The health benefits of houseplants
The recent growth in popularity of houseplants is proof of the cyclical nature of trends; all those succulent-strewn Insta posts remind me of growing up in the 1970s, when my parents filled the house with spider plants, weeping figs and Swiss cheese plants. (FYI there’s a guide to the Latin names of all plants mentioned at the end, to avoid confusion.) But all that green growth doesn’t just look pretty in pics; those living, breathing organisms are doing you good. And even if you don’t have green fingers, nature still has a plant for you.
Houseplants and your health
Apart from being good to look at, having plants nearby improves air quality and reduces pollution levels – which can often be higher indoors than out. According to Plants 4 Life, rooms with plants contain 50-60% fewer airborne moulds and bacteria than rooms without. This is because the respiration process of plants takes in chemicals in the air that could be linked to colds, breathing problems and other illnesses. Plants can also reduce fatigue, coughs, sore throats and other cold-related illnesses by more than 30%, and in the workplace are proven to aid concentration, productivity and reduce sick days.
Having plants in a classroom can boost students’ learning potential, and in hospitals patients who have plants in the room have less pain, anxiety, and fatigue, take significantly less pain medication, have lower blood pressure and heart rates, and are happier with their recovery rooms than patients without plants. NASA carried out a Clean Air study to establish which plants were best for cleaning the air on board a space station. Its research suggests that, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, certain plants may also remove Volatile Organic Compounds, toxic substances such as benzene and formaldehyde that are given off by household products such as paint, cleaning products and some cosmetics.
Picking your plant
Snake plant, or mother-in-law’s tongue, is doubly useful as it’s one of the best air purifiers, but it’s also pretty indestructible. Its tall, sword-like marbled leaves have an impressively architectural form, too. This strong, spiky statement plant likes dry conditions, not in full sun, and only occasional watering.
Peace lilies have a distinctive appearance: a bobbly-textured prong backed by a white petal-like structure amid lot of lush green leaves. They’re good at absorbing benzene and trichloroethylene, and also help humidify their surroundings. Water it when the soil feels dry.
Green-and-white striped or plain green spider plants are another hard-working houseplant that’s hard to kill. And they’re cheap, too, or cut off one of the babies that it produces at the end of its stems and pop into a pot. Hanging macramé pot holders – also big in the 1970s – are achingly hip, and the perfect space-saving way to show off a spider plant with its graceful, arching leaves. Site it in bright light but not direct sun, and don’t overwater. This one is non-toxic to pets (my cat chewed on the leaves like they were grass).
Frilly-leaved Boston ferns branch out in all directions, so need a little space. They like humidity, so a good choice for the bathroom.
Go for a glossy-leaved rubber plant in areas that are a little lacking in natural light. Water about once a week in spring/summer, less often in autumn and winter. Wipe the leaves with a clean damp cloth.
If you’re concerned about killing plants, try growing your own food instead. These plants tend not to live that long and there’s the benefit of fresh vitamins and fibre…
Microgreens often appear as a pretty garnish on an upmarket restaurant plate, and you should eat them up because those tiny shoots of red cabbage, coriander and radish contain up to 40 times the levels of micronutrients as when they’re fully grown. You can buy tiny trays of growing microgreens, to keep on your desk or a windowsill and munch your way through.
Pick up a peppermint plant from a supermarket or garden centre, and you can pluck off leaves to make mint tea: delicious, refreshing and soothes indigestion. It’s claimed that flies are repelled by the smell, so give those leaves a squeeze in passing. While you’re about it, add a pot of green or red chillies, which will also do well on a sunny windowsill. The heat-producing capsaicin is thought to have benefits for heart health. Use the chillies straight from the plant, or thread on to a string for a dried supply.
Plant names guide:
Spider plant – Chlorophytum comosum
Weeping fig – Ficus benjamina
Asparagus fern – Asparagus setaceus
Swiss cheese plant – Monstera deliciosa
Peppermint – Mentha x piperita
Snake plant, or mother-in-law’s tongue – Sansevieria trifasciata
Peace lily – Spathiphyllum wallisii
Boston fern – Nephrolepis exaltata
Rubber plant – Ficus elastica
Adrienne Wyper writes about gardening and other good stuff.
Here’s a link to an RHS feature on houseplants supporting human health and some more #plantspiration:
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