For today’s green scene of the day, I’ve chosen an image from my garden. My Crispa spiraea (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Crispa’) is an unusual spiraea because it grows these crinkly, toothy leaves, which is very unlike a spiraea. But what it shares with other spiraeas are those gorgeous summer blooms. Butterflies love their flat umbels. I also find this shrub sooo alluring.
Plants Popping Through Each Other
The spiraea all by itself is pretty darn cool but my peach Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria) are pretty heavenly too. They often poke through the spiraea as they reach for sunshine (and because I often forget to stake them, haha). Isn’t that peach and yellow pattern with the tiny stripes so neat? This variety, whose specific name I don’t know, is absolutely my favorite alstroemeria. I bought it eons ago when I lived at a different house. But I brought a couple clumps of tubers to the house I live in now and they’ve flourished.
A Color Combo to Please the Eyes
So I thought it would be a nice bit of relaxation for you to have access to this image. I love how the deep pink puffs of the spiraea play off the smooth coral color of the alstroemeria. If you’re on a lunch break sometime, you might take three minutes out just to sit quietly and enjoy them both. Take a few deep breaths and allow your eyes to roam through this lovely little moment of nature. Hopefully, you’ll feel a bit more relaxed afterward. Cheers.
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.
When I was a professional gardener, I made a lot of people happy by helping them with their gardens. Usually, I either created and installed a new garden or maintained the one they already had. Regardless, after my work was finished, my clients often told me their garden was their happy place. It relieved them from stress. Reset their energy. I understood this since my own garden made me happy too, even when there was a lot of work to do. So I started to wonder: why exactly did plants make us happier?
I knew the reasons that applied to me: they were beautiful, soothing, diverse, silent, expected, honest. But I wanted a deeper answer.
Why did they make me feel so good and restored? What is it about the human body and its reaction to plants? Now, after more than a year of research, I’ve figured out five reasons.
1. Plants were our first evolutionary home.
For thousands of years, people were immersed in nature. We relied on plants for shelter, food, clothing, furniture, boats, medicine, weapons, and so much else. It’s only natural that we feel a deep, innate connection to them. That connection was termed biophilia by biologist E.O. Wilson. He proposed that humans are innately drawn to natural environments and other living systems. Many studies have proven him right.
2. Plants grow in patterns pleasing to our visual system.
Have you ever looked at a leaf close up? There’s always a few thicker main veins from where smaller veins branch out, then smaller ones, and so on. This pattern that repeats and is often equally sub-dividable is called a fractal. They occur in leaves, tree branch structure, overlapping greenery, and even how flowers spiral. Our eyes are anatomically built to explore visual material in this way. So when we look at plants, we lock in to our natural way of seeing the world. In turn, this correlative experience makes us feel at ease.
3. Green colors soothe our nerves.
Studies show muted green colors negate arousal in our bodies. It has shorter wavelengths so our eyes don’t need to adjust to it. Also, because green evokes the natural world, we feel centered and relaxed when immersed in it. That in turn lowers anxiety. It also makes us feel optimistic and refreshed. All this is why actors and celebrities always prepare their performances in a “green room” before they go onstage.
4. Plants release physiologically restorative scents.
Of course, we all love to smell roses or lilies or any other sweet flower. That inhalation brings us a sense of joy and hope. But some plants, mostly coniferous trees, release their natural oils, which not only evoke positive feelings, but literally heal our bodies. Several studies out of Japan show that inhaling the scents of trees lowers blood pressure and heart rate while boosting our cancer-fighting cells. Wow! So a walk in the woods isn’t just a nice outing, it’s actually supercharging your immune system.
5. Plants change and surprise us.
We often think of plants as the static background to life, but they’re hard at work growing, healing their wounds, and trying to reproduce. They also grow new tissue, change colors, fight off disease, and most noticeably, bloom. These changes add a serene complexity to our lives. When we see a new leaf unfurl on a houseplant, we can’t help but feel hopeful. When we see leaves change color on trees, we feel a simultaneous joy at the bold colors and melancholy at the approaching winter. When a plant we’ve struggled to keep alive suddenly blooms, it sparks surprise and wonder. Plants quietly progress and that slow but noticeable activity provides us with a richer daily life.
