WORDS BY LAURA BAYLISS
We all know plants are good for us. They’re our little buddies who look great in our homes and cheer us up with their waving leaves and bright flowers. And it’s no secret that they have many health benefits too. We’ve been using plants medically for millennia, and not just in traditional or Eastern medicine: even the aspirin in our bathroom cabinet was developed from willow bark extract. But in recent years, our attention has turned to their magical powers in the form of their air purification skills. According to actual science – we’re talking NASA here, no less – plants really can help clean the air we breathe. In the ’80s, NASA launched a Clean Air Study to find out the best way to achieve cleaner air when living in totally sealed-up homes – in space stations, for example, or potentially on Mars – and plants, it turns out, are not just pretty faces...
Slightly terrifyingly, it’s thought that the air inside our homes could be up to five times as polluted as the air outside. And since we spend so much time inside, that is not doing us any favours. As well as the usual suspects of dust (not in my house, obviously), pollen and smoke, there’s a whole load of hidden horrors in the glue that holds our furniture together, the paint on our walls, in our carpets, cleaning products, printing inks and whatever is emitted from our cookers. The most common toxins we are exposed to in our homes are formaldehyde, released from carpets, upholstery, glues and paint; benzene, from plastics, rubber and pesticides; trichloroethylene in paint removers, inks, paints and glues; ammonia from cleaning products; carbon monoxide released hobs and ovens, boilers, fires and in car exhaust coming in through the windows; and xylene in printing materials, leather and paint. Yikes.
To clean up your air act, you could switch to fume-free paints and eco cleaning products, and use the extractor fan when cooking – as well as keeping on top of the hoovering... And a high-tech solution is to invest in an air purifier. But for a cheaper alternative, and one we’re obviously fully on board with, you can enlist some help from our green chums!
Plants absorb pollutants from the air around them as part of their respiration process. They take toxins in through their leaves and then those chemicals are broken down in their soil through their roots. It’s strength in numbers, so see this as the perfect excuse to expand your plant family – no sibling rivalry though. Having lots of plants around the place also helps prevent the air from getting too dry, which can irritate our lungs and make it harder to fight off coughs and colds. So definitely think about getting in some extra houseplants for the winter months, when the heating will be drying out the air like nobody’s business. AND, of course, everyone’s favourite fact from school: plants produce oxygen. So keeping a gang of plants in your home will instantly improve the quality of the air that you breathe.
Here are ten of the top air purification plants, according to space scientists:
A bit of a traditional plant and perhaps a slightly unusual choice for inside your home, you can let this vine grow wild trailing in hanging pots from the ceiling – or you can even give a spot of topiary a go and shape it around a wire frame. Let it have plenty of light so it produces deep, rich green foliage.
Bamboo palm, parlour palm, lady palm
All three of these leafy palms are hard workers when it comes to air purification, but the parlour palm and lady palm came through in all the air-testing categories. They will make a big bold statement in your home, growing well in slightly shady areas – although, they do appreciate a bit of sun now and then (think of their tall sisters lining the streets of LA). If they’re not getting enough sunshine, they’ll let you know by stretching towards the light. Clean the leaves regularly and give them a mist if the air is particularly dry.
These bushy perms of plants need high humidity to keep them happy (unlike their hairdo counterparts), so either give them a home in the bathroom where it’s steamy or remember to spritz them often. They give plenty back by raising moisture in the air, as well as removing harmful toxins.
Variegated snake plant
This magical little detoxifier also possesses the added skill of releasing its oxygen at night, so it makes a perfect addition to the bedroom for improving nocturnal air quality – although its other name, mother-in-law’s tongue, may well kill the mood. Almost impossible to destroy, you pretty much need to water these only when you remember, and you can let them dry out between waterings, especially in winter. Give the leaves a wipe every so often to remove the dust.
Another easy-to-look-after plant, who will send out little spider babies on long stems that you can pot up to keep the family line going. It’s a good one to have in a hanging planter or on a shelf to trail down. These adventurous guys like bright indirect light and moderate watering.
This ever-popular, laidback houseplant scored highly in the NASA air quality experiment, successfully reducing all the chemicals they tested it against. It’s not actually a lily at all, and the white flower is actually a kind of white leaf, protecting a stalk of tiny pale flowers underneath. A flower of mystery and disguise! It can cope in shady spots, but prefers a bit of indirect light, especially if you’re hoping for it to bloom. Since it’s on the small side, for any significant air-cleaning results you’ll probably need a few or to team it up with some other detoxifying plant pals.
Red-edged, cornstalk and striped dragon trees will make dramatic, spiky additions to your home, all with excellent air-cleaning skills. They’re easy to grow, can tolerate most temperatures and don’t mind a bit of shade. Indoors, they can reach around 6 feet tall. You can grow them as single stems, or, if you’re that way inclined you can have a go at plaiting three stems together.
Those juicy leaves are well known for their skills at soothing burns and cuts, and calming aloe can be found in lots of the products on our bathroom shelves. You can even add aloe to your morning smoothie – it’s rich in calcium and is said to aid digestion. It does a great job of cleaning our bodies inside and out, but it doesn’t stop there as it can also clean the air. Apparently, they even develop little spots on their leaves if there are lots of toxins about: your own all-plant alarm system. Aloe vera, the veritable clean machine.
These can grow pretty tall – around 6ft – so let them have plenty of space to stretch their branches. They appreciate lots of indirect light, hate drafts and don’t like to be moved around. They can drop their leaves if they’re in a bad mood. There are green or variegated varieties – both will look fancy in your front room.
Not a flower we tend to work with a lot at Grace & Thorn due to its rather sketchy associations with your nan’s front room, but this surprise entry knocked the others out the park in the NASA study, filtering out all the toxins they put its way. Interestingly, in traditional Chinese medicine these blousy blooms were thought to eliminate heat and toxins – not far from NASA’s own findings all these years later. Going back even further, around 2,000 years ago, chrysanthemums were classified as a ‘superior drug’, used in the age-old quest to escape death – it was believed they could prolong life and even help us fly like the immortals. Who’d have thought it? Maybe your nan was on to something…