Friday, August 2, 2013

Houseplants ... and how they clean the air

     My houseplants have needed transplanting for quite some time. Honestly ... I am embarrassed to admit many of them have been in the same pots for, umm ... years. Yikes! I water them, so I'm not that bad, right? Who am I kidding? I have been neglectful - and I am sorry.
     During a recent week off from work, I bit the bullet ... no, I grabbed the shovel and decided I must take the time to do the dirty deed. Over the course of two afternoons - apparently I like to take my time. :-) - I hauled them out one by one and transplanted them under the shade of the apple trees in the back yard.
     After giving 20 of my 35 houseplants a new pot to live in with fresh dirt and water, I quit - only because I ran out of potting soil and was too lazy to run to the store to buy more. It's OK, though, the other 15 were re-potted not that long ago, so they are not quite ready to be transplanted. I will purchase more potting soil on the way home from work one of these days so I will be prepared when those plants are ready for a new home - uh, pot.
     And since I was transplanting them, I may as well clean the leaves right? You bet! I meticulously wiped each plant's leaves with a clean wet cloth, which made me think of the days when I slathered mayonnaise on the leaves and wiped it off, leaving a beautiful shine. Was that really a good idea? Probably not - and, needless to say, I only did that a few times before discovering a spray-on product that made the leaves sparkle. I am sure that product in the long run was not good for the plants either.
     Oops! Getting off track. I will not diverge the amount of time I spent cleaning the leaves, partly because I didn't keep track :-), but considering how long it took me to transplant, it was hours and hours. 
     The roots were a tangled mess. How could I let that happen? I carefully untangled the roots and trimmed them. One plant's roots were at least 18 inches long. Poor things. They were circled around the inside of the pot with nowhere to go.
     Afterward, I gave each one a shower with the garden hose. Oh, how they loved that. I should have taken pictures, but that never crossed my mind. 
     I love houseplants - and yes, I know I need to take better care of them. Besides the ones at home, I have 18 in my work space at the newspaper. They add character to a room - or to a work area. :-) Their shapes can be a perfect compliment to a piece of furniture or fill a void.
     But most importantly is what they can do for the indoor air quality of our homes. I have a clipping on the bulletin board in our home office titled "Plants That Clean the Air." It is from the March 1993 issue of "Success" magazine. No, that is not a typo. It is from March 1993 - I've been hanging on to that for more than 20 years!
   The lead-in to the lists of plants reads like this:
    "According to Haworth Inc., you don't need an expensive machine to cure your office of 'sick building' air. The noxious chemicals that accumulate in a workplace can be absorbed the same way most smog gets cleaned up - by green plants. The following is a list of plants and the toxins they're best at absorbing:"
     Oh, by the way,  Haworth Inc. "designs and manufactures adaptable workspaces, including raised floors, movable walls, systems furniture, seating, storage and wood casegoods," according to Wikipedia.
     I did a quick search on the Internet for the 10 best plants to clean the air and came up with tons of good information, most notably from the Mother Nature Network, English Gardens, This Old House, Sustainable Baby Steps, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Naturopathic Thoughts.
'Dracaena deremnsis'
     Dr. B.C. "Bill" Wolverton, an environmental scientist working in the late 1960s with the U.S. military to clean up environmental disasters left by biological warfare centers discovered at a test center in Florida that swamp plants "were actually elmininating Agent Orange, which had entered the local waters through government testing near Eglin Air Force base," states the website.
     He spent two decades doing studies discovering  "which plants could remove toxic chemicals from the air for use in space stations," notes
     The top plants on his list are mass cane (dracaena massangeana), pot mum (Chrysantheum morifolium), Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonil), warnecki (dracaena deremnsis "warneckei") and the ficus (ficus benjamina)

     And here is what is on the magazine clipping:
     TOXINS AND THEIR SOURCES                                             PLANTS THAT EAT THEM
     Formaldyde - foam insulation, plywood, particle                    Boston fern, chrysanthemum,
     board, pressed wood products, grocery bags, waxed            Janet Craig dracaena, areca
     papers, facial tissues, paper towels, water repellents,            palm, ficus benjamina, peace
     fire retardants, cigarette smoke, natural gas, kerosene,         lily and corn plant.
     and adhesive binders in floor coverings. 

     Xylene - solvents, lacquers, dyes and rubber cement.           dwarf date palm, dracaena
                                                                                                        marginata, corn plant and                                                                                                                       peace lily.

     Benzene - inks, oils, plastics, rubber, dyes                             bamboo palm, snake plant,
                                                                                                        English ivy, warnecki, Janet                                                                                                                   Craig, chrysantheum,                                                                                                     gerbera
                                                                                                        daisy, dracaena marginata and
                                                                                                        peace lily.

     Trichloroethylene - metal degreasing agents,                      Gerbera daisy, peace lily,         
     dry-cleaned fabrics, printing inks, paints, lacquers,                 warneckei, chrysanthemum,
     varnishes and adhesives.                                                         dracaena marginata and
                                                                                                       bamboo palm.

