In the last few weeks I’ve reviewed several books on houseplants I thought I would discuss why I brought houseplants into my house. This year has seen a big trend for a return to using houseplants as part of interior decorating. The range of options within garden centres has expanded from just a few cacti and spider plants to include wider choices. Supermarkets and homeware shops are following the trend. My local Next shop is offering a range of houseplants more varied than many of the garden centres. People are opting for plants over pets. It’s never been easier to buy many of the options available.
In the 1980s NASA conducted research on the effect of plants in purifying our indoor air. Many indoor environments, particularly office spaces, produce toxic agents such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Benzene is a carcinogen which has been linked to cancer and health problems. Formaldehyde is part of our cellular metabolism, but at higher levels can aggravate eyes and asthma. Trichloroethylene has been linked to central nervous system depression. They all contribute to sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms of which are: eye and throat irritation, headaches, fatigue, chest tightness and skin irritation.
NASA filled a chamber with plants and then pumped in these chemicals. After 24 hours 90% of the chemicals had been broken down. Many of the most effective plants were very common houseplants. Some of the chemicals were broken down by the plants others by bacteria in the soil. For NASA this information gave them a list of plants that could survive in low light and give the maximum benefit. Many were tropical or subtropical and adapted to growing under a leaf canopy with limited light. The conditions they potentially face in space, but also mirrors an office space or many houses.
The NASA chart listed the most effective plants at removing each of the chemicals tested.
Buying a peace lily came out as one of the more effective choices for removing all the chemicals tested. However, it is toxic to many pets. The chart does show which are non-toxic for anyone having to account for pets likely to chomp their plants.
On top of the NASA study, indoor plants have been shown to reduce breathing problems, reduce blood pressure, and reduce fatigue. They are also removing the carbon dioxide from our breathing and contributing fresh oxygen for us.
As a species we are designed for green spaces. Our eyes can distinguish more shades of green than any other colour. We have evolved for an outdoor life surrounded by plants. As around 85% of our lives are now spent indoors we are not living in conditions we are naturally suited to. Having access to outdoor green spaces is important, but becoming harder for many with green space disappearing. Bringing outdoors in is a more viable option.
Research has shown indoor plants can lead to an improved mood, reduced stress levels, increased productivity, higher pain tolerance and better attention spans. The psychological benefits of plants can be gained by looking out of a window into green space or by having rooms containing plants. Some research has shown just seeing nature images can help, but you would lose the clean air benefits this way.
For many of these benefits you need leafy green plants, cacti probably won’t cut it for most people. The research differs on how much of an impact plants have. Some suggest small impacts, while other suggest bigger impacts. Working with plants can reduce stress as opposed to working on computers. Part of me wonders if working on any physical task would suffice or whether gardening specifically offers unique benefits. Either way the research does suggest a life with plants gives psychological benefits.
Houseplants are frequently being linked to the practice of mindfulness. While I’m not keen on the trend for secular mindfulness connecting every activity to mindfulness looking after a plant can promote calmness. That is, so long as you choose something easy to care for. If you choose something needing constant care and attention you may not find caring for the plant as mindful. Looking after plants forces you to slow down. You can dedicate small amounts of time to checking plants over, pruning, watering and feeding. The plant will change overtime bringing surprises to enjoy.
Houseplants have gone in and out of fashion as part of interior decorating. While for aficionados of the houseplant they never left their houses, but for most, the spider plants were removed. Currently though they are very much in vogue. This is probably the area that interests me the least, not caring much for trends. However, a plant picked out well with a good pot can enhance a room enormously. A carefully grouped collection of plants can make for a good feature in a room. However don’t just aim for the Instagram photo. With any plant you still need to keep in mind, “right plant, right place”. Different plants will suit different rooms and different positions within each room.
So with the news that air quality considered safe are still damaging it seems worth trying to make our own safe havens within our homes. There is no better time to look at adding a houseplant to your home. In the next few weeks I’ll be looking at a few options.