We all know the basic premise: Plants transform carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis, creating healthy, breathable air outdoors and in. What may be less known is plants' capacity to eliminate air pollution from our indoor living spaces. Even just the addition of one of these easy-to-care-for plants will help keep your indoor air sparkling clean — especially in the winter when windows stay shuttered in many parts of the country. Or double down to increase the efficiency of these hard-working toxin killers and beautify your home in the process. Win, win, and win.
The circulation of harmful gases — formaldehyde, benzene and other volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, pesticides, and loads more — in enclosed spaces can create problematic allergic reactions, headaches, and much worse.
But there's hope. According to the first NASA study conducted by Dr. B. C. Wolverton, "Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement," and later the NASA Clean Air Study, increasing plant life in your living space will help rid your home of potentially toxic airborne chemicals, making your indoor environment squeaky clean.
Below is a list of some of our favorites from the NASA study, along with the best conditions for growing them. All of these plants are intended for indoor growth and are relatively easy to care for.
1. English Ivy
Regal and hearty, English Ivy is a top reducer of benzene and formaldehyde, as well as xylene, which when inhaled can cause dizziness and vomiting. English Ivy is easy to grow and prefers to be in medium-sunlight areas. Stake English Ivy to train it to climb up indoor topiaries, or allow these stately vines to cascade down from bookshelves or tabletops. Water enough to keep the soil moist and not dry. Make sure to keep this guy out of reach of cats and dogs and other four-legged friends, as English Ivy is toxic to them.
2. Rubber Plant (Ficus Elastica)
The leaves of this plant are shiny, shapely, and large, making it an ideal statement piece in the household. This plant specifically targets formaldehyde. Place it in bright, indirect light and make sure not to overwater — the most common mistake for this easy-care plant. Watering once a week should be sufficient, or whenever the top layer of soil feels dry to the touch. Make sure that the pot has ample drainage holes at the bottom to ensure overwatering doesn't occur.
3. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum 'Mauna Loa')
One of the most forgiving plants (perhaps the root of its peace-loving demeanor), the Peace Lily is a great starter plant for those uninitiated folks just beginning to get their thumbs green. This plant prefers indirect light, making it perfect for apartments with low natural light. Growers of the Peace Lily often say that this communicative plant will tell you when it is time to water: when its generous leaves get a little droopy, water abundantly. It will reward you with semi-fast growth and bountiful clean air.
4. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea Seifrizii)
This tropical plant thrives in bright, indirect light and will grow quickly, so it is wise to replant it soon after it makes its first appearance in your home. Water when the top layer of soil feels dry, but do not overwater or allow the plant to sit in water. When purchasing this plant, make sure to look out for dark green leaves without any sign of brown. Although easy to grow, the Bamboo Palm is difficult to recover once signs of wilt set in, so make sure to buy a healthy plant from the start.
5. Aloe Vera
This wonderful houseplant serves almost endless functions. At 95 percent water, its juicy gel can be a curative ointment to kitchen burns, bug bites, and minor scrapes, as it relieves the initial sting and has a cooling effect on the skin. It also possesses major air-scrubbing capacity. Like most succulents, Aloe can withstand some periods of dryness and prefers bright light. Allow the top layer of soil of the Aloe plant to intermittently dry out and then soak it in water.
6. Florist's Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum Morfolium)
A rare flowering plant to the list, this mum (also known as a pot mum) has a tremendous transpiration rate, meaning it can quickly dispense with icky indoor air, including airborne ammonia. It can also make the air smell better. Water up to twice a week, feed fertilizer once a month, and keep in bright sun to ensure that this colorful household favorite keeps kicking out the O2.
7. Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia Camilla)
Not so much dumb as it is easy, this plant is a snap to care for and ranks high on Dr. Wolverton’s list of helpful plants. Make sure it has plenty of bright, direct light and is kept in an environment above 65°F. Allow it to dry out between waterings and this "simple" plant will give you ample air to breathe.
For a complete list of these magical plants, check out Dr. Wolverton’s book, How to Grow Fresh Air.
(Image credits: Abbye Churchill)