I am oft questioned by those who simply refuse to buy lights but insist on growing plants in the winter here. They point out that if Mother Nature wanted more light in Alaska during the winter, she would have made us all Hawaiians. They also insist that there must be something that will grow indoors lights or no.
Of course, they are right on both accounts. We should live in Hawaii during the winter and there are several plants that do perfectly fine without supplemental lights. I am not letting you off the hook, mind you, as edibles and most flowering plants do require extra light during our rarefied winters.
Alas, we don't live in Hawaii, but lots of plants there would do just fine living here. Take bromeliads, for example. Seems strange for a family of plants that include the pineapple associated with our 50th State, but these plants do just fine without tremendous amounts of sunlight.
In fact, you can grow any bromeliad you can get your hands on without lights. Why not start with your own pineapple right here in the middle of the winter? Buy a ripe fruit locally and twist off the top. The center part of the fruit will come with it. Trim this down to a couple of inches and then park it in a 6- to 8-inch pot filled with well draining potting soil. OK, it may never fruit without lights (another good reason to have them), but your pineapple will take root and grow more leaves without any supplemental light.
Better yet, look for other kinds of bromeliads for sale. Local nurseries that stay open always have some. Florist can order them. And the box stores usually have a few in their collection, too. By the way, the trick to keeping these in good shape is to water in the center of the foliage and always ensure that there is some water in the central cup they form. And if they are big enough you can put them in a plastic bag with a ripe apple for a few days. Then put them under lights and watch them flower.
Even the most infrequent reader knows I would put amaryllises on a list of plants all should have, with or without extra light. When you buy them, they are "just add water and stand back plants, " no matter what time of year you make your purchase. If you let them go dormant by putting them in the dark for two months and keeping the temperature around 45 degrees, they reward you with flowers year in and year out. And they do so without the aid of more light than Nature provides.
Next, who hasn't seen a spider plant in a dark restaurant, hotel lobby or dry cleaner? No Latin name necessary, the miniature versions of the mother plant, hanging like sparks from a firework display were the most popular plants back in Victorian days and the indoor plant craze of the 1970s.
Spider plants, (o.k. Chlorophytum) are easy to grow plants. They are pretty hard to kill and seemingly could live in total darkness. Of course, no plant can, but they do pretty good in some pretty terrible light. There are several different kinds, some variegated white and green and again, they are available from the usual sources. You may also get permission to take a cutting from one of establishments with which you do business.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Chinese evergreen, Aglaonema. These are the so called "lucky bamboo" plants, usually several stems wrapped together. They are, indeed, given as gifts to new business in China. NASA says they remove xylene and formaldehyde from the air. While they do well under lights, they do even better when grown under poor light conditions. This is why you see them in restaurant bathrooms, five or six long shoots stuffed into a glass vase, green under the dim lights.
Finally (though I could go on) how about the so-called cast iron plants, Aspidistra? They obviously get their name because they really can handle abuse and this includes low light conditions. They can also go months without watering. It doesn't seem fair to treat a plant so poorly.
So, yes, there are lots of plants that don't need supplemental lights. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have at least one place where you can grow some lettuce, perhaps some African Violets and let your plants enjoy some "sun."
Reach Jeff Lowenfels, co-author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide To The Soil Food Web, " at www.teamingwithmicrobes.com/home or 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays on KBYR 700 AM or www.kbyr.com.