In the 1960s, NASA put men on the moon. In 1989, they joined forces with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America to learn how to maximize the air-scrubbing potential of plants in sealed environments, such as space stations. Dozens of plants were screened for their ability to not only absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen via photosynthesis, but also for their ability to remove volatile organic compounds, including benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene.
The NASA Clean Air Study resulted in a Top 10 list. You may have seen many of these plants around the office, as they’re attractive and relatively easy to maintain—not realizing what great co-workers they truly are.
Welcoming the Green
It’s only natural to be concerned about keeping your new plant healthy. The first step is to choose the correct pot. No matter how much that gorgeous ceramic pot matches your décor, if it doesn’t have a drain hole, your plant will drown. Also, you want a pot that allows room for the plant to grow and stretch its roots. Resist the temptation to fill it with backyard soil, no matter how well your garden does in it. Use a houseplant mix that has the extra nutrients or fertilizers required for container growing.
Watering is where most of the beginner mistakes are made. Too much, and it can get root rot or drown; too little, and it will wither and die. Check the soil at the edge of the planter. If it’s dry and crumbly, add water; if it is still damp, check it again in a day or two. You’ll soon learn the plant’s water needs and develop a schedule.
Plant tags will provide information on their light requirements; choose wisely, as, with a few versatile exceptions, you’ll want a different plant for a windowsill than for a bedroom or bathroom corner. For optimal air filtering, NASA recommends placing at least one plant per 100 square feet of home or office space. Want a windowsill plant, but the ledge isn’t wide enough? Put a table or cart in front of the window; it works just as well. Take the time to learn about your plant; treat each species as a unique individual, and you’ll be friends for years to come.
Perhaps the most famous of all air-scrubbing plants is the snake plant, which can thrive in everything from bright light, even direct sun, to the darkest corner. They are extremely resilient but should only be watered every two weeks, or perhaps monthly if the soil is still moist.
If you’re looking for something compact for a shady corner, consider the peace lily or Chinese evergreen; both thrive in low-light conditions and will give you beautiful flowers as an added bonus. Spray the leaves and water the soil weekly; the leaves of the peace lily will begin to droop as a reminder if you forget.
If a tree is what you seek, check out the Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig; some growers braid its trunks for a more topiary look. It thrives in bright sun but prefers morning sun, with shade later in the day. Water it with filtered or distilled water to prevent leaf drop, keeping the soil moist but not soggy.
Bamboo palms are beautiful, compact, easy to care for, and grow well in medium light. They can reach 5 to 7 feet in height, or be kept as short as 1 foot. The green leaves will droop if it’s being over-watered. It can stay in the same planter for years and continues to thrive, even if it becomes root-bound.
NASA favored three Dracaenas—red edged, Janet Craig, and Warneckii—but any in the corn plant or dragon tree family will do the job. While all plants want moist soil, these guys require a thorough soaking if they become dried out; they also need filtered or distilled water, as they don’t like salt or minerals often found in tap water.
Vines and Flowers
While English ivy is most often grown in a hanging pot, if you want to get a bit creative, you can train it to climb a vertical structure or on a shaped wire frame for a topiary feel. Keep the soil moist until the plant is established; afterward, it can tolerate drier conditions.
Add a burst of color with gerbera daisies and florist’s chrysanthemums (“pot mums”). You can find them in season in most home centers and some supermarkets, or you can even grow them from seed. Deep weekly watering is the key for longevity indoors, watering the soil in the morning (so it can dry during the day) and directly underneath the leaves to reduce potential fungal problems. Deadhead (remove spent flowers) regularly to keep them looking good and encourage more flowers. After a few weeks of flowering, the plant may be done; unlike their outdoor cousins, it’s difficult to force indoor daisies and chrysanthemums to re-bloom. Save some of the dried flowers as seed, replant, and enjoy your newfound bright-green thumb.
Mother Nature stocked Earth’s pharmacy long before pharmaceutical companies did. Bring her healing bounty indoors.
Use aloe gel, found inside the aloe vera leaf, for minor cuts, burns, and sunburns to reduce pain and inflammation. Its polyphenols and other compounds act as an antiseptic and stimulate skin repair. It also treats canker sores and can help to reduce dental plaque.
This common kitchen windowsill herb is much more than simply delicious. Basil leaves have been used to treat fever, coughs, nausea, stomach cramps, constipation, and gas; some say to chew them to shorten the duration of a cold. You can also rub them on your skin to help keep insects away.
Rub a Calendula marigold flower on a bug bite to reduce itching and swelling. Or make tea from the dried flowers, gargle them for a sore throat, make a compress for inflamed skin conditions, or use as a facial wash for acne.