SIU Greenhouse

December 22, 2020

Got a houseplant as a holiday gift? Learn how to sustain it through winter

by Jason Franchuk

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Houseplants are popular holiday gifts, but caring for them through winter with its shorter days, low humidity and lower light intensity presents challenges. Clinton Chamness, a greenhouse manager at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has tips for winter plant care and suggestions for houseplants that make great gifts.

“Think of winter plant care as keeping the plant in a period of dormancy,” Chamness said. “They often do better when indoor gardeners leave them alone for awhile.”

Here are five tips to help indoor plants survive winter:

  1. Reduce watering. Houseplants require different moisture levels, but wintertime cuts the requirement down significantly. With less sunlight powering photosynthesis, the rate at which plants use water decreases. 
  2. Use touch to check for dry soil before watering.
  3. If soil looks dry on top, there still might be moisture in the pot. Dig into the media an inch or two. Or pick up the potted plant. Pots containing water are heavier.
  4. Don’t be afraid to let your houseplant show a little bit of wilt. Often, it is hard to tell moisture content in a pot. Letting the plant “tell” you when it needs water can ensure you are not overwatering it.
  5. Stop fertilizing. Nitrogen is used to promote new growth. In winter, plants aren’t growing as much, so wait until the next growing season to feed your plants again. 

Looking for gift ideas? Chamness recommends the following:

 ZZ Plant ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamifolia) has low light requirements. Chamness advises letting this plant completely dry out between watering and using a high drainage soil mix. “This plant takes neglect very well,” he said. “If you tend to forget about your houseplants and need something that will survive nearly any home environment, then this is the plant for you.”

Arrowhead Plant Arrowhead plant (Syngonium podyphyllum) likes indirect but bright light and does best in a south facing room. It favors a moist environment but need less watering in winter. Chamness suggests growing it in peat moss mix or coir mix. “This plant is actually a vine, so it can be used in a hanging basket or pruned to form a beautiful full cluster. There are many varieties available, some of which have red or white hues that look lovely in winter.”

Stromanthe Stromanthe sanguinea “Triostar” has low light requirements and does well on the east side of a house providing bright indirect morning light. It should be kept moist in a well-drained growing medium. “SIU uses this plant for events, as the underside of the leaves resemble school colors.”

PrayerPlant Prayer plants (Calathea and Maranta species) have similar care requirements as S. sanguinea. “These plants have many beautiful varieties to choose from, many of them have colors close to maroon – red or burgundy – on the bottom of the leaves. Another good representation of SIU.”

Creton Brake Fern Creton brake fern (Pteris critica) likes moist, well-drained soil. It requires higher humidity and needs to sit upon a tray with pebbles and water to help keep moisture up during the winter. It needs bright, indirect light and does best in a bright south room of the house. “This fern requires more care than the other recommended plants, but it has beautiful white foliage that looks like winter. The high humidity it needs is difficult for winter time but can be done.”


“Houseplants bring beauty and color indoors during winter,” Chamness said. “With a little bit of effort, people can continue to enjoy them long after the holidays.”

The SIU greenhouse is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on days the SIU campus is open. The address is 650 Agriculture Drive. Contact Chamness or the staff at 618-453-2634 with questions.