Plants: They’re More Than Just Pretty!

Posted on February 17, 2011 by Stefanie

As a general rule, plants of any kind tend to become unmotivated underachievers in my presence, and hence, I tend not to keep many of them around. I thought my horticultural ineptitude was my own little secret, but the last time a friend gave me a plant as a gift, he handed it over with an accompanying Last Will & Testament, so it seems the secret’s out.

Despite my poor track record with all things green and rooted in soil, however, I actually do want more plants in my home. I have this nagging feeling that maybe I shouldn’t be the only thing alive in this house (aside from the centipedes in the basement and the yogurt in the fridge, I mean). And I also can’t help wondering if the sustained proper care of a houseplant may be an important gateway to adulthood that I haven’t yet fully crossed. How can I ever expect to have a successful long-term relationship with another human if I can’t even master one with a plant?

As it turns out, there are some other good reasons to keep more plants around, too. We all know from grade school science that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, but did you know that plants actually absorb common toxins from indoor air as well? Scientists at NASA have been researching ways to clean the atmosphere in space stations to keep them safe for humans over extended time periods, and they found that lots of common houseplants can effectively absorb benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene in particular. They effectively scrub harmful gases right out of the air, and absorb other pollutants and render them harmless in the plant’s soil. (You can read more about this here, if you’re so inclined.)

Keeping the air around you clean is especially important now, in the winter months, when we spend most of our time inside and when closed windows and doors mean pollutants are more likely to get trapped indoors than to circulate. Adding a few plants to your home is a great way to help protect your health by improving the air you breathe. If you work in an office, there’s a good chance your company or building manager has already placed plants in public areas to improve the air quality and also enhance aesthetics and boost morale, but you may also want to keep a small plant or two on your desk to boost the benefits in your direct area, too.

All houseplants offer some benefit to air quality, but certain ones are better than others at removing pollutants. The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) recommends these plants in particular for homes and offices:

Ivy — Does well with indirect light and even watering, but doesn’t mind drying out occasionally.
Spider plants — Easy to grow in moderate light, and they attract few insects.
Peace Lilies — Easy to care for; they should be kept moist, and will wilt when they need to be watered.
Ferns — Need medium or bright indirect light. The Boston fern is a good pollution-fighting variety,  but requires little maintenance aside from dealing with dropped fronds.
Ficus trees — Need medium to high light. They shouldn’t be watered until their leaves begin to turn yellow. They are sensitive to changes in light and cold drafts, but once established, are easy to care for.

I decided to take PLANET’s advice and add an ivy to my living room—a room where I’ve hesitated to keep a plant before because of the limited amount of light it gets. But PLANET (not to mention the rest of the plant-loving Internet at large) assures me that ivy should grow happily even with limited sunlight, and even if I neglect to water it now and then. (I don’t think the Internet intended that information as a dare, but I still have a “We’ll see about that!” response to all the assurances I read of ivy’s hardiness.) Wish me luck.

Other plants that NASA tested (and that the all-knowing Internet recommends) for improving air quality without requiring much effort include Golden pothos and Philodendrons, both of which I HAVE successfully kept alive longer than any of my romantic relationships, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet. Hope for me and my new ivy, and my indoor air quality too. We shall see.

Do you keep a lot of plants in your home or office? Which ones have worked the best for you?


  1. I love plants! They improve air quality, and they’re a cheap way of adding some color and decoration to a room, too.

    February 17th, 2011 at 10:47 am
    Comment by Courtney
  2. I’ve had my peace lily and spider plant for years, and despite serious neglect at certain stretches of their lives I’ve not managed to kill either. In fact, my spider plant is an offshoot from my mother’s spider plant, which was an offshoot from her mother’s spider plant. So not only are they hard to kill, their offshoots make great gifts!

    Pothos are also beautiful indoor plants that are very, very easy to care for.

    February 17th, 2011 at 11:06 am
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  3. Modern Gal, believe it or not, the plant that came with a Last Will & Testament was a peace lily, and despite how easy those are supposed to be to care for, it still somehow withered under my care. :-( A coworker of mine has a spider plant in her office and just gave an offshoot of it to another coworker. I was going to call dibs but was too late. Perhaps I’ll get the next one. Glad to hear they’re hardy too!

    February 17th, 2011 at 11:17 am
    Comment by Stefanie
  4. I also suffer from Brown Thumb Syndrome when it comes to houseplants, although I seem to be overcoming it. There’s something called a Mother-in-law Tongue (or Cast Iron Plant) that thrives on neglect. Really, you just can’t kill it. I recommend that one as a fine starter plant.

    February 17th, 2011 at 12:13 pm
    Comment by Deborah
  5. I have even more plants in my house than I have animals. (And you know how many animals I have! I’m all about living things.) The vast majority of them are from cuttings off my mother’s plants, and some of hers are descended from cuttings from a cool elderly neighbor we had when I was a kid. I love knowing the history.

    If we lived in the same town I would give you a cutting of arrowhead vine or Chinese evergreen. Those are both “easy keepers,” and I have plenty.

    February 17th, 2011 at 1:06 pm
    Comment by lizgwiz
  6. Thanks for sharing this post Stefanie. I live in one of the condos downtown Austin, and I was really looking for perfect indoor plants. Your suggestions are valuable, I guess I’ll try ivy first.

    April 25th, 2012 at 2:56 pm
    Comment by Dave

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