The natural takeaway
So, if plants do literally make us happier, then what should we do? Well, even a city dweller who works in a skyscraper can access nature with a few easy changes.
Next week, I’ll offer some of those easy changes. In the meantime, here’s one simple thing you can do: find a nature-related wallpaper for the device you’re reading this on and set it for your home page. Every day, when check your phone, tablet, or laptop, you’ll be greeted by the reassuring color of green and lovely patterns of your most ancient but familiar friends. And that will, if even for a minute, make you happier.
You may have noticed that last year I got interested in the mental health benefits of plants. I spent a bunch of time reading up on the latest science to see if a theory I’ve had for a while held any water. Mainly, that plants can help us be happier even if you don’t have a garden.
What I found impressed me. The short answer is yes but how you go about engaging with plants makes all the difference. It’s not like you can say “good morning” to your gardenia and all will be well (though wouldn’t it be great if you could?). It requires a bit of effort and patience, some organization, strategy, and most importantly, time. Exactly where and how and in what doses is what I’ve been researching this past year (see messy desk above).
Leafing Your Troubles Behind
But I’m delighted to now share that I’ve melded all of the science out there with a bunch of research on happiness and I’ve come up with a system to help people grow happier through plants! There are fun activities too. I even figured out a title I think captures the spirit of the book. It’s called Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants. It’s so darn exciting! I can’t wait to share with you all that I’ve learned and created.
That unfortunately means waiting until June of 2022 (wah, *sniff*). But that’s because the good folks at Prometheus Books and I are putting the finishing touches on the cover, text, layout, AND artist Kara Fellows’s totally cool, totally fun illustrations! To check out Kara’s work, visit her website: karafellows.com. She’s so talented. I’ll tell you more about working with Kara and a few previews of her work in future posts.
Lowering Stress and Growing Happiness
So if you’re interested in the natural world and being happier in life, then Leaf Your Troubles Behind is for you. You can pro-order it and be among the first to receive it. And in the meantime if you’d like a sneak peek at the ideas behind this topic, check out my Stress ReLeaf series on this blog. In fact, in future posts, I’ll be exploring even more about the connection between happiness and plants. You can check back this Thursday for the first one. You can also get happiness tips when you sign up for my newsletter below!
Have a natural, happy week!
In this last post about stress relief and plants, I’d like to spotlight a couple plants that are easy care yet powerful. They’re kinda the only two herbs you really need to lower stress. Many gardeners across America, at least living down to zone 5, can grow them. Both will thrive in full sun and light soil, like sand mixed with potting soil. Think Mediterranean conditions. And speaking of sun, they’re both drought tolerant. You can grow them in a container or the ground and snip off a few stems when needed.
Lavender (lavandula) lowers stress through its oils. One study, in Phytomedicine, showed it was as effective as the drug lorazepam in treating anxiety. What’s more, breathing in the oil vapor through a diffuser has shown to decrease postnatal depression. And it’s helped those with dementia. It’s really worth growing, if for nothing else, rubbing your hands on it and inhaling the scent everyday. It’s like a shot of destresser.
The Rosemary plant (rosmarinus) is also impressive. In addition to improving memory, digestion, hair health, and other amazing stuff, rosemary’s scent reduces stress. Studies have shown that a daily dose of its oil can lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is what our brains make when we’re stressed. So again, if you have a diffuser, you can put some essential oil in that or grow rosemary in a pot outside your front door. Breathing in the scent for a moment might help you relax after a bad day at work.
One More Herb to Lower Stress: Chamomile
I wanted to give a brief shout out for chamomile (chamaemelum). If you grow it, you can make tea from it. Drinking the tea lowers stress. But it doesn’t grow in the same conditions as lavender and rosemary though it’s very easy to grow and sometimes sprouts on its own in gardens. It likes cooler air and some shade. Check out this article for more on the benefits of chamomile.
And if you’d like more information on herbs for your health overall, check out the book, Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung. It covers the basics of growing and harvesting herbs along with their medicinal applications.
Photos by Gemma Evans and Fiona Bossle