Last year the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) commissioned a study into the benefits of houseplants. Tijana Blanusa, principal horticultural scientist at the RHS, discovered that they are beneficial for your skin because as they lose water through their leaves, levels of moisture in the air increase. Plants could also help with allergies as they trap dust and particles from indoor air.
Indoor plants don’t just look great, thus helping our psychological wellbeing, but they also improve our physical health. According to the RHS, indoor plants can alleviate breathing problems by creating superior indoor air quality, to reduce blood pressure and, in one cited study, to reduce fatigue and headaches by up to 24 per cent. Imagine a windowless office with a desk and a computer and little else. Imagine it again with a desk, a computer and a half a dozen houseplants. We might not be able to see the improved air quality, but bringing the outdoors in is always a good pick-me-up.
In other words, biophilia matters. The more we stare at screens, the more important our connection to nature becomes. Over time, we have designed our living spaces in ways that alienate us from nature, particularly those of us who live in urban spaces. Designers and architects are now looking at ways to include biophilic design in their work by using natural materials, natural light and, of course, vegetation. All ways of bringing the natural world into the built environment.
A 2012 report called The Economics of Biophilia concluded that the benefits of biophilic design include 11 per cent gains in productivity from fresh air, 23 per cent improvement in productivity from good lighting and access to views and up to 25 per cent better functioning memory when workers have outside views.
Biophilic living means living in a healthy home. We all know that aromatherapy oils eliminate stale smells, but Japanese studies show that organic forest pine or cedar tree oils have rare phytoncides or forest vitamins that can boost the immune system. Indirect biophilia such as large-format images of natural landscapes such as a savannah, forest or mountain can actually deliver many of the same stress-reducing benefits of being outside. Matching those images with natural products such as wood, stone, bamboo, leather or cotton in your home help to create an organic environment that references nature.
Which takes us back to houseplants. Invest in the right ones and you aren’t just referencing nature, you are living with it. And, in doing so, you will quickly reap the well-researched benefits. The good news is that there are myriad air-purifying plants. Everyone has probably owned a spider plant at some point in their life. It’s hardy and adds moisture to the air, so is one of the plants that will benefit skin quality. Other houseplants with a high transpiration rate include the peace lily, the areca palm and the rubber plant.
Back in 1989, NASA did a study called “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement”. In the introduction, it explains how buildings in the 1970s were ‘being designed to maximise energy efficiency to help alleviate spiralling energy costs’. As a result, there was less fresh air and people began to complain of itchy eyes, skin rashes, headaches and drowsiness – all symptoms of “sick building syndrome”.
The report recommended using plants to redress the balance: ‘If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s support system.’ Its list of the best air-purifying indoor plants is still quoted: Devil’s ivy (harder to kill than keep alive); dwarf date palm (likes partial shade); the trusty peace lily (undemanding); philodendron (heart-shaped leaves good at removing formaldehyde); rubber plants (can grow inside or outside, in pots or in the ground); Boston fern (a thirsty plant which needs misting regularly) and the pineapple plant (more recently, NASA suggested it boosts the air quality to such an extent that it alleviates snoring).
Good plant nurseries always hire staff who can give proper advice on plants for the office, home, balcony or small garden, but for those pushed for time, mail-order websites such as Patch promise ‘Urban jungles, delivered’. Or invest in a book such as Plant Love, by The Guardian’s Alys Fowler. Fowler advises what to grow in a basement flat (fittonia albivenis or mosaic plant), in a central-heated room (the spiky haworthia) or a bathroom (Delta maidenhead fern).
Finally, as the world’s insect population is in such swift decline, bring more of the natural world into your outdoor space with a wooden insect hotel or a bee palace. They will love, among many other plants, yarrow, lavender and lobelia. Choose wisely and the good insects will eat the ‘bad’ ones that munch at plants, thereby giving you organic pest control courtesy of Mother Nature.