Cleaning the House with Houseplants

The best plants for purifying indoor air

By Jamey Bradbury

It’s that time of year: You’ve got itchy eyes, dry skin, a constant headache. You assume you’re catching a cold. But what if it’s your house that’s sick?

As we’ve grown more environmentally conscious, we’ve designed our homes to control airflow and save energy. But, combine air-tight houses, inadequate ventilation and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and you’ve got yourself a sick building, where the air quality can actually make you feel like you’re coming down with something.

Luckily, the solution may be as simple as adding a few plants to your décor. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a room and creating a relaxing atmosphere, houseplants help purify the air by filtering toxins, gasses and chemicals.

Plant Purification 101

“Especially in new homes, carpet and processed wood and paint emit VOCs, like benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethlene toxins,” says Michele Hebert, director of sustainability at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “These are the things that really contribute to ‘sick building syndrome.’ But plants breathe just like we do; they take in air, and while they do that, they absorb these toxins into their tissue.”

While houseplants filter the air, they also thrive on the carbon dioxide we exhale, simultaneously producing oxygen.

“Different plants pull out different things from the air,” Hebert explains, “so a diversity of plants in your home is best.”

Worried about your black thumb? Fortunately, the plants that are best at filtering toxins typically found in the home also happen to be some of the hardest to kill.

And, says Monica Emerton, owner of Green Connection in Anchorage, “You don’t have to have a jungle for these plants to do some good.” One potted plant per every 100 feet is the rule. More plants won’t hurt, she says, but at minimum, you want at least one plant in the rooms where you spend most of your time.

Best Bets

To improve the air quality in your home, head to your local greenhouse or garden center to check out these easy-to-grow but efficient plants:

Dracaena Janet Craig*

This attractive variety of Dracaena filters tricholoroethylene emitted by adhesives, lacquers and paints. “It’s also a really tough plant that tolerates super low light,” Emerton describes, making it ideal for long Alaska winters.

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Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Another hard-to-kill plant, the spider plant filters benzene and xylene, and will grow in light conditions from semi-shady to partial direct sun.

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Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)*

“I strongly recommend most people have this as a first plant in their homes,” says Emerton. “I call it a ‘drama plant’ because it will be flat as a pancake, then you give it a little water, and it pops right back up.” It rids the air of benzene, a carcinogen found in paints, furniture wax and polishes.

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Boston fern

These not only remove air impurities but also add humidity to dry indoor spaces.

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English Ivy*

Easy to grow in hanging baskets, this vining plant prefers cooler temperatures. When it comes to absorbing formaldehyde — the most prevalant indoor pollutant — this one takes the top prize.

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Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)

Able to tolerate low light, cooler temperatures and occasional neglect, the sturdy rubber plant is one of the best all-around plants for removing formaldehyde and an assortment of airborne toxins.

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Ficus alii

While some species of ficus can be finicky, the Ficus alii is heartier and will filter formaldehyde-based toxins while also resisting insects.

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Mother-in-Law’s Tongue or snake plant (Sansevieria)*

Incredibly easy to grow, the snake plant thrives in low light. It produces oxygen at night, making it ideal for bedrooms.

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Areca palm (a.k.a., yellow palm or butterfly palm)

The areca palm releases copious amounts of moisture into the air, removes chemical toxins, and is beautiful.

*Note: Toxic to cats and dogs if ingested, says the ASPCA.
Growing tips

The key to growing success, says Hebert, is selecting plants that need minimal care. And you don’t have to break the bank buying special lamps. “Houseplants love simple white fluorescent lights. Put your plant on the top of a bookshelf, close to the light, and they’ll love it.”

Emerton stresses, “People tend to think of plants as furniture – you can put them anywhere – and that’s not the case.” Learn which plants need low light, and avoid placing them in bright windows. Garden center experts can advise you on placement or help you find the best plants for your needs.

With the right houseplants, the cons are nearly nonexistent. Of the plants on the list above, says Emerton, “Most aren’t very toxic, so they’re safe around kids and pets.”

They also produce few pollens, and they actually reduce dust. When it comes to allergens, mold is the biggest concern; as long as you don’t overwater, it shouldn’t be a problem.

With almost no drawbacks and an ability to absorb impurities, houseplants are literally a breath of fresh air. “And for those who want to green their lives,” Hebert adds, “this is one of the more beautiful tools we can use to live more sustainably.”