We know that we depend on plants for the air we breathe.
They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen; we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.
It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship.
Plants do even more than that by filtering the toxins out of the air that they breathe in so they can emit cleaner oxygen for us.
It’s Not Rocket Science
Studies done by NASA as far back as 1989 tell us that we really already knew–houseplants clean the indoor air we breathe:
“Data on plant-mediated indoor air quality come from experiments conducted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As NASA researchers explored the possibilities of long-term space habitation, it became evident that the air in a tightly sealed space capsule would quickly become contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals released by the materials used to manufacture the capsule interior.
“In addition to basic photosynthesis that removes carbon dioxide and returns oxygen to the air, plants can remove toxicants from air, soil, and water in at least two ways. First, they can metabolize some toxic chemicals, releasing harmless by-products, and second, they can incorporate toxicants such as heavy metals into plant tissues, thus sequestering them.”
The study summarized its findings in relation to “sick building syndrome” and the use of indoor plants to ameliorate its effects:
“Low-light-requiring houseplants, along with activated carbon plant filters, have demonstrated the potential for improving indoor air quality by removing trace organic pollutants from the air in energy-efficient buildings. This plant system is one of the most promising means of alleviating the sick building syndrome associated with many new energy-efficient buildings. The plant root-soil zone appears to be the most effective area for removing volatile organic chemicals. Therefore, maximizing air exposure to the plant root-soil area should be considered when placing plants in buildings for best air filtration.”
Authors add that in combination with activated carbon filters with fans, large volumes of air can be effectively cleaned.
Our Homes are Full of Toxins
Ninety percent of the toxins in our homes’ air come from indoor pollutants: chemicals released during cooking, cleaning products, or simply through air’s absorption of molecules released from materials normally resident in plastics and other synthetic materials.
The big three of most concern are benzene, formaldehyde, and tricholorethylene. These and other chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory ailments (including asthma), allergies, and autoimmune disorders. It would be a good thing to get them gone.
Many plants were examined to discover how effective they are at cleaning these chemicals from indoor air. The top twenty-five follow. Houseplants are not only practical but pretty, bringing a little green to your home even in the middle of winter. Most require very little care to flourish–and we all love to watch things grow.
Before you go running to the local nursery, consider the following:
- For optimal natural filtration, one 10-12 inch potted plant per one hundred square feet is recommended.
- Decide where you will put your plants; some require more sun than others.
- Keep a calendar of watering schedules if you need to remind yourself. Most plants will come with care instructions.
- Dust the leaves of the plants so they can breathe.
- Nourish plants’ soil with organic plant food or compost when indicated.
- Use rainwater to hydrate your plants; the chemicals in municipal water affect them, too.
- Some plants are toxic if ingested–if you have small children and/or pets, keep this in mind when placing them throughout your home.
1. Aloe Vera (aloe barbadensis)
Good at removing formaldehyde. A good topical first aid for burns, it has huge nutritional benefits as well, including the treatment of ulcers and cancer due to high antioxidant properties.
Because it is a succulent, it requires a lot of sun and little water.
2. Areca Palm (chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
Great general air purifier.
Prefers partial sun and well-drained soil. Moderately drought-tolerant (for those of us who sometimes forget to water).
3. Baby Rubber Plant (peperomia obtusifolia or ficus robusta)
Emits a high volume of oxygen and removes environmental toxins.
Does well in filtered light, occasional watering, and rich soil. (Another good one for those who may have a tendency to neglect watering.) This plant can grow quite large.
4. Bamboo Palm or Reed Palm (chamaedorea seifrizii)
A lovely, leafy, tall plant to brighten the room, it sucks out formaldehyde without complaint and is a natural humidifier.
Requires bright indirect light and moist soil.
5. Boston Fern (nephrolepis exaltata Bostoniensis)
One of the best air-purifying plants, the Boston fern also humidifies the air.
This versatile plant likes bright indirect light and damp soil but will tolerate partial light and moderate drought.
6. Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema sp.)
Removes toxins in exchange for high oxygen emissions.
Likes full shade and well-drained soil. The sap is an irritant and is poisonous.
7. Corn Cane/Mass Cane (dracaena massangeana/dracaena fragrans massangeana)
Removes formaldehyde and other toxins.
Needing low light and little water, it’s a great corner plant. Grows fairly tall.
8. Dwarf/Pygmy Date Palm (phoenix roebelenii)
Love the look of this one–so tropical. Removes formaldehyde and xylene from indoor air.
