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.
If you’d like some greenery in your home or office but your only talent for plants is killing them, don’t despair. House plants that don’t mind low light and little water do exist. They won’t take it personally if you ignore them for a while. And like many plants, they’ll still clean the air, soften your surroundings, and offer the relaxing beauty we often crave when indoors. Here are the five easiest house plants to keep alive.
Pothos (Epipremnum) grows in a cheery mound with spade-shaped leaves that gently spread into trailing strands. For a bushier look, snip the strands’ ends but for a hanging basket effect, let the plant creep as it likes. Pothos loves indirect light and the darker variegated varieties tolerate the lowest levels. Also, they like to dry out between watering. They can go for up to 10 days without water. And just as in their native Polynesia, they thrive in warm conditions, about 60 – 80 degrees, so pretend you’re on a tropical island and enjoy these verdant lovelies!
Snake Plant (Sanseviera)
Snake Plant (Sanseviera) shoots vertically up in long fleshy blades, almost like a grass for giants. The yellow-green cultivar is most common but for the lowest maintenance, choose Black Coral. It’s dark and dreamy. The blades grow up to three feet tall with bands of silver and light green cutting through the smokey blackish leaves. The dark quality means it holds more of a particular kind of chlorophyll that catches low-intensity light. So, if you set it a few feet from a window and soak the soil every few weeks, you’ll keep these African natives upright and happy.
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra)
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra) certainly lives up to its name, though you won’t hear a clang if you knock on it. It’s just difficult to kill, not only tolerating low light but rare watering as well. Plus, the upshot is if you live in zone 7 or higher, you can grow it outside. But don’t expect Cast Iron Plant to grow quickly. In a way, it exists rather than grows. The Japanese native sends out upright leaves from rhizomes slowly, making fuller, more established plants on the costly side. Inside the home, place it in a north-facing window, water only when the soil is dry to the touch, and let it be a delightful cauldron of inky green.
Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)
Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) sports the glossiest green leaves, which, with their corrugation and graceful fountain-like habit, makes for an enchanting, relaxing sight. But the Peace Lily’s super power is its air-cleaning abilities. It neutralizes carbon monoxide, benzene, and formaldehyde, those nasty gases that come from wood adhesives in furniture and fuel-burning appliances. It also likes indirect light and again, only water when dry to the touch. If it gets a fair amount of bright indirect light, it will bloom in elegant white spathes that resemble its lily-like name.
Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema)
Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema) knows how to soften the edges of a room. Its dense habit creates a lush oval of foliage bit by bit and isn’t fussy if neglected. The darker varieties can tolerate lower levels of light and will outright scorch in direct sun. But that’s what makes them so low maintenance! It wants only occasional watering, whenever the soil is dry or every two to three weeks. What it really likes is warmth, never below 60 degrees, and to not sit near a door or drafty window. Otherwise, these beauties can get brown edges. If they wilt, that means you’ve watered too much. So, set them in a cozy spot and don’t do much except admire their evergreen ways.
How to Grow the Easiest House Plants
Overall, these house plants are really tropical plants that often grow on the floors of forests so think warmth, moist air, and indirect light. An organic potting mix should suffice for soil. Apply an all-purpose organic fertilizer in spring. Some plants, like Peace Lily and Chinese Evergreen, even if grown by a window, may not flower. It depends on how far north you live and local weather. If you want flowers, try putting a broad-spectrum or “grow” bulb in a common desk lamp and positioning it near the plants for a few hours every day. In weeks, pretty blooms will emerge and offer bright cheer. Otherwise, all of these plants will simply provide lovely greenery during the times you’re stuck inside but yearn for a bit of nature.
In Spring several years ago, we adopted a big black dog. He was a Belgian Shepherd mix about six months old with pointy ears and a pointy nose, the largest dog my husband and I had ever owned. I’m 5’6” and he came up to my mid-thigh. Since all of our dogs have had or have names that start with vowels, Arrow, Iris, Olive, we named him Ezekiel. With a brassy bark and sharp brown eyes, he looked more like a Zeke so we started calling him Zeke.
Zeke liked to roam the perimeter of our yard, woofing at crows that flew overhead, chasing squirrels that ran up trees. He also liked to bark at our neighbors behind the fence as they got out of their car. Inside, he followed me everywhere, convinced I needed guarding. It was how he earned his second nickname, “The Sheriff.” And on nights when his body dissolved into the darkness of the front yard, I’d call for him, saying, “Are you Shadow, the Direwolf?”
A Pet Den of Smells
In our bedroom, Olive slept on her bed beside me, our cat Maddie between our pillows, and Zeke in the corner near my husband. (Our other cat, Aleksy, likes to sleep with my daughter.) Unlike Olive, Zeke didn’t snore like a buzzsaw or whimper like Maddie. He just plunked into sleep every night, breathing deeply and solidly, probably relieved to have found a “forever home” after being returned to the shelter more than once.
A few weeks into our slumber ritual, I noticed a trend. With warm spring nights and three pets and two humans breathing in the same room for eight hours, the room stunk in the morning. Like dog. Strong dog. Oftentimes, like wet dog. I’d wake up to damp air and animal musk smells. It was not fun. I considered buying an air cleaner but I wasn’t sure it could truly help me. An air cleaner pulls particles out of the air like dust. I wasn’t sure it could process scents. Then it hit me: a plant could clean this musky indoor air.
A Peace Lily Plant, Nature’s Purifier
I had always grown houseplants but I’d never put any in our bedroom. Aleksy liked to chew on the stems in the early hours. So, I bought some metal screening. With tin snips, I made a circular fortress to keep the cat out. Afterward, I was unsure which plant to choose. I already owned several to clean indoor air: devil’s ivy, dracaena, snake plant, ferns, etc. I wanted something I hadn’t grown before.
A few days later, as I was roaming through a local nursery, I found a lush plant of dark green leaves. Its wands of white flowers faintly resembled calla lilies. The blooms held a tall oval bract around a spadix. It was a Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum). I bought it and a new ceramic container and potted it up. Peace Lilies like shady conditions so in the bedroom I set it atop my husband’s dresser, about four feet from the window. I watered it and set the metal fortress around the pot, hoping it could clear the air in a few weeks.
Well, it didn’t take a few weeks, it took all of three days. It worked its magic at night until one morning, I woke up and inhaled neutral clean air. I thought, “Gosh, it doesn’t smell in here. Why?” The plant had taken in the foul air through the miniscule holes in its leaves and had exhaled fresh oxygen. I’d solved the dog musk issue.
Peace Lily Plant Profile
Peace Lilies are ideal house plants because they take low light and aren’t fussy about soil. When happy, they bloom for six or more months. They like watering and require a drink twice a week. Big rooms need more than one plant. Their air-cleaning talents only cover about a six-foot square space. But tucked among other houseplants of various textures and sizes, they can be part of a peaceful green sanctuary. Then at night, with or without a big black dog, one can sleep well and breathe easy.