Alocasia x amazonica, or Elephant’s Ears, makes a bold statement in a houseplant collection. It grows rubbery-looking, blackish green pointed leaves with white veination, creating an unusual, tropical look. I love Alocasias because, ironically, they’re so artificial looking. Their appearance goes against the idea that leaves are soft and papery. Sometimes even spooky. I think that’s so neat.
Some books rate Alocasias as difficult to grow but I disagree. If you’re willing to tolerate a few brown tips or here and there, you’ll probably be successful. The trick for me is not to overthink it but simply take care of the following three issues.
Alocasias like bright, indirect light. They’re understory plants of the rain forest in warm misty places like South Asia, Indonesia, and parts of Australia. So I keep mine in a north-facing window and it does well. They tend to get scorched if set in direct sun.
If you’re the type who overwaters house plants, then this is the plant for you. Alocasias like continuously damp soil. Some sites say it likes to dry out between waterings, but when I’ve let that happen, the tips brown. So what I do is use a half-portion of orchid bark mix and half regular potting soil. This helps the soil drain freely.
Moist Warm Air
Since Alocasias are native to the tropics, they don’t like drafty windows. Keep the room between about 65-80 degrees and the plant will be happy. And because they thrive in the tropics, they like moist air. So if you live in a northern state where the heaters are often on in winter, try running a diffuser or humidifier near the plant to keep it moist. Otherwise, the tips may brown.
Overall, this lovely plant offers some unusual interest and great architecture. Because it’s tall, arrange it with lower bushier plants that like indirect light like Peace Lily, African Violet, or almost any fern. And note, if you have curious dogs, cats, or kids, Alocasia is poisonous so keep it high enough and out of reach. And if some older leaves die back, just snip them off. The plant will continually renew itself.
The best thing to do is to set this plant in a place where you’ll often notice it and enjoy!
If you’re struggling through a stressful workweek, you may feel like you have no time to lower your stress. You’re juggling multiple tasks while your attention springs from one event to another. This is typical as we try to get through the avalanche of work that piles up. By Friday, we’re burnt out and ready for a change. But deciding what that change is can be tricky. Yes, you can plop in front of a screen with a show or video game, but that may only increase our stress. Yes, there’s shopping at the mall but shopping costs money. This is why I always fall back on an old reliable standby to destress from work: playing with my houseplants.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When I say “playing” with my houseplants, what I mean is fiddling with them. I arrange their pots on shelves and stands for a new look. I clean up their dead leaves and water their soil. Lastly, I transplant whatever looks pot bound. The plants reward me with not only a fresh look for my room, but a simple, relaxing endeavor.
The relaxation part is a subconscious event. It’s not anything I consciously think about as I’m doing it. But I gradually feel a sense of “coming down” from the hectic pace of my workweek. I slow my behavior toward a task that doesn’t have a big end goal. There aren’t a million things to do with houseplant care. It’s actually really simple. And that’s the playing part. Play has low goals, isn’t complex, and happens at a comfortable pace.
Science Says Fifteen Minutes Is Enough
What’s interesting is my little visit with a houseplant here and there reaps big rewards. Researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki helps us see why. He conducted a small study with young men in their twenties who transplanted plants during a break from stressful, computer-oriented work. The subjects worked for 15 minutes with a Vining Pepper Plant (peperomia dahlstedtii) over the course of three days. Their sympathetic nervous systems and blood pressure were monitored. He also measured these systems while the subjects worked at a computer task.
You can guess the results. During the plant-related task, the sympathetic nervous system activity was about four points lower than the computer-related task. Blood pressure lowered by six points. By contrast, sympathetic nervous system activity and blood pressure were both higher during computer-related engagement. Subjects reported feeling much more comfortable, soothed, and natural when working with the plants. They felt much less comfortable, soothed, and natural when working on the computer. It’s not too surprising. But this study scientifically proves the value of playing with houseplants, even for a brief time and with little experience.
Which Plant to Play With?
This weekend, see if you can make time to fiddle with a houseplant. Saturday morning always work for me. And the ritual doesn’t have to be long. It seems 15 minutes will do. And if you don’t have a houseplant, this study offers a good reason to buy one. You can spend as little as fifteen dollars, if you’re willing to start with a small plant in a four-inch pot. A pothos or snake plant are good choices. Set near a north or east-facing window and water every seven to ten days. On the weekends, take your time checking on it. Trim its brown leaves off, dust it with a damp cloth, turn it so another side faces the light. You may enjoy this soothing little activity so much that you’ll want to grow another and another and another until you create your own special plant playground.
