep it growing in front of a bright window or under lights. This best reproduces the conditions that pelargoniums received in the wild.


Clean the plant up before you bring it indoors.

With this method, simply clean the plant a little when you bring it indoors, removing dead and yellow leaves and dried flowers. Also, spray the leaves in soapy water (1 teaspoon of insecticidal soap per quart of water (5 ml per litre)) to kill any insects that are trying to hitch a ride indoors and likewise give the roots a 15-minute soak in soapy water for the same reason. If you dug it out of the garden or a container, pot it up. You may also want to pinch the stems tips (i.e. remove the terminal bud) in order to stimulate better branching, as that will give a fuller-looking plant.

Now place the pot at room temperature (anywhere between 40 ˚ F and 80˚ F [5 ˚ C and 25˚ C] will do) in front of the sunniest possible window or under intense artificial lighting, setting it on a saucer to catch any excess water.

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The best place for a pelargonium during the winter is indoors in a brightly lit spot. Source: agardenforthehouse.com

Over the winter, water as needed when the soil is dry to the touch. Note that the frequency of watering can vary enormously according to the growing conditions: from as often as once every five days to as little as once every three weeks. (The cooler the room and the greater the air humidity, the less water the plant will need.) Put off fertilizing for a while: “feeding” a pelargonium when the light is low, as it likely will be most of the winter, can lead to it stretching for the light (etiolation). Resume fertilization (with an all-purpose product) in March, when the days begin to seriously lengthen.

Your windowsill pelargonium will thrive throughout the winter and will even bloom, but not as heavily as it did outdoors, because winter lighting is usually less intense.

When Summer Comes

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A sunny spot outdoors is ideal for pelargoniums. Source: Sergei S. Scurfield, Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the method used to maintain your pelargonium over the winter, you’ll still have to acclimatize it to outdoor conditions before planting it out for the summer. Once there is no risk of frost, place the plant outdoors in shade for first three or four days, then in partial shade for another three or four days, before placing it in full sun, its preferred condition, although partial shade will do. With this kind care, your pelargonium should bloom abundantly right through the summer.

That said, windowsill pelargoniums will still generally be much more attractive and floriferous in the summer than those spent the winter in forced dormancy: it isn’t easy for a plant used to growing all year to fully recover from forced dormancy!20171105A Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons