A few years ago I was investigating the best ways of purifying the air in my house using natural methods. I’m increasingly worried about the levels of toxins in the air we breathe and wanted to see if there was anything I could do to off set them in my home, even if only in a small way. Living just outside of a major city, I want to actively do something to help combat the effects of the ever present pollution in the air I breathe. I’m sure I’m not alone, especially with the mounting environmental concerns that are only getting worse the more we discover the effects we are having with the methods we’ve been using. From producing electricity using unsustainable methods to overloading our sewage systems and what we’re putting in the products we’re using on our bodies, it’s hard not to feel like a passenger on a sinking ship.
I did some research on the subject and the advice that kept coming up was to plant more trees. As I’ve said above, I live on the outskirts of a large city. So planting more trees just isn’t practical advise. I use Ecosia, which is a search engine that plants a tree for every query I make, but that doesn’t make me feel like I’m having an impact on my immediate environment. It’s nice to know that there are people planting trees in far away places, but I want to make a difference in my immediate surrounds.
And I refused to believe that the only way to create a higher quality of air in my house is by planting more trees. Not that I’m against the idea but there are so many other species of plants on earth. Surely some of them must be able to do even a tenth of the job that a typical tree does during the course of a day.
So I did some more research and what I found was that NASA is already on it. In the 70’s, NASA found that some employees were complaining of allergy symptoms while working in newly constructed buildings. When they looked into the matter further, they discovered that the new construction, along with the furnishings and machines that were cohabitating spaces with the workers, were off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are dangerous to human health.
VOCs are still an issue in general. I’m not entirely sure how long homes off-gas VOCs for, but some of the compounds they emit include benzene (plastics, gasoline, think anything made from petroleum), formaldehyde (used in building materials and household cleaners and beauty products), carbon monoxide (off gassed by gas ranges or boilers, anything using gas, coal or wood in the home as well as car exhaust), xylene (a solvent used in the leather, rubber, paper and automotive industries), trichloroethylene (a chemical found in stain and paint removers), ammonia (found in window cleaners but also used in agriculture as a fertilizer, another reason to buy organic) and toluene (adhesives and paint thinners). This is not an exhaustive list, and all VOCs are toxic to humans. Definitely not something I want floating around my house if I can help it.
Luckily for us, some common house plants take in these toxic gasses, along with the microorganisms in the soil as well as their roots. From what I understood of the study, plants filter these VOCs by taking them in through the soil and roots or directly into the leaves, and then they are passed to the plant where they become part of the plant. The plant sequesters the VOCs and holds them, rendering them harmless to humans.
It only makes sense that nature has a solution, but it’s still satisfying to think about how it solves this particular problem. And all the while creating fresh oxygen for us to breath. “So what are these plants”, you may be wondering. For the rest of this post, I’ll go over the plants I have and am looking for, why I chose them and what their benefits are. Also a little bit on how to care for them too. Because there’s no point in picking up a new plant to help keep you healthy if you don’t know how to keep it alive!
I believe one of the first plants I got to help purify the air in my house was a peace lily. The peace lily is adept at breaking down compounds such as, benzene, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. The reason this plant is so appealing to me is that, if you like me, live in a city with lots of traffic, the ability to break down carbon monoxide and benzene are two compounds I want to focus on. Seeing how these particular VOCs are so prolific around traffic congested areas like cities, this is something the peace lily will handle.
They like moderate or medium light, which means partially shaded with not much direct sunlight. They take fertilizer in the summer months, about every six weeks according to The Farmers Almanac. And it’s easy to tell when it’s time to water you peace lily because the leaves will become limp and droop. I water mine about every two to three weeks.
The next plant on my list is the snake plant. This plant is stellar at removing formaldehyde from the air. This is a good thing considering formaldehyde is in an awful lot of our personal hygiene products. And according to RollingNature.com, where most plants will release carbon dioxide at night, the snake plant, or Sansevieria will produce oxygen. Paired with the peace lily, not only will you be reduce the carbon monoxide in your home, you will be replacing it with fresh oxygen. Win win.
This plant is a succulent, which means it’s pretty hearty. That said, as with all succulents, if you over water them they will develop root rot. You should wait until the soil dries out completely before watering. And when in doubt, wait a little. These guys are drought resistant so err on the side of under watering. They will tolerate many different light settings but prefer bright, indirect light.
Next up is the dracaena plant. This guy is known for removing formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene from the local environment. They’re especially good at removing formaldehyde, so a good location for this plant may be in the bathroom or near your vanity. Wherever you use most of your soaps, beauty and hygiene products.
Luckily, most of the plants on this list are pretty hearty and the dracaena is no exception. They don’t require a lot of water. Keeping the soil slightly damp should be enough to take care of its watering needs. I water mine about once every two weeks. They’re also sensitive to fluoride and watering with filtered water will help to keep this plant at its healthiest. The fluoride in our drinking water imparts brown crispy spots on their leaves. Filtered sun is best and never place these guys in direct sunlight. Direct rays can scorch the leaves of this guy leaving it looking a little crispy.
Another succulent on my list, the next plant is the aloe vera. This plant is kind of amazing. It’s good at removing benzene and formaldehyde, but it’s ability to reduce carbon dioxide and produce oxygen is nine to one when compared with other plants! It takes carbon dioxide in during the night, and when exposed to sunlight it releases the oxygen back into the air. And it’s sometimes referred to as an oxygen bomb! That’s pretty badass for a plant if you ask me 🙂 The insides of the aloe are also used to soothe minor burns and scratches.
Caring for this succulent is easy since they don’t require much attention. When watering, do not water often, but water deeply. I think I let mine go at least three to four weeks between waterings. They are a succulent, so again, too much water will cause root rot. Let the soil become pretty dry before watering your aloe again. They enjoy bright indirect light. I place mine just on the outskirts of my eastern facing window, away from the morning sunlight. This allows them to gain the benefit of the bright morning sun without being directly in the sun’s rays.
The spider plant is another air purifying plant that made NASA’s list. Also known as an airplane plant, spider plants are stellar at the ability to remove formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and xylene from the environment they inhabit.
As far as watering and sunlight needs, this plant is easy to care for. While they are small and just becoming established, you’ll want to water them once a week. After the first year, you can reduce their water schedule to once every two weeks. These plants will also produce shoots with what look like baby spider plants. And if you plant these little guys in soil and keep them well watered and attached to the mother plant, that’s exactly what they’ll become! They also prefer bright, indirect sunlight. So near a sunny window, without being directly in the sun’s rays.
English Ivy is another plant that made the list. English ivy is known for its ability to clean formaldehyde, benzene and xylene, as well as reducing molds and fecal matter from the air. It’s resilient and easy to grow as well. These aggressive plants are found growing mostly in Europe and North America, and take well to containers for in the home as well as for landscaping outside on a larger scale.
They are resilient plants, and prefer bright, direct sunlight. Their watering needs aren’t complex either. They like to be a bit on the drier side, so water once the top inch of the soil dries out. This ivy also needs to be fed on a fairly regular basis. Once a month during the growing season. From spring to fall, while suspending the feedings during the winter months. English ivy also benefits from having the dust removed from its leaves once and a while. Gardening Know How suggests to give your ivy a quick shower to remove any dust and pests that have found their way onto your ivy. Plus, you have a new shower buddy! Jk, don’t use soap on this plant, or any plants. It may not kill them, but it isn’t a guarente : )
Next up is the Rhapis excelsa, aka the lady palm. This palm is able to scrub formaldehyde and xylene from the air, but is best known for its ability to filter ammonia from the atmosphere. They also help to keep their environment higher in humidity. Something beneficial to not only its human cohabitants, but also their fellow plant friends as well. Ferns in particular thrive in humid environments. So the ability to regulate the moisture in the growing space is important.
