Several decades ago I worked in an office building on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami doing social services. There was lots of paperwork and I spent hours at my desk. Most afternoons by 2 PM I had a headache if I spent the day in the office. My mind was fuzzy. I had read about “sick buildings” and wondered if the building was the problem. No windows could be opened, and there was poor air circulation. What could I do? Since I often made home or program visits to complete paperwork or to monitor my clients, I began to arrange some visits daily and if possible, made many visits in the afternoon. I no longer had headaches. I was lucky that I did field work as most office workers and homeowners do not have the luxury to leave.
It’s winter in North America and Europe. For energy conservation, most of us have made improvements to prevent air leaks in our homes. Furnishings, upholstery, synthetic building materials, and cleaning products in homes and offices can emit a variety of toxic compounds. While you can take steps to minimize them, one of the most prevalent chemicals in your home isn’t easy to get rid of. Formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound that’s emitted in low levels by a variety of household building products and furniture, may cause cancer in humans and has been known to trigger asthma attacks and allergic reactions when present in high levels. Indoor air pollution can also be caused by pollen, bacteria, and molds, as well as outdoor air contaminants like car exhaust . All of these are made worse in small or poorly ventilated spaces.
Back in 1989, NASA released a report on improving indoor air quality with plants. Click the link for a PDF of the report. Amazingly, plants absorb some of the particulates from the air at the same time that they take in carbon dioxide, which is then processed into oxygen through photosynthesis. But that’s not all—microorganisms associated with the plants are present in the potting soil, and these microbes are also responsible for much of the cleaning effect.
Plants not only purify the air, but also improve mental well-being. And, physical benefits aside, they look amazing. NASA’s interest in plants was spurred by the planning for biospheres when men live in hostile space environments. Plants clean the air, add oxygen, and aid mental health. Nothing beats incorporating nature into your home. In short, houseplants are miracle workers. I know they certainly make me happy.
NASA has a great list of plants to clean your home’s air. Their Clean Air study found the plants are effective at removing benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia from the air—chemicals that have been linked to health effects like headaches and eye irritation. They suggest 1 plant for each 100 sq. feet of space. If you are a pet owner, please refer to The ASPCA’s directory of toxic plants before bringing a plant home. Since plants have many names, go by the photos to be sure.
Let’s start with the palm trees. Palm trees seem particularly good at removing indoor air pollutants, specifically formaldehyde, and they’re relatively easy to care for. You’ll get clean air with a Dwarf Red Palm, Bamboo Palm, Areca Palm, Lady Palm, or Pony Tail Palm. Palm trees like cooler temperatures, preferably in the 60 to 75°F range. None of the following palms are toxic according to the ASPCA. The name is a link to the ASPCA database.
In the NASA experiments, 50 plants were tested for their ability to filter the air around us, ease of care and ability to add moisture to the surrounding atmosphere. The Areca Palm took first place scoring highly in all categories meaning it was ranked the best houseplant at cleaning the air in our homes and offices.
Water them often enough to keep the soil lightly moist in spring and summer, and allow the soil to dry slightly between watering in fall and winter. Fertilize areca palm plants with a time-release fertilizer in spring. This gives the plant most of the nutrients it needs for the entire season.
Helps to reduce the toxins benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and xylene from the air. It can also help to increase overall air quality and purification. It is great for city dwellers as it assists those with lung conditions, and people who are exposed to high smog living conditions.
The Bamboo Palm is an actual humidifier and will add moisture to the indoor air. It not only cleans the air of many pollutants, it also works well in areas exposed to gasoline fumes. Great for city dwellers!
The Dwarf Date Palm not only cleans many common household toxins from the air, it increases the oxygen too. Great for city dwellers it cleans air exposed to smog, commercial manufacturing fumes, and car emissions
Now for smaller houseplants:
Peace Lily – Peace Lily is toxic to dogs & cats.
My favorite indoor plant is the peace lily. I’ve had one in my home for decades for their foliage and beautiful flowers. When flowering, they do release pollen. If you have sensitivity to pollen, avoid or limit the number to 1 and do not place it in your bedroom. They need shade and moist soil. Do not over water or let stand in water.
When you water Echeveria, water the soil and not the rosette. Pour on the water until it drains out the bottom. Repeat this a couple of times. Then don’t water again until the soil has dried out. See Growing Echeveria for more information.
Spider plants are probably one of the easiest to grow. If you are a beginning gardener or have a “brown” thumb, start with a spider plant. They can survive most forgetful owners. What I love about Spider plants are the little baby plants that grow from the mother. It’s a beautiful sight, and you get more plants too.
Snake Plant or Mother-in-law’s Tongue is another great plant for those with a brown thumb. They can handle drier conditions – just make sure you water occasionally. They enjoy the sun and should be placed close to a window.
Although the Asparagus fern is toxic to pets, the Boston fern and its relatives the Staghorn and Deer foot fern are non-toxic. These plants can be a little more demanding in terms of humidity, but they tolerate poor lighting conditions quite well. Boston Fern removes more formaldehyde than any other plant. It likes a more humid environment with indirect light. Check them daily for soil moisture you may need to water or mist leaves. Once a month soak the plant in a tub of water and let drain.
Buy a potted mum in season and have glorious blossoms in your home. They are also champion air cleaners. Plant outside when they finish blooming.
Aloe Vera should be in almost everyone’s home. In addition to cleaning the air and being easy to care for, aloe’s leaves contain a clear liquid full of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, and other compounds that have wound-healing, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. There is some evidence that aloe may help skin conditions like psoriasis
With more than 40 different kinds of Dracaena plants, it’s easy to find one that’s a perfect fit for your home or office. They’re common foliage plants with long, wide leaves that are often variegated with lines of white, cream, or red. Dracaena is a relatively drought-tolerant plant and doesn’t appreciate soggy soil. Water only when the soil feels slightly dry, and then water generously, using tepid water, until water trickles through the drainage holes. Empty the drainage saucer after about an hour and never allow the pot to stand in water.
I hope you’re inspired to begin or expand your house plant collection.
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