Think of Houseplants as Winter Indoor Air Cleaners

Alaskans have always had a different view of things, and that includes houseplants. There are many of us who still have cuttings from grandmother’s plants (or some other Outside relative) that we grow, because they have become our connection to family left behind. Others grow houseplants given to them by departing friends or purchased because they are a reminder of “home” — Outside.

We grow houseplants, too, because we need them during the long winter. Not only do they mentally help us through the long winter, they also clean the air indoors. Those studies NASA did in the ’80s that showed certain houseplants removed toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde and ammonia from the air, apply even more now that conservation has resulted in airtight homes that don’t refresh the indoor air like our old, leaky ones did.

According to NASA, 15 to 18 houseplants in containers 6 to 8 inches in diameter can really improve the air you breathe. Best of all, there are lots of familiar plants on the list of recommendations from NASA. As you would expect, all have good leaf area. What you might not suspect is all are extremely easy to grow. How easy? Well Spathiphyllum easy. These are more commonly known as peace lilies, and they are so indestructible and easy to maintain you find them in shopping malls and dark restaurants. If you have air you want to clean but are afraid of killing plants, these are for you.

How about the familiar Boston fern? It turns out to be the top remover of formaldehyde from the air. Not bad for a plant that is really essentially a “just-keep-watered” fast-growing plant that is extremely easy to maintain, easy to find locally and inexpensive. Also easy to grow are English ivies, or Hedera helix. More than one reference suggests these take in airborne molds, up to 60 percent in one test. Again, this is an easy plant to find and maintain, and it will quickly produce cuttings for new plants.

If it is new plants you want, then the common spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) should be on your list. These thrive in hard-to-reach display windows of dry cleaners and old-fashioned barber shops and are known for removing nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. These are easy plants to grow too.

What Alaska home or office couldn’t support a few Ficus robusta, more familiarly known as rubber plants? Their broad, leather leaves support populations of bacteria that increase as the plant grows. These work with the ficus to help remove significant amounts of toxins.

The list of effective plants includes other easy-to-grow plants. The so-called mother-in-law tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), also known as the snake plant, gets high marks, as does the heart leaf philodendron. In fact, lots of philodendrons were studied and were shown to be useful, particularly for clearing out formaldehyde. Even the ever-present Ficus benjamina is useful, as are dwarf bananas.

Some plants work better on some chemicals and in different concentrations. Those flowering chrysanthemums available this time of year do the best job on cancer-causing benzene. Obviously, NASA was looking for plants that were easy to care for on long space flights. Philodendrons, snake plants and the like fit the bill. In short, a good mixture of plants throughout your home, probably any kind of plant, is going to provide you with a health benefit you don’t normally consider when you think of houseplants.

Of course, the untold kicker in these studies is that the plants are growing. Growing — as in doing well and photosynthesizing to their content. In the winter in Alaska, that means you must have lights (did you see it coming?) to really benefit. It’s another reason to get some wattage, folks.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by calling 274-5297 during “The Garden Party” radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.

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  1. I have several plants in my home in Michigan for this purpose – you don’t have to live in Alaska to benefit from these beautiful plants. Great information!

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