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A houseplant won’t purify air, but here’s why you should buy one

Experts dish the dirt on plants and air purification

Person adding potted plants to collection on shelves in home. Credit: Getty Images / PIKSEL

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Since spending time at home has become the norm, and large swaths of the country keep their windows closed during the winter, the purported interior air purification benefits that houseplants provide—i.e. air purifying plants—look more attractive than ever. Especially since a houseplant is a heck of a lot cheaper than an air purifier.

But, Reviewed’s chief scientist and biologist David Ellerby, wants to clear the air: these benefits of air purifying plants are mostly wishful thinking.

“You'd need to pack your home and office with plants to get any meaningful effect on pollutant levels,” he explains. “The experiments about indoor plants are equivalent to you sealing yourself in a small closet full of them. Our homes and offices just don't work like that. The volume of air is much larger.”

However, bringing a little bit of the outside inside is not without value, say other experts, who dish the dirt on the myriad other reasons to adopt a houseplant—or several.

Soil smells bring good vibes

Person touching pink orchid in ceramic pot in front of window.
Credit: Getty Images / Maryviolet

Orchids are famously known for their vibrant colors and fragrant scent.

Sean Duffy, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, says there are other chemical benefits besides air purification to going green.

“When soil is moist, it can release the chemical geosmin, which is that characteristic scent, petrichor, that you get after a rainstorm,” Duffy says, referring to the pleasant smell that accompanies precipitation. “The human nose is extremely sensitive to it. There are other scents that plants may provide—like orchids—that stimulate pleasant memories, too.”

Green plants offer visual stimulation

Person smiling while watering her collection of indoor plants.
Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

Don't underestimate the power of a plant.

Besides an olfactory response, flowering plants provide “pops of color” perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums, says Rachel Wade, a Massachusetts-based botanist.

For Richard leBrasseur, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, it’s all about texture and placement. He recommends strategic placement of plants for “micro-doses of restoration,” along with varied textures.

leBrasseur says, “Upright plants, hanging plants, big leaves, small leaves that intersect with the sightline and are in your most-used areas maximize visual impact. Green is good. Many people are fascinated by the soothing patterns of succulents, or textures in terrariums.”

The pandemic has led to a DIY botanic boom, and, says Wade, even the most novice greenthumb is trying their hand at window gardens.

They can be good companions

Green potted plants next to remote work set up.
Credit: Getty Images / Tanya Paton

Curb your loneliness with a lofty elephant plant or an eye-catching hyacinth.

Don’t have a co-worker or pet to chat with? leBrasseur says something green can help cure the work-from-home blues.

“People often talk to plants, so they help with loneliness. For those without pets, plants are often the only other ‘living’ thing’ so we nurture it.”

Besides an ergonomic chair, vegetation may be the most notable office staple that those working remotely should invest in. The majority of contemporary offices incorporate nature into designs, notes Duffy, and he’s thankful for the departure from dark, Brutalist and post-modern buildings.

leBrasseur gives the new aesthetic two green thumbs up. “Typically, our brains are in high-cognitive mode: solving problems, doing work activities, meeting deadlines, putting out fires, thinking and overthinking, evaluating,” he says. But, neuroscience research “has shown that even just five minutes surrounded by nature reduces anxiety and can reduce stress.”

Caring is relaxing

Wade says nurturing your plants should be relaxing, not add to tension or a long to-do list. She recommends hearty ficus, spider plants, and even herb boxes in a kitchen window for more novice growers.

“Something like that is tactile, which is especially great for families with kids,” she says. “While houseplants may not be ‘purifying your air,’ per se, you could consider growing your own food or herbs organic and better for your body.”

Do your research so you know what to grow

On left, cat standing in leaves of spider plant. On right, person touching assorted hanging plants.
Credit: Getty Images / kodachrome25 / Dima Berlin

Before planting do some research–plants like lilies, azaleas and ivy are harmful for cats.

Not all plants get the green light from the experts, however. Ellerby notes that lilies and ivy can be toxic for pets and humans, depending on the amount ingested. Others, like aloe vera, may be great for wound care, but should definitely be out of arm’s reach for little ones.

leBrasseur is a huge fan of incorporating vertical style elements like hanging planters. While these certainly work for families with toddlers, Ellerby is cautious about four-legged friends.

“Cats can get everywhere, so it’s best to research before you buy anything,” he says.

5 great places to buy houseplants

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