Houseplants in the Healthy Indoor Habitat
Much of my interest in horticulture began with indoor plants. I liked being surrounded by a jungle of tropical plants and enjoyed taking care of them. The fact that plants in the home or office help us to be healthier and happier has been shown by several scientific studies.
Many of the materials used in the construction of our homes, offices and other indoor spaces contain toxic chemicals. Harmful chemicals also come in on our furnishings, computers, electronic devices, cleaners, and other everyday household products. Many of these chemicals volatilize into the air we breathe. These all contribute to what has become known as “sick building syndrome.” Indoor plants improve indoor air quality by actually removing many of these contaminants as well as airborne mold and bacteria.
In addition to sequestering harmful volatile compounds, plants decrease carbon dioxide levels and increase oxygen & humidity levels, helping to reduce fatigue, colds, headaches, sore throats, coughs, nausea, sore & itchy eyes, dry skin, and loss of concentration. Plants can even help to prevent allergies by building tolerance levels and immunity to allergens. All these benefits help us get a more restful sleep, too.
Plants that share our indoor space help our mental well-being. They help relieve stress, help us to be more productive, and just feel better all around. Cheerful flowers make you calmer and more optimistic. And just the act of caring for a living thing can help when you are depressed and lonely.
Indoor plants can muffle or absorb sounds, reducing distracting or annoying background noise. Plants with a lot of leaves such as Weeping Fig, Ficus benjamina, work best for noise reduction. Large indoor plants can also be used for screening.
When I worked at the Seymour Conservatory, we would often get patrons wanting advice on houseplants. A common one was: What can I grow with no light? My response to this query was: “try silk!” –Or– that if there is not enough light coming in from windows, supplemental lighting will be necessary.
The other most common reason for failure in growing houseplants is infrequent watering or overwatering. Many people water regularly about once a week. I always recommend checking the dampness of the soil before adding more water. The best way is to stick your finger below the top layer of soil; sometimes you can tell by the color of the soil or the weight of the pot.
The easiest “beginner” houseplant to grow is Snake Plant, Sansevieria trifasciata, also known as “Mother-in-law’s tongue.” Also fairly easy is Spider Plant, Chlorophytum comosum, Peace Lilies, Spathiphyllum sp., Peperomia species, Dragon or Corn Plants, Dracaena sp., Swedish Ivy, Plectranthus australis, and Wandering Jew, Tradescantia sp.
Succulents, such as many species of cacti, can be easy to grow if you have a sunny south or west window. Donkey’s Tail, Sedum morganianum, and Jade Plant, Crassula argentea, are easy to grow succulents. I also always keep an Aloe vera growing to treat burns and other skin ailments.
African Violets, Saintpaulia sp., brighten up my kitchen windowsill. The flowers are cheery and they bloom frequently.
Although most houseplants are tropical in origin, Piggyback Plant, Tolmeia menziesii, is a Pacific Northwest native that can be grown as a houseplant.
If you have small children or pets, it is a good idea to check on potential toxicity before you bring any plant into your home. The Humane Society has a good website to check on toxicity of each plant species: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants/. Dumb Canes, Dieffenbachia sp., are extremely toxic and are best avoided.
A houseplant is a cheery gift for any occasion.
(This article was first published in the Peninsula Gateway on January 2012 as “Many benefits of indoor plants.”)