Tropical=full sun and moist soil.
9. English Ivy (hedera helix)
Attractive, hale and hearty, if planted outside, it will take over everything. Inside, you can control its spread. Effective at removing benzene, formaldehyde, and other synthetics from the air, it’s a great choice for asthmatics and people with respiratory and mold allergies.
Because it’s an ivy, you can stake or trellis it in the house, making this purifier decorative as well as healthful. Likes bright light and moist soil. Poisonous if ingested!
10. Ficus Alii (ficus maeleilandii alii)
A member of the rubber family, the ficus can grow quite tall but is easy to care for. An effective general air purifier.
Does best in indirect sunlight with infrequent watering. Because it’s a type of rubber plant, it’s not a good choice for those with latex sensitivity.
11. Gerbera Daisy (gerbera sp./gerbera jamesonii)
These are happy flowers, like little bright colorful suns that love to look at you and smile. An excellent plant for removing benzene.
Needs a sunny location to return the favor.
12. Golden Pothos (epipremnum areum/scindapsus aureus)
In the NASA study, this came out as one of the top three houseplants for removing formaldehyde and carbon monoxide from the air.
Requires only partial sun and occasional watering.
13. Janet Craig (draecana deremensis)
Probably not related to Jenny Craig, this is also ones of the collections of plants known as “lady palm”. Removes most known air contaminants.
Likes indirect sunlight and requires no fertilization.
14. Kimberly Queen Fern (nephrolepis obilterata)
Cleans the air of xylene, toluene, and formaldehyde.
Bright, indirect sunlight with infrequent watering.
15. Lady Palm (rhapis excelsa)
Removes most air toxins. Grows wide.
Does best in partial sun with shade in winter. Water more frequently in the summer.
16. Marginata or Dragon Tree (dracaena marginata)
Effective in cleaning the air of the big three: benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene, as well as xylene. Bright red-trimmed leaves are very attractive as a decorative accent.
Will tolerate negligence. Dry soil and irregular watering are okay. Partial light is okay. Fluoride is toxic to this plant as well as humans–use rainwater.
17. Moth Orchid (phalaenopsis)
Purifies air of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and formaldehyde. So, so pretty, too.
Loves it warm and humid, with bright (but not hot) sunlight. Soaking waterings with almost complete dry-out between.
18. Mum (chrysanthemum sp./chrysanthemum morifolium)
A hardy plant indoors and out, the mum comes in various colors to suit your taste. Removes ammonia plus the big three from the air.
Requires partial sun and regular watering. These are normally annuals, especially when grown indoors.
19. Peace Lily (spathiphyllum sp.)
Extracts mold spores (good for kitchens and bathrooms–anywhere there’s water), alcohols, acetone, plus the big three. A good choice for whatever room you polish your nails.
Easy care (we like this) with bright indirect light and regular watering.
20. Philodendron (P. cordatum/P. scandens/P. selloum)
NASA cites this plant as one of the best for sucking up formaldehyde, even at high concentrations.
Ridiculously easy to grow and supremely tolerant of gross negligence, this plant will expand as large as you allow it. Our friend Laurie grew a philodendron in the office that ended up sprawling over three cubicle walls–with only fluorescent light to live on! Ingestion is poisonous, however.
21. Snake Plant (also known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue–good for a giggle, sansevieria trifasciata)
Absorbs toxic formaldehyde and other contaminants like nitrogen oxide. Good for asthmatics and people with other respiratory conditions.
Needs only low light and infrequent watering, with even less in the winter.
22. Schefflera or Umbrella Tree (brassaia actinophylla)
Prefers bright, indirect sunlight, humidity, and frequent watering. Can be toxic when ingested.
23. Spider Plant (chlorophytum comosum)
One of NASA’s top three plants for cleaning the air of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and other toxins.
Another easy-to-grow and prolific plant, its structure makes it decorative as well as practical–a fabulous hanging plant. Needs bright, indirect sunlight and regular watering.
24. Warneckii or Dracanaena Warneckei (dracaena deremeusis or dracanea deremensis warneckei)
With attractive variegated leaves, this plant absorbs benzene and trichloroethylene.
Doesn’t like fluoride–use rainwater. Requires only moderate sun and water.
25. Weeping Fig or Ficus Tree (ficus benjamina)
Absorbs various toxins and emits high oxygen volume.
Does best in bright light but will do well in partial shade. Requires only moderate watering.
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