It’s January and we’re spending lots of time indoors. That means artificial heat, little daylight, and more inhalation of polluted air that contains volatile organic compounds. The first two conditions lead to drier skin and lowered immunity against diseases like colds and the flu. The third, inhalation of VOCs, can lead to respiratory issues, headaches, dizziness, hormone disruption, and even organ damage and cancer.
VOCs are nasty. They’re the toxic fumes and dust emitted via gases from furniture, carpets, paint, and plastics. We can’t see or smell them. They’re barely detectable. But we breathe them in every day. They, along with dry heat and darkness, can potentially harm our bodies at this time of year.
When we’re not physically healthy, we feel less energetic to take on the world. We’re not as alert, we’re tired, and sicker than we are in summer. This in turn causes us to miss out on things we otherwise enjoy. But the good news is common house plants can help neutralize the harmful effects of living indoors.
How Houseplants Can Help You
According to various scientific studies, there are four main physical benefits of growing plants indoors. In some cases, you don’t need a lot of money or effort to gain those benefits either. Here they are.
1. It only takes a few plants to clean the air. There’s a famous NASA study that proved plants clean the air of toxic fumes like formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. This study’s been cited a lot by various articles but because it was conducted in small, controlled chambers, it’s also been somewhat criticized. However, follow up studies have solidified the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s results. They show that plants reduce harmful gases in the air. In some cases, only six shelf-sized plants were needed to reduce volatile organic compounds by as much as 75%. Wow!
2. Humidity rises easily through plants. Most folks don’t realize that our indoor air is way too dry. We often live in heated homes where the humidity is below the 30–60% needed for our bodies to be healthy. When humidity is too low, we suffer from more frequent colds and dry itchy skin. Washington State researchers found that plants using less than 2% of a room’s space can raise humidity by 5%. This study also mentioned how too much humidity is rare because when the air is humid, a plant slows its evaporation. So if you grow several plants together, your air should feel more comfortable.
Two More I Didn’t Know About
3. Plants reduce dust accumulation. This one surprised me. Researchers found adding plants around the edges of a room reduced particulate matter on horizontal surfaces by as much as 20%, even in the center of the room. This is weird because you’d think that plants create more dust and particulates from dirt but the opposite is the case. The only clue as to how this happens is the researchers’ conjecture that particulate matter is reduced by “impacting and adhering to plant surfaces.” In the meantime, you could conduct your own experiment by growing several houseplants and see if they help keep your home clean.
4. Plants lower noise under certain conditions. A 2003 study found that plants can absorb or break up sound, depending on the frequency. Rough bark and thicker, wider leaves are particularly effective at absorption. Plants with dense foliage are better too. And of course, the larger number of plants, the more sound is neutralized. Also, placement has an effect as well. But researchers learned that plants, like carpet or furniture, neutralize sound waves and reduce noise.
If Nothing Else, Try This One Simple Thing
In the meantime, to improve your health, you can try one simple thing today. And you only need to do it for five minutes. Take a walk outside. Inhale the fresh air, feel the cool moisture on your face. It may be a bit noisy and maybe even a bit dusty, but scientists say outdoor air is oftentimes healthier than indoor air. If it’s convenient, you can head for your nearest public park to take in the healing sight and smells of greenery. A short walk will not only get you into the daylight and circulate your blood, it’ll boost your mood and get you in touch with the joys of autumn.
One morning this last fall, my friend Angela called to say she had some orphaned plants she wanted me to have because they needed a good home. You may remember Angela’s a dear friend who’s a container designer and regularly switches out arrangements for clients. In this particular instance, she’d redesigned some summer pots for fall and had a bunch of leftover babies.
Before I could blink, she was pulling into my driveway with a miscellaneous collection of pots and paper bags. The goodies contained bromeliads, crotons, a spider plant, and mandevillas. While I had some experience growing the first three, I’d never grown a mandevilla, outdoors or indoors. But I was game to give it a try.
What’s a Mandevilla?
For those interested, a mandevilla is a huge genus of vines that grow in tropical places like South and Central America. Some even grow in the southern United States. They can grow up to 15 feet, even higher given the right conditions. And those conditions are strong sunlight and warmth, which of course we don’t have much of during a rainy Seattle winter. But they can function as a houseplant.