Spider Plant
     The Mother Nature Netwok at recommends the peace lily, golden pothos, English ivy, chrysanthemum morifolium, Gerbera daisy, mother-in-law's tongue (snake plant), bamboo plant, azalea, red-edged dracaena and the spider plant.
     The areca palm, raphis palm, bamboo palm, rubber plant, Janet Craig, English ivy, pothos, ficus alil, Boston fern and peace lily are the recommendations from
     And at, the recommendations are aloe vera, areca palm, baby rubber plant, bamboo palm (aka reed palm), Boston fern, Chinese evergreen, mass cane (aka corn cane), dwarf/pygmy date palm, English ivy, ficus alil, Gerbera daisy, golden pothos, Janet Craig, lady palm, Kimberly Queen fern, dracaena marginata (aka Dragon tree), moth orchid, chrysanthemums, peace lily, philodendron, snake plant schefflera (aka umbrella tree), spider plant, warneckei and the weeping fig (aka ficus tree).
    I am happy to report we have several of the recommended plants throughout our house, including the peace lily, spider plant, bamboo, rubber plant, golden pothos, snake plant and dracaena.

     English ivy, lacy palm, Boston fern, snake plant, golden pothos, wax begonia, red-edged dracaena and the spider plant are the plants of choice at,
     Dr. Wolverton recommends placing as many plants as you can take care of in the rooms you use the most - at least two plants in 10- to 12-inch pots per 100 square feet of space.
    During a remodel, use more plants and, do not over water them. If the dirt is too wet, mold can grow on the dirt and on the plants.

English Ivy
    English ivy is a hearty, climbing vine. It thrives in small spaces and does well in rooms that don't have many windows and/or little sunlight. Its foliage absorbs formaldehyde, commonly found in wood floor board resins and synthetic carpet dyes.
    The peace lily can adapt to low light. It requires weekly watering and it is poisonous to pets, so keep it away from your animals' feeding areas. Our cats have not tried to eat the leaves, so that's a good thing.
Lady Palm
   This plant "rids the air of the VOC benzene, a carcinogen found in paints, furniture wax and polishes," notes And, it sucks up acetone, which can be found in fingernail polish remover. Acetone can be discharged from electronics, adhesives and some cleaners. Check the ingredient list on your favorite cleaner. I'm thinking I need to make my own natural cleaners from here on out.
    The lady palm is easy to grow, notes the site, but might take a while for it to shoot up. It has fan-like leaves that "add charm to any spot." The plant targets ammonia, which is hard on the respiratory system and can be found in cleaners, woven cloth or fabric, and dyes.
    The Boston fern is considered one of the most efficient air purifiers. I have never had much luck growing Boston ferns, though I have tried.
   One time, Safeway had huge ones on sale for $6 each, so I bought two. They were beautiful with their bright green, feather-like leaves and curved fronds.
    We have four windows (each about 36 inches wide and 48 or so inches tall) that go across the front of our living room. Two more are sideways from those, giving the area where the couch sits a feeling of a "bump-out." Anyway ... I placed one on each side of the couch. They were gorgeous - for about a month and then they started dying. I thought it was me ... well, it was me, but Boston ferns can be hard to grow because they need constant moisture and humidity. I tried spraying them, but ... it wasn't enough.
    The fern is another plant that removes that nasty formaldehyde. And, according to, some studies have shown the Boston fern can remove toxic metals, such as mercury and arsenic, from soil.
Snake plant
   The snake plant - or mother-in-law's tongue - has long, pointy leaves. It thrives in low light and during the nighttime, it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. This is the reverse of what most plants do.
   The site suggests putting a couple of them in the bedroom for a "slight oxygen boost while you sleep." Ours is in a corner of the kitchen near the stove.
Golden pothos on a support
    The fast-growing golden pothos vine "has a reputation for flexibility" notes the website. It can be planted in a hanging basket, in a pot with something in it to help it stand up or you can train it to climb on a trellis.
    We have several of these around the house, two which are in the bathroom. Ours hang.
    The site notes that it tackles formaldehyde, like many other vines, but it also tackles carbon monoxide and benzene. It is suggested to put one in the utility room or entryway where car exhaust fumes - which are laden with formaldehyde - can filter inside from the garage. We happen to have two nearby the door that goes between the house and garage along with a couple on top of the refrigerator.
    Next on the site is the wax begonia. I love these and had not thought to have some in the house. These plants require lots of sun. It is a semi-woody succulent - which I did not know - that produces lovely clusters of flat pink, red or white flowers during the summer months.
   Apparently, it is a good filterer of benzene and chemicals produced by toluene, which can be found in some waxes and adhesives, according to a University of Georgia study.
  The red-edged dracaena grows slowly, but can get up to 15 feet tall. It requires moderate sunlight. Gases released by formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and xylene will be taken care of by this plant. Those gases can come from lacquers, sealers and varnishes.
     The site recommends placing a spider plant on a pedestal or in a hanging basket close to a sunny window. This plant also is a good one for people who don't have a "green thumb." It reproduces fast. It has long, grassy-like leaves and hanging stems which will sprout little plantlets that look similar to a spider.
   Well ... now that I've had my lesson for the day, I think it's time to buy some more houseplants. 


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