Clearing the air

Sunday, 11 May 2014

My new potted Spathiphyllum

Despite that fact that my love affair with gardening was ignited by a humble spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) growing in a teapot on the kitchen table of a share flat in Glebe in 1977, I have always had an uneasy relationship with houseplants. They have never done that well for me. I tend to neglect them. I am terrified when people ask me to diagnose what is wrong with their houseplants, as they present me with a dusty, desiccated fishbone fern in a pot. 'Too much water? Or maybe not enough?' I stutter, utterly bewildered, and try to change the subject.

Gerbera: these can be grown in bright light in pots indoors

However, this past week saw me actually purchase a houseplant to place in our bedroom. The refurbishment of a walk-in wardrobe, using a melamine-clad chipboard, reminded me that I had read somewhere, years ago, that an indoor plant can absorb the unhealthy 'volatile organic compounds' contained in this and other building materials, as well as paints and carpet. A bit of googling revealed that this finding was from NASA's research in the late 1980s, when they looked at how houseplants could remove the high level of these compounds in their model spacecraft. Plants recommended for use by them in this way in the home included the peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Dracaena species, mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), the good old spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), English ivy (Hedera helix) and even florist's chrysanthemums and Gerbera (both needing bright sunny positions indoors)!

In 2002, Australian research demonstrated that it was actually the microorganisms in the potting mix itself that absorbed the volatile organic compounds, with the plant's role being to sustain these microorganisms. Maybe some plants are better at doing this than others? Just three potted plants in an average-sized office will apparently reduce airborne volatile organic compounds to a very low level, so I figured I only needed one plant for the bedroom.

Chlorophytum comosum, the spider plant

I bought a peace lily (one of NASA's top performers), and am vowing to look after it properly. My problem with houseplants has been that I saw them as a different breed of plant altogether from outdoor plants - whereas in fact, they all obviously come from outdoors somewhere in the world! Their needs are like other plants and we should make sure they have sufficient water (depending on the particular plant species), the correct amount of light and sufficient fertiliser to meet their needs; and to ensure they are repotted every year or so. Misting the plant regularly will help improve its ambient humidity, and they should be kept away from radiators and air-conditioning ducts. Like other household objects, they also need regular dusting - never my strong point!

Florists chrysanthemum Little Bob

It is also worth experimenting outdoors with growing plants sold as houseplants. Many are from semitropical regions will grow quite well on a verandah or in the ground in a protected area in the Sydney climate. Released from their pots, they will flourish. Even giving an indoor plant a stint outside in a shady place every now and again seems a kind thing to do. I feel rather sorry for plants destined to live inside but with what they can do to improve the air in our homes, I feel honour-bound to look after my new potted friend; and for those without a garden, they are the way to connect with nature - as research shows that just looking at plants can lift our spirits. If you received a potted florist's chrysanthemum for Mother's Day, you can enjoy not only its pretty flowers but appreciate what it is doing for the air quality inside your house and your wellbeing!

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 12 May 2014

    For many years I had indoor plants, but I tended to neglect them, so I decided they were not for me. However, I knew they had beneficial qualities, and, on reading your blog, I have been spurred to give them another try. A spathyphyllum, and maybe even an aspidistra, will soon grace some rooms, in the hope they will look after me, and, in turn, I pledge to look after them! Good luck, Margaret. We can remind each other to look after them! Deirdre

  • By therese 2119 Monday, 12 May 2014

    Thanks for your reminder Deidre.....my son & pregnant wife are about to start work on a reno...will definitely alert them to this week"s blog! Thanks, Therese. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 12 May 2014

    I like to keep plants indoors for the same reasons. Though I remember (1970"s) my mother in law, having a mother in law plant on top of the fridge and growing well,and she would often comment that it would clean the air. My mother on the other hand would say "don"t give me chrysanthemums" as they are only used in some parts of Europe as a flower for funerals. I thought they were old wives tales, or were they! Maidenhair, happy plants and cast iron plants have grown well here in this home. Your mother-in-law was ahead of her time, by the sound of it. I have also heard that chrysanthemums are for funerals, in Italy at least. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 12 May 2014

    Think I"ll stick to outdoor plants and big bunches of flowers, BUT I"m quite interested in the concept of "garden walls". I heard Patrick Blanc speak about his flat in Paris with a wall of indoor plants. It was fabulous. Yes I too am interested in garden walls. I didn"t know they could be done inside but it does sound amazing. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 12 May 2014

    Great reminder thank Deidre! I must go and fish something out of the garden for just the purpose you mention if I can still find what I have in mind. Although I haven"t been out in the garden for a good while and it is such a jungle that it is best viewed at a distance rather than close up :-( Best wishes and thank you again for you "pause for thought". Hope you can find something to bring inside. Deirdre

  • By Christine 2429 Tuesday, 13 May 2014

    I had a macrozamia (palm like with long fronds,not the shorter thicker common one)as a houseplant for 15 years inside,very little care, in darkish places. Now planted in garden,happy to be released I think, as it is now over 1.5m tall. Was a great indoor plant, a little water now and then and a polish (dust off) of leaves only care given - was so easy care. Sounds a good one to grow indoors. Deirdre

  • By Trudi 4223 Sunday, 18 May 2014

    Thank you very much for accepting me. You have got fantastic information on plants. Such dedication is wonderful to see. thank you very much and kind regards. Happy gardening. My blog http://titania-lavenderandvanilla.blogspot.com.au/ Thanks, Trudi! Deirdre

  • By Elaine 2073 Monday, 26 May 2014

    Fifteen years ago my neighbour planted an unwanted houseplant in his back garden alongside the boundary fence. Today it is a fifteen metre tree whose tubular white flowers perfume the late summer evenings and in early autumn the long seed pods provide a feast for the parrots. He thinks it is a Queensland (rain forest?) native. I must see if I can find it in my tree book and discover for how long it"s likely to continue putting on a metre a year! You hae raised a good point - the potential danger of planting "houseplants" outdoors in the garden. Many are huge monsters when unleashed ... Though the flowers on that one sound very pretty. Deirdre

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