Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
November, 2009
Regional Report

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Houseplants not only make us happy but healthy, too.

Houseplants for Health

Winter certainly has its own beauty, but as almost any gardener will attest to, there's nothing like surrounding yourself indoors with green, growing, even flowering, plants during this time. So, if for no other reason, we grow houseplants for our mental health. But there are reasons to have them for our physical health as well. Houseplants are able to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the polluted air of our homes.

Because modern homes are fairly well sealed, airborne contaminants released within such home dissipate much slower than in "leaky" homes or than the contaminants would dissipate outdoors. Many consumer products found around the house, such as cleansers and disinfectants, paints, wood preservatives, carpets, dry-cleaned clothing, aerosol sprays, moth repellents, and air fresheners all emit VOCs. These may contribute to "sick building syndrome," allergic sensitization, asthmatic symptoms, and other health problems. Eliminating as many of the above contaminants as possible plus low temperatures and humidity and increased ventilation help the indoor environment. Plus, you have your houseplants!

But some houseplants are better than others, as discovered by researchers at the University of Georgia and reported in the August, 2009, edition of HortScience, the publication of the American Society of Horticultural Science. The researchers measured the remove by various ornamental plants of five volatile organic chemicals that are common indoor air pollutants: benzene, toluene, octane, tricholoroethylene (TCE), and alpha-pinene. Of the twenty-seven plants tests, those showing superior removal efficiency included Hemigraphis alternata, Hedera helix, Tradescantia pallida, and Hoya carnosa.

So what are these plants and would you want to grow them?

Red Ivy
Known commonly as red ivy, metallic plant, metal leaf, and red flame ivy, Hemigraphis alternata, which may also be listed as Hemigraphis colorata, is a tropical plant native to Malaysia, Java, and India. It is a ground-hugging plant growing 6 to 9 inches tall and does well in hanging baskets. The oval, toothed, and puckered leaves are up to 3 inches long and are the origin of the plant's common name as they are a metallic silvery gray-green above and reddish-purple beneath. Red ivy produces tiny white flowers, but red ivy is mainly grown for the foliage. Red ivy is not bothered much by pests and tolerates average household conditions, but it does benefit from the potting soil being kept evenly moist and misting with warm water.

English Ivy
The ubiquitous English ivy, common and often cursed evergreen ground cover and climbing garden plant, may find its higher calling as an air-cleaning houseplant. Of course, it makes a great hanging basket, but this is also a great excuse to have some ivy topiaries. And there are dozens of beautifully variegated forms to choose, all of which grow relatively easily in a wide range of indoor conditions. Keep the soil barely moist.

Purple Heart
Whether labeled as Tradescantia pallida or Setcresia purpurea, this Mexican tropical native is colorful and almost indestructible. Four- to 6-inch long, narrow dusty-purple leaves clasp thick, floppy stems that lushly trail over the sides of pots. A bonus are the occasional tiny pink flowers. Pinch back the stems as needed to maintain plant size and shape and to stimulate new growth. There are no serious insect and disease problem with this tough, easy-to-grow plants. Let the soil become moderately dry between waterings. Purple heart is also becoming popular as a ground cover in annual beds outdoors.

Wax Plant
Hoya carnosa is another tropical vining plant, this time with thick, waxy leaves and occasional clusters of beautiful star-shaped flowers. Let the trailing stems hang down or train them up a trellis. Very easy to grow, keep plants moist between thorough waterings. When the plant flowers, don%t pick off the little stub from which the blooms came, as it will probably flower again from that same protuberance.

Others Houseplants To Consider
The houseplants from the research that showed intermediate efficiency at removing VOCs included Ficus benjamina, Polyscias fruiticosa, Fittonia argyroneura, Sansevieria trifasciata, Guzmania species, Anthurium andreanum, and Schefflera elegantissima. While you don't have to discard any houseplants that are not on this list, this is a great excuse to add to your collection.

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