I guess just about everyone on the planet is aware how air pollution is bad for our health. What may come as more of a surprise is how much pollution we are exposed to in our homes and offices. Many modern building materials and day to day items are constantly giving off gasses into the environment that are toxic. Photocopying machines and faxes through to furnishings, carpets and paint all slowly leach fumes into the environment and as they are indoors those fumes become trapped.
Recent studies reveal that most western communities are spending between eighty and ninety percent of their lives indoors. OK, that may not include us gardeners who, with the winter moving in, may be wishing we could spend a little less time exposed to the elements but it does include kids. At the same time asthma and allergy levels are soaring to record levels.
For some time it was believed that indoor plants could improve indoor air quality by means of their respiration system which gives off oxygen. The science behind this was contested at various levels but in 1989 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in conjunction with Associated Landscape Contractors of America produced a list of plants that they had found to reduce or neutralize some of the worst pollutants in our indoor air.
Below are six of the best plants on that list. The common denominator among them is that they are easy to grow indoor plants that don’t require huge amounts of know how or effort to keep them alive. We all know how some plants can be real prima donnas, particularly on the indoor stage.
In general, house plants have a few things they are all equally fussy about. They like light but not too much of it. They like to be kept moist but hate to have wet feet. They need humidity. These three things are not difficult to provide with a little forethought.
The plants on this list are happy in a sunny room provided they are not exposed to direct sun. Many indoor plants originate in tropical forests and jungles so dappled shade suits them just fine.
To keep them moist make sure your plant is in a free draining medium and that the containers they are in offer sufficient drainage. A good proprietary potting soil will do fine for most house plants.
Humidity levels can be kept up by keeping a plant saucer beneath the plant container and keeping it filled with water. Of course this is going to slow down drainage and lead to wet feet so layer the bottom of the saucer with gravel to ensure the base of the pot is clear of the water and can drain freely.
That was easy so let’s take a look at a few plants.
Boston fern : Nephroplepsis exalta.
Ferns are great plants for filtering air pollutants and double as household humidifiers. An easy indoor fern is the Boston fern that is quite happy in a home or office and doesn’t demand too much space. During Victorian times amateur botany became a craze and fern collecting was regarded as the height of sophistication. Fern leaf designs were seen on everything from pottery to grave stones. The craze was particularly popular with women as it allowed them to get outdoors and offered an alternative to crocheting and gossiping which were the other accepted female pastimes. Unfortunately many British ferns were pushed to the brink of extinction during this period.
The Rubber tree : Ficus elastica.
The rubber is a wonderful robust house plant for those with a little more space. They can become very tall and elegant with a little care but they are often seen in a neglected state in lobbies and office blocks when with a little bit of loving they could be stunning. If they do become too tall then they can be pruned to both height and shape with a sharp, clean pair of secateurs. Do this in the early spring and watch out for the white sap which is what rubber is made from. It may cause rashes but it definitely causes havoc when it sticks to clothing.
Dumb canes : Dieffenbachia.
This plant originates in the West Indies and Mexico. In addition to being an attractive house plant that helps eliminate pollution it comes with an interesting anecdote attached to it. If eaten it induces an effect known as raptides which causes swelling of the tongue and induces a temporary inability to speak, hence its common name. Apparently slave owners used this plant as a rather cruel means to punish unruly slaves and it was said to have killed several children. It makes an attractive house plant be do be aware of its toxicity if children are around.
Azalea : Rhododendron simsii
Most house plants tend to be grown for their foliage. This is because they tend to cope better with less light but there is no reason to restrict yourself to non-flowering plants. Here is another one that did well in the NASA tests and which brings plenty of color. The word azalea comes from the ancient Greek for arid or dry and they don’t like to be too wet. They are acid lovers so use an appropriate potting soil and they will look at their best when they are pruned regularly.
Moth orchid : Phaleanopsis
This beautiful plant is a favorite house plant so I was delighted when I saw it appear on the list of pollution reducing plants that NASA tested. Orchids are one of the largest genus of plants on the planet. They range from tiny plants the size of a nickel to giants that can weigh in at over a ton. Moth orchids come in a huge array of colors and shapes that can be particularly dazzling. If you like the wow factor or prefer something a little more understated the moth orchids will have something to suit you. Despite a reputation for being fussy they are extremely easy to look after but do require some bright light to bring them to flower. Those flowers can last for up to three months. They also hate wet feet and should be planted into a special orchid mix which you can buy at most nurseries.
Spider plant : Chlorophytum comosum
I chose this plant for those who have a phobia of house plants and are convinced that anything they try to grow indoors will immediately turn up its toes and die. This plant is one of the most forgiving plants I have come across. It acquired its common name because its leaves hang down in a spider like shape not because it attracts spiders so there is no need to be nervous if you suffer from arachnophobia either. As an added bonus as soon as they became remotely happy they produce loads of baby spider plants which you can simply snip off and pot up to increase your collection or give away.
Just remember, with house plants a little bit of loving goes a long way. Wipe the leaves down occasionally with a damp cloth to keep your plants looking at their best and reduce incidents of the three main pests which are scale insects, mealy bugs and spider mites. Too much loving is by far the biggest killer where the house plant is concerned. Aim to keep the soil slightly damp but not too wet. Nothing kills an indoor plant more quickly than having its feet wet. Of course plants need to be fed and a diluted liquid feed given three or four times a month will keep plants growing at their best. Every couple of years you should repot them with fresh potting soil.Following these simple rules will not only give you happy, healthy plants that look breathtaking but, according to NASA, those breaths you do take will be purer too.