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Are indoor plants good for your health?

Learn why indoor plants are worth their weight in gold


Indoor plants are having an interior design moment, but let’s hope it’s a trend that’s here to
stay. House plants don’t just liven up your space and bring the outdoors in, they’re also an excellent tonic for your physical and mental health.

In fact, researchers at University of Melbourne and RMIT found that adding just a few plants to a room can significantly improve air quality and enhance the sense of relaxation and positivity in the space.

But do we feel better just because the space looks more visually appealing, or is there more at play?

Helping a home feel good

The Happiness Institute founder Dr Tim Sharp, otherwise known as Dr Happy, says it’s important to create spaces at home that make you feel good just by being in them – especially when so many of us are working from home and spending so much more time there.

“Many of us are aware of the ‘internal’ factors that contribute to our health and wellbeing, like, for example, the quality of our thoughts, but many of us aren’t aware of the crucial role that external factors play, like the environment in which we spend so much of our time,” says Tim, also Chief Happiness Officer at preventative mental health organisation batyr, supported by nib foundation.

There’s good research into the benefits of house plants when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

When it comes to creating a space you love, there’s no need to stop at pot plants. “In addition, surrounding ourselves with reminders of anything that’s positive (like favourite mementos or pictures of loved ones) has also been shown to be powerfully beneficial,” Tim says.

The physical health benefits of indoor plants

Greener Spaces Better Places research found that adding just one plant to an average-sized room of 4x5m reduced air-borne toxins and pollution by 25 per cent. Add five plants, and you’ll be breathing in air that’s 75 per cent cleaner. Add 10 plants? We’re talking pristine breathability.

But why are there so many nasties in the air in the first place, you may ask? Dust, paints, furniture finishes, rugs, cleaning products and even dry-cleaned clothes can release particulate matter, carbon monoxide and/or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.

Australia’s National Pollution Inventory says the health effects of VOCs depend on their
composition and concentration and how long we’re exposed to them. Build-up of VOCs in indoor environments has been associated with sick building syndrome and can cause headaches and irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. VOCs have also been linked to loss of coordination, nausea, damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, and even cancer in animals and humans.

The mental health benefits of indoor plants

Numerous studies confirm the positive impact of house plants. Their calming influence has been found to increase memory retention and concentration by up to 20 per cent, enhance mood and outlook on life, and reduce stress.

In their investigations into the benefits of plants on mood, concentration, productivity
and positivity, RMIT researchers found wellbeing isn’t impacted much by adding just one plant to a room. Adding a few plants of different sizes and varieties to a room, however, leads to “significantly improved wellbeing ”.

“A big group of plants that looks complex, or has lots of different varieties of plants, is able to fascinate, foster relaxation and help people de-stress,” says lead researcher Associate Professor Marco Amati from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research. “We also found that while variety was key, it was also important to create a cohesive ‘look’ – or organised complexity within a group of plants – to optimise wellbeing.

Looking after our indoor plants, or ‘indoor gardening’, brings additional mental health
benefits. A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found interacting with indoor plants (transplanting plants from small pots into larger ones) lowered blood pressure and suppressed sympathetic nervous system activity – reduced feelings of stress, in other words.

Plants don’t need repotting? Wiping the dust off their leaves with a damp cloth is an activity well worth pursuing for their benefit and yours.

Which indoor plants are best?

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a plant based on how it looks; however, some plants are better than others when it comes to benefitting your health. If removing harmful VOCs is high on your priority list, research shows bromeliads are among the most effective. Tested in a sealed chamber for 12 hours, the bromeliad was found to remove most of the VOCs present. The dracaena plant was also a top performer, removing 94 per cent of acetone (found in many nail polish removers).

Remember that having a variety of plants, and plenty of them, will maximise the benefits to your health and wellbeing.

15 plants that benefit your health

NASA, in its research into how to clean the air in space stations, found some indoor plants remove more – and different kinds – of VOCs than others. Primary NASA researcher Dr Bill Wolverton has since written a book about it: How To Grow Fresh Air, identifying 50 plants that remove the most common pollutants. Among them are these health-boosting indoor plants you might like to consider bringing home:

  • Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens, also known as golden cane palm or butterfly palm)

  • Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)

  • Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)

  • Rubber plant (Ficus robusta)

  • Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata/laurentii, also known as mother-in-law's tongue)

  • Dracaena (Dracaena deremensis also known as the happy plant)

  • Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)

  • English ivy (Hedera helix)

  • Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)

  • Ficus ‘Alii’ (Ficus macleilandii)  

  • Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’)

  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)

  • Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans

  • Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum, also known as devil’s ivy)

  • Kimberley queen fern (Nephrolepis obliterata)

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