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Indoor jungle: houseplants for the body and mind

Sira Huwiler-Flamm

Lively green potted plants are not only decorative – they are also good for our health, relieve stress and improve interior air quality. The important thing is to make sure that houseplants don’t become a health risk.

A woman is carrying a lush potted plant through a living room that has houseplants in every corner.
© Getty Images/Maskot

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Three positive effects of houseplants

1. They lift the mood

Especially in the cold season, when it’s dark and gray outside, the lush greenery of houseplants is good for the soul. Numerous studies even show that being surrounded by indoor greenery lifts our mood and reduces feelings of stress. “For most of human history, people have lived in and with nature – this ancient bond is deeply anchored in our genes,” explains Christian Kaiser, president of the Swiss association for healthy living and an expert on building biology. “When we take a walk in the forest, we feel very directly that nature is doing us good. Houseplants allow us to bring this invigorating and soothing effect into our homes.”

Scientists at Zurich University of Applied Sciences have also demonstrated by means of a research project in Swiss retirement homes that houseplants can noticeably increase both the job satisfaction of employees and the mood of residents entrusted with plant care. Plants can have a positive influence on our emotional life, especially if we take care of them ourselves, water them, cherish and care for them: every orchid blossom makes us proud, and our inner green thumbs rejoice with every new shoot on the indoor jasmine!

2. They improve the indoor climate

“Humans need oxygen and exhale CO2, while for plants, it’s the other way around – this is a great symbiosis that we should take advantage of,” says Christian Kaiser. As a result, plants have been shown to help improve the indoor climate, keep oxygen levels high and even absorb pollutants. Even after decades, every piece of furniture, every carpet and every building component releases microparticles into the air from paints, adhesives and maintenance products such as formaldehyde, benzene or xylene. “These substances can stress the mucous membranes and weaken our immune system,” the expert explains. The good news is that houseplants such as the Neanthe Bella Palm (Chamaedorea elegans) and money plant or devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) are able to filter some of these microparticles from the air.

A start-up from Zurich has even developed a business model from the benefits of houseplants: Oxygen at Work greens office spaces to improve the indoor climate and atmosphere – and increase the health and productivity of employees. What works in a professional office is just as effective at home – so you should always stock your study with plants. “To ensure optimal air quality, you should install one medium-sized plant per person. Ideally, it should be robust, without allergens and with a lot of leaf mass,” advises gardener and co-founder of the start-up Rita Salathé.

A devil’s ivy plant with large green leaves is in a gray pot on a side table.

With its large leaves, devil’s ivy is one of the houseplants that filters the most pollutants from the air.

3. They lower blood pressure and keep us awake

Even medical data illustrates the positive effects of plants on our health: Japanese researchers showed in a study that the sight of houseplants measurably lowers blood pressure – in a similar way to meditation, it causes our nervous system to enter a state of relaxation. Due to the higher oxygen content in rooms, we also feel tired less quickly when surrounded by indoor plants, can concentrate better, and later find it easier to remember what we have experienced – according to the results of a study by Harvard University.

Three tips: how to make sure plants don’t become a health hazard

1. Prevent mold

Potted plants affect not only the oxygen content of the air, but also the humidity. Green plants can work wonders, especially in winter when dry heating air affects our skin and mucous membranes. But the expert warns: “Too much moisture in the room can also quickly promote mold growth.” Therefore, Kaiser recommends consciously paying attention to individual building components or wall coverings made of clay or lime. “These materials act as moisture buffers in the room, absorbing and releasing moisture as needed.”

2. Look after plants properly to avoid allergens

If plants are not properly cared for, they can also quickly become a health hazard: waterlogging and fallen leaves cause bacteria, yeast and mold to form, which