The three mandevillas Angela gifted me all had the same strong darkish pink flower. Its trumpet-shape has inspired the common name, rocktrumpet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the cultivar. It’s somewhere in the black hole of Angela’s notes. But luckily I’ve been able to keep them alive well enough.
How to Grow a Mandevilla Indoors
Here’s what I’ve been doing that works.
First, I set it up in the sunniest window of my house, a south-facing living room window. It was okay there but after a few days, I put a grow light over it and it became much perkier. Its little vining shoots extended. It appreciated the bright light and extra warmth.
Second, I noticed some older leaves yellowed and dropped a couple weeks after I brought it inside. I discovered this was from the sudden warmth of dry heating vents that had started blowing in October. I cleaned up those dried yellow leaves and cut off whatever stems had dried out as well to deter pests. You can spot dried stems by their suppleness and color. Happy stems are always soft and greenish. Dried ones are blackish green or brown.
Third, I increased humidity near the plants. In one case, I misted the plant regularly. I actually don’t think misting is very effective but I didn’t have an extra diffuser so I sprayed the plant from a misting water bottle every few days. And sprayed liberally. You need to pretty much make sure the plant is soaked if you want the plant to absorb moisture before the droplets evaporate.
Fourth, I tapered off watering. I was watering lightly every week and now in the heart of winter, I’m watering about once every ten days. This has seemed to make the plant quite happy. And so far pests have not visited it even though mandevillas can attract pests if overwatered.
Fifth, in December, with less watering comes less light. I now turn on the grow light once every week rather than once every couple of days. It knows it’s winter and to be dormant. It’s not blooming and won’t for a while.
Heading into spring, I’ll let the season’s light do its work and turn off the grow light until next October. I’ll water every week again as the light strengthens. I’ll install trellises so its vines can latch onto a structure. And every month, I’ll add some fertilizer to see if it will bloom again.
We’ll see how things go. I might even put the plants outside in a hot sunny location. They thrived in Angela’s client’s garden so I might have the same luck. If those gorgeous flowers do bloom, the hummingbirds will surely visit and that will give me the best gift of all.
In my article about why plants make us happier, I talked about how we’re innately connected to them through our evolutionary history as well as physiological make up. But though our minds and bodies work in concert with plants, we often forget about how powerful they are in lowering our stress. We get busy indoors with stuff we have to do! So if we remind ourselves to engage with the green world on a daily basis, we’ll gain the benefits of calming our nervous system, restoring our attention, and literally strengthening our bodies. And research shows that only a few minutes of greenery is oftentimes all we need to lower stress.
But we all work and do errands and raise kids and all else. Who has the time, right? Well, here are some quick, little ways to lower stress through plants.
- Take a ten minute walk and count the trees on the street as you go. This will force your eyes to focus on their healing fractal patterns.
- Eat lunch on a bench by plants. Instead of eating at your desk or take-out restaurant, find a park or courtyard where your eyes rest on plants.
- Keep a plant on your desk at the office. Some plants can survive with only fluorescent lighting. Here are 5 easy house plants to grow.
- Set the screensaver on your computer to a forest. Whenever you return to your desk, you’ll see a few moments of a restful sanctuary.
- Look up and notice how the trees soften the sky as you walk from your car, the bus, or subway to your house. Take a deep breath at the sight.
- Grow a plant on the windowsill above your sink. Whenever you wash the dishes, you’ll spend a few minutes zoning out on pretty green leaves.
- Hang a photo or drawing of a scene with plants. If your taste is antique, use a classic bouquet painting, if your taste is modern, try a leaf portrait.
- Put a house plant on your nightstand (that is, if a window’s nearby). This way, the first thing you’ll see in the morning is calming leaves.
- Decorate your table with a cut greenery centerpiece. While you’re eating meals, your eyes will feast on the various green shapes and hues.
- Gently wipe a house plant’s leaves with a wet cloth. Five minutes of petting a green friend will lower your heart rate and tidy up your room.
So this week, if you can, take a little greenery break, whether inside our outside. Schedule it into your lunch hour or afternoon snack time. See it as a window of renewal your mind and body both need, like exercise or sleep. Afterward, you’ll feel refreshed and a bit more ready to take on the stress of the day.
This week, try taking a greenery break for five days and let me know if you were able to make it a habit! In the next post, I’ll share what I do during mine.