Lighting requirements for the lady palm are bright, indirect light. The same strategy I use for the aloe vera plant should work for the lady palm as well. Near an eastern facing window, just out of the morning sun’s rays. Let the top inch of soil dry out before waterings and let the soil dry more so during the winter months. And fertilize only in the summer months with fertilizer diluted to half strength.
Weeping fig, or the ficus tree is another plant adept at filtering formaldehyde and xylene from its environment. This plant is considerably sensitive to its environment and, if moved may drop leaves as it adapts to its new location. This is another plant that prefers to be in a humid atmosphere. Like its fern friends, it would benefit from being in a room with a humidifier or the bathroom.
The weeping fig likes to have moist soil through the growing season, which is from spring to fall. And requiring fewer waterings during the winter months. During these months, let the soil dry out up to two inches before watering your weeping fig again. As for lighting needs, this plant loves indirect, bright sunlight. Keeping them just outside of the sun’s direct rays will be their ideal location. Fertilize your weeping fig during the spring and summer months using an all purpose houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength.
The Boston fern is another plant on the list that is exceptional at removing formaldehyde from the air. But benzene and xylene are also among its impressive cleansing abilities. This is another plant that would benefit from being in a humid environment. Either in the bathroom (if it doesn’t already look like a jungle in there by now), or with a humidifier.
The soil of the Boston fern likes to be kept moist. Check your plant often to make sure that the soil is moist enough and don’t go too long between waterings. You also only need to fertilize this plant a few times a year. Maybe once a season during its growing season, spring to fall. And these plants do well in low to indirect sunlight. Nothing to close to an eastern or southern facing window.
The bamboo palm is next up and last on this list of air purifying plants. The bamboo palm is not to be confused with lucky bamboo, which is actually a relative of another plant on this list, the dracaenia plant, or dragon tree. It is best at scrubbing formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and benzene from the environment.
For its watering needs, this plant likes to have moist soil. When watering wait for the top layer of soil to dry out before rewatering and don’t let your plant sit in standing water. This palm does well in low light settings but will grow faster in brighter light. Keep out of direct sunlight. You can use time release fertilizer during the growing season which is spring to fall.
I’m currently looking for a list of beauty and cleaning products that contain formaldehyde, and when I do find one, I’ll be posting it on the community page. For those of you who are as concerned as I am about the contents of the products we use. If you’re ready to make the jump to something more natural, Mrs. Meyers has a ingredient index list that should help guide you in some of your household cleaning and beauty purchases.
As for tools that may come in handy for caring for your new plant friends, it may be beneficial to purchase a small humidifier to help keep your environment just right for some of your moisture loving plants like ferns or weeping fig. It’s also helpful for us humans as well 🙂
Also, a lot of the care information I received was adapted from Gardening Know How as well as The Farmers Almanac. These two sites have loads of helpful advice on how to care for and maintain your plant friends. I also use an app on my phone to remind me when it’s time to water and feed my plants. Vera, from Bloomscape is free and has been indispensable for me to remember when to water and fertilize, as well as other tasks you may need to remember for general plant care. There have been many a plant that have met their end while in my care before I had some assistance, I’m not too proud to say. If you’re like me and need a little help in the remembering department, this app may be worth looking into.
That wraps up my round up (no round-up was used by me during the writing of this post) of air purifying plants. It feels good knowing we can make a difference, however small, by tending to and caring for some green space in our homes. Until next time, be well, happy gardening 🙂 and peace.
Here are some links to some resources on what VOCs are and where they are found. The DOH in New York released this PDF on VOCs and some products they are found in. This post from One Green Planet lists common household items that contain VOCs. And this article from Science News for Students has a rudimentary list of consumer products containing VOCs. I haven’t found specific brands that contain certain VOCs, but when I do I’ll post it on my community page. If you find anything please feel free to share below in the comments section.