How to Create Fresh Air with Plants

Several years ago, when I still lived in Oxford, England, which has some pretty severe air pollution, I discovered an interesting book about a NASA study by B. C. Wolverton exploring how plants improve indoor air quality.  I have not seen this book for years, but I believe this is it.

clean air with plants

Link to Amazon Page on “How to Grow Fresh Air” book by Wolverton

However, I can say from personal experience that this really does work. One can clean air with plants.

Anyone with allergies, asthma, or even someone in relatively good health, can improve one’s energy level and health by adding particular plants which are especially effective at air cleaning to one’s environment. One can get rid of some headaches, and sinus infections, as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduce the likelihood of catching colds by investing in a few plants so it is well worth it.

For those sensitive to air pollution, an air cleaner is not a bad idea either, and ideally one should have both, but remember that unless the carbon pre-filters are replaced regularly, one’s air will actually be less clean, because toxins will be absorbed and given off eventually. Negative ion creating air cleaners can also help trap and remove dust and other allergens. If one has 1 plant for every 100 square feet per person, one can actually survive in a contained system such as a glass pod or space craft, but luckily that will not be necessary!

clean air with plants

“Space Zucchini” grown with aeroponics. Credit NASA Don Petit

In the original study, efforts were made to find which plants removed benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene; pollutants and carcinogens which are given off by furnishings, office equipment and some building materials. Formaldehyde, for example, the most commonly found toxin, is released by drapes, plywood, tobacco smoke, furniture, adhesives, ceiling tiles, fabrics, facial tissues, paper towels, floor coverings, paints, stain varnishes, upholstery, and much more. Computers and printers especially can also contribute greatly to poor air quality so it is a good idea to place plants on your desk to negate this. Some plants also can remove mold (Peace Lily and English Ivy), bacteria, and even ammonia (Anthurium).

In the NASA study, certain plants proved to be super plants which removed as much as 87 percent of chemical indoor air pollutants within 24 hours. This is a stunning result and you can easily replicate it, or come close to it, in your own home by picking up certain common, inexpensive houseplants.  Some plants are toxic if eaten by people or animals, so you might want to exercise care if this is a possible danger.

Remember not to overwater plants, to clean their leaves from time to time, and to give them some Osmocote (which is very much easier to apply than any other fertilizer) at intervals. A general rule is that narrower leaved plants need more sun, while wider leaved plants need less sun, hence the wider surface area of their leaves and vice versa, so you might want to consider this when deciding where to place a particular plant in your house. If possible, have an alternative set of plants, so you can alternate by taking one set of plants outside every few months, while bringing the others inside. This will keep your air-cleaning plants particularly healthy.

Another thing to bear in mind is, that with the exception of orchids, which are generally potted in bark and charcoal already, which is ok, many of the plants one finds for sale are potted in peat, or in the case of Hawaii, lava rock. While these are good as supplementary planting materials, most plants really do need soil generally. A plant that is in peat and lives in nursery conditions,  watered automatically, many times a day, will survive for quite a while at the store, but will probably soon die when you take it home, because it has no proper soil. It may even look wet on the surface, but have dry roots. For this reason,  it is often a good idea to replant your plant in soil, or mostly soil immediately. Some of the original peat or  volcanic rocks added to the new mix is fine.

For rooms one spends time in during the day, some fine plants to consider for the effective removal of chemical pollutants are the Areca Palm, the Ficus Tree, the Rubber Tree, Dracaena (esp. ‘Warneckii’, ‘Massangeana’, ‘Janet Craig’ and ‘Red-Edged’) Philodendron (esp.“Elephant Ear’, ‘Heartleaf” and Selloum’), Reed Palm, Broadleaf Lady Palm, Chinese Evergreen, Spider Plant, Golden Pothos, Peace Lily, English Ivy, Chrysanthemum, Azalea, Kimberly Queen Fern, Boston Fern, Dwarf Date Palm, Flamingo Lily, Monkey Grass, Dieffenbachia (esp. “Exotica” and “Camilla”), King of Hearts and Lilyturf. In addition to this, more recently, it has been suggested that growing one’s own sprouts indoors (in large trays) is beneficial for oxygenation, but I have no details on the research on this, and one would have to be very fond of eating sprouts!

Most importantly, one does not want to be breathing carbon dioxide at night, so it is key to remember that some plants give off oxygen during the day and carbon dioxide at night, and some do the reverse. For this reason, one needs special bedroom plants which can provide oxygen at night. These include orchids, (esp. Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium which are super night oxygenators), the Snake Plant, the Gerbera Daisy, Cactuses (esp. Christmas and Easter Cactuses), Bromeliads, and Aloe Vera.

clean air with plants

Phalaenopsis in Singapore… This orchid gives off oxygen at night and is beautiful and easy to care for. Photo Credit: Javier Martin

Apart from the other considerations, such as eliminating or reducing sinusitis, allergies, and asthma, many of these plants are attractive, flowering plants with gorgeous and long lasting blooms that will also cheer one up!

Best wishes to all  for good health.

Waes Hael!