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Green is good for your mental and physical health

by Jodi DeLong

No doubt we’ve all read articles in popular magazines or online, extolling the virtues of houseplants on our physical and mental well-being, whether at home, in a workplace, shopping centre and in other office situations. There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence out there, but less hard science on the subject. What are we to believe?

An environmental scientist in the United States did some ground-breaking work on the benefits of plants in cleaning up human-made environmental messes. B.C. Wolverton worked with the US military and with NASA on using plants to eliminate unwanted compounds in air and water. He published several consumer-oriented books in the late 1990s that encouraged people to consider using houseplants to help deal with environmental pollution both indoors and out. How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Plants that Purify your Home and Office is still available through some online booksellers.

Other researchers like to point out that his work was done under closed laboratory type conditions, and it’s unknown exactly how many plants would be needed to effectively clean the air in a house, especially depending on what sort of toxins might be in the air—off-gassing from furniture and carpets, smoke from heating devices or tobacco or cannabis use, and so on. Most of us also are able to manage great air changes in our homes by simply opening a window. 

Benefits of indoor green spaces

Still, it’s always a great idea to have plants in your home or work environment. Maybe they aren’t the most effective ways of purifying the air, but they offer many other benefits. An office environment is much more inviting, relaxing yet stimulating, and productive when there are living plants throughout the workspace. Depending on the types of plants and their placement throughout an environment, they can offer benefits such as cooling, noise reduction, enhanced air quality and even improved humidity. If you’ve ever walked into a building with a beautiful
“living wall” in the lobby or atrium area, you have probably stopped to relax and take in the green scene and felt better for that pause.

There are entire companies dedicated to creating beautiful and eye-catching commercial spaces, in all sorts of locations from airports and shopping centres to medical offices to art galleries. These living plant installations can vary from formal containerized plantings of trees, shrubs and flowering tropicals, to dish gardens of easy-care succulents, to glass terrariums, which have been experiencing a delightful resurge in popularity in recent years.

Don’t have a green thumb but love the thought of enhanced greenery in your commercial space? Many of the companies that do plant installations also offer maintenance services—you don’t even have to remember to water your plants!

Plants are well known for helping to reduce stress levels and increase feelings of well-being, whether in home or office. They can be especially effective in the dull dark months of late autumn through to spring, when the world outside is grey and brown (or white with snow). My home office is filled with houseplants, from tough orchids and African violets to ferns, cacti, succulents and colourful tropical foliage and flowering choices.

Planning factors for indoor plantings

If planning on adding plants to your office, do consult with colleagues to make sure that none of the flowering houseplants you’re considering will cause allergic reactions. Oftentimes, allergies to scent are due to synthetic scents, and natural fragrances such as those found in geraniums, some orchids, herbs, and so on do not bother most individuals. Pollen is less of a problem with indoor houseplants, for those who have asthma or pollenrelated issues. If you hire a company to design an office environment with plenty of plants, they will look after consulting of employees and colleagues about such concerns. 

For homeowners wanting to exercise indoor green thumbs, it’s important to match your plants to your home environment. If your home doesn’t receive a lot of natural light due to shade trees outside or limited or north-facing windows, you’ll have to consider supplemental artificial light or selecting plants that are particularly tolerant of low-light situations, such as Phalaenopsis (moth) orchids, many ferns, Tillandsia (air plants) and tough foliage plants like Aspidistra. If your home has extremes of comfortable indoor temperature—such as a hot room with a wood or pellet stove, or thermostats set low to conserve heat—you will again have to check on plant tolerances. Some thrive on low humidity—think cacti and succulents—while others like to be misted regularly. Most plants sold in stores come with at least basic growing instructions, and there are plenty of excellent reference books and websites available to enhance your growing skills.

One caveat for homeowners—if you have young children or pets, be careful to select plants that are non-toxic. Puppies and kittens—and even adult animals—have been known to snack on greenery in the home, and some plants can be highly toxic or even fatal. Children can be tempted by brightly-coloured flowers or ornamental fruit like Jerusalem cherry or ornamental peppers, which could result in an upset tummy.

As with any plant, you can do everything right with them, and sometimes they still die. Plants do that, so if you’ve been caring for a houseplant and it loses the will to live, it’s okay. Some seasonal plants tend to only last a season, or we choose not to nurture them back into blooming. Think of the joyful poinsettias that we enjoy through the holiday season. In January, they usually start to look less than showy and more like they’re exhausted. In order to keep them growing and have them flower the following year, you need to treat them with special care in terms of the amount of light they receive. My solution is to put them outside for some fresh air—during a January freeze.

Other flowering plants pop up seasonally in grocery and department stores—the primulas, cyclamen, miniature roses, cineraria, calla lilies and other colourful bloomers that tempt our eyes and our wallets in the dead of winter or during special events such as Easter or Mother’s Day. They tend to look terrific for a while in the home, and then start to dwindle in vigour. You have two choices with these—either nurture them through until warm weather and then plant them outdoors and enjoy them through until frost (for those that aren’t frost-hardy here)…or you can compost them, guilt-free. I find gerbera daisies especially moody, so when they start to look bedraggled and stop flowering, they go to the great greenhouse in the sky. 

Hanging plants like this hoya free up space on windowsills

A few easy houseplant choices

Sanseveria (snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue) has tough, waxy leaves in several shades of green, and a mostly upright growth habit. It’s highly tolerant of low light and dry conditions.

Saintpaulia, more commonly known as African violets, are considered by some to be fussy, but if you have bright, indirect light, they tend to be obliging for years. They’re easy and inexpensive to purchase, so if one does succumb, you can always buy more.

Tillandsia is a genus of bromeliad that is commonly known as air plant, so named because it doesn’t require soil in which to grow. It comes in many different species and varieties and can be addictive to grow.

Kalanchoes are known for brilliant coloured clusters of flowers and for fleshy leaves. They are tolerant of many conditions inside the home and can grow outdoors from spring to mid-autumn.

Succulents and cacti are perfect for the person with a brightly-lit location and an inclination to forget to water. They come in a dizzying number of types, and as long as they get adequate light and aren’t overwatered, truly are okay with benign neglect.

Pothos or devil’s ivy is tolerant of low-light conditions and is well suited for hanging planters.

Philodendrons are probably the first plant many of us are introduced to. Recent hybridizing has added interesting foliage colours, including golden, orange, and bicolour varieties.

Phalaenopsis orchid, also known as moth orchid, is the easiest of orchids to grow, preferring low to medium, indirect light, and requiring only weekly watering. It produces long sprays of flowers in spectacular colour combinations.

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