The idea that houseplants can act as air purifiers has been circulating on the internet for some time. Most of this is based on a famous NASA article which was published as far back as 1989. Back then, researchers were able to suggest that there are some health benefits if you are growing indoor plants. In fact, there are myriads of posts presenting top-ten or top-twenty lists. The downside to them is mainly the lack of thorough research as to how this might actually work. Even a Guardian article has been published very recently on this. In this respect, a post by Robert Pavlis offers some valuable insights (all be it a bit disappointing, it would have been so nice, had it been all this easy…).
Let’s have a look at some of the things that are commonly written on what these marvellous beings allegedly do to our indoor air (although we tend to think of plants as things rather than beings sometimes, a big mistake!):
- Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens) – if you are prone to colds/sinus problems, it is well worth the investment. The plant releases extra moisture.
Well, let’s have a look at the whole picture. From my own experience, I can say that I suffered from these problems for years, probably brought on during my childhood and adolescent years in Indonesia, when I swam almost every day and spent a lot of the rest of the time in air-conditioned rooms and cars. I have always lived in big cities. When I went to see a specialist in Germany, various tests were done to look for potential allergies (all clear). Then he recommended an operation to correct my nasal septum. He had said the same to my sister. A genetic connection? I refused, and I’m very glad I did. Now I have moved to the Scottish countryside, live by the sea and in an old house which is not insulated too well and consequently well-aired (there are advantages as long as you heat your rooms wisely and just put on a jumper when feeling too cold!). I don’t suffer from these problems anymore. Hmm…
- Aloe Vera – these marvellous plants release oxygen (just as plants commonly do) but also fight benzene, which is contained in detergents and plastics, as well as formaldehyde in varnishes and laminate floorings. There are varieties apart from the most common one A. aristata, such as the Hedgehog Aloe (A. humilis), the Partridge Breast due to the patterning of the leaves (A. variegata) and the Tree Aloe (A. arborescens). They evolved in arid conditions and therefore mainly need sunshine, fresh air (open the windows and allow them some time outdoors in summer!) and water in the growing season and a cool and dry resting period, i. e. winter dormancy.
- English or Common Ivy (Hedera helix) – now, this is a brilliant one! It is supposed to remove 78% of airborne mould in just 12 hours. Taking it further, this plant thrives in unheated rooms but suffers in hot, dry air of centrally heated rooms.
- Peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii) – this one can improve your air by also absorbing mould spores, as it uses them as food and circulates them through leaves to its roots. You really do ask yourself, why do we need aggressive chemicals to combat mould or room dehumidifiers, if it seems to be so easy (and without any noise or use of electricity!). These are a bit more demanding but still do well if kept out of direct sunlight and in a reasonably warm room in winter.
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum variegatum) – another favourite. This humble, little plant with its web-like leaves or spider-legged ones removes up to 90% of toxins and is good for dust allergies. These foliage plants are really not fussy and will grow in hot or cool rooms, on sunny window sills or shady corners and don’t mind dry air.
And the list goes on. It seems interesting however that the reported effects can’t exactly be replicated at home as the data had been obtained under laboratory conditions. Despite this, there is still some evidence, that the actual benefits of an indoor garden are not due only to the plants themselves but also (and mainly) to the soil they grow in.
If we just stop for a minute and think about all the things we bring into our homes like hand sanitizers, detergents, sprays etc. to get rid of all the “dirt” and “germs” and all these things we have been taught to be afraid of (the emphasis is on taught). Luckily, we are becoming increasingly aware of these chemicals as being far more harmful than a few specks of dirt (something to think even more about when you have young children esp. babies/toddlers). Benign bacteria we inhale or ingest with a bit of dirt while being outside can even be beneficial for our capacity to learn as some research by the American Society for Microbiology suggests. The latter might even be helpful in actually “inoculating” children, as I am sure was the case with me, when I grew up in Indonesia where I was surrounded by all sorts of bugs and germs and all the rest of things commonly considered incredibly “bad”. I don’t suffer from any allergies or similar disorders and I have always believed that there is a connection.
But apart from that, there are other benefits that go along with having plants in your home, and it is well worth the effort. You can follow a few easy steps to bring a bit of greenery indoors (which of course still means you should spend some time outside, preferably each day, other than walking from the car into a building and back). For a lot of us, this doesn’t work every day, and when it is cold and dark outside in winter it becomes a bit of a challenge sometimes while handling all the other day-to-day tasks. But even if it is just for 15 or 30 min, during your lunch break or before you start work or at least the weekend… As always, a combination of both works best for us.