BY ELISABETH DUNHAM
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RENE EISENBART
House plants do more than make your house beautiful.
They also work with the soil to clear toxins from the air. In my Portland-based practice, I see clients with health complaints who come to me for guidance around nutritionally-based healing. While a healthy diet is key, it is not the only way to detoxify the body and stimulate the healing response. Indoor air quality is also important.
Plants play a part by trapping and absorbing chemicals in the air through photosynthesis, a process which occurs largely in the leaves. The soil also helps to further filter toxins. Research shows that tropical and subtropical houseplants are the most efficient air scrubbers.
Common airborne chemicals found in homes include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene. VOCs—found in paints and other products—are perhaps the number one offender. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are linked to eye, nose and throat irritation and many other health problems.
Recent NASA research shows that 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants are needed to improve air quality in a 1,800-square-foot home.
I asked Adria Sparhawk, owner of the Northeast Portland houseplant store Thicket, to choose seven favorites from the NASA list of the top air-cleaning plants.
Ideal for hanging planters, this gem can grow in relatively low light and will quickly spill over the edges of pots or climb up supports. “They also tell you when they need water by nodding just a bit then perking up once you feed them,” Sparhawk says.
Popular in the 1970s, Spider plants leave Sparhawk feeling a little nostalgic. “They were just such a fixture in everyone’s homes back then and they are so easy to care for and to get starts from. Just take a clipping and place it in a sweet little vase in the windowsill and in a few weeks you will have a whole new plant. Or, they can simply live in the water for ages—no watering or fussing required.”
With broad, shiny green/black leaves and bright red new growth, Sparhawk says these plants are fun to grow, tolerate all sorts of conditions and look great. “They tend to be slow growing in our low light, but can get quite large and handsome.”
Sansevieria or snake plant
Sparhawk likes this plant for its clean modern look—especially when planted in long troughs. It is extremely easy to care for and can handle infrequent watering.
Heart leaf philodendron
One of the easiest to grow, this pretty plant can be trained up a support or draped.
These beauties can grow into small trees, but also can be a bit finicky, according to Sparhawk. “They need regular water, consistent light and they do not like to be moved,” she cautions. “If they are, they will often throw the botanical equivalent of a temper tantrum and drop all their leaves.”
These bold plants with leaves up to four feet across eventually develop what Sparhawk calls a “cool, textured trunk.” Want an indoor jungle? They can be trained to grow up a support or a wall.
While plants pack a surprisingly big punch when it comes to cleaning a home’s air, one of their greatest health benefits may be the way they make people feel. Adding plants visually transforms a space, Sparhawk notes, adding depth, texture and color to help bring a space to life. “They even soften noise from the outside, reducing stress and anxiety,” she says. “Plants simply make you more happy. It’s been scientifically studied, but my mom could have told you
that 30 years ago.”
Elisabeth Dunham is a Portland-based certified nutrition counselor who works with clients throughout the United States. Her emphasis is on plant-based “paleolithic” nutrition for healing chronic illness and balancing weight. Visit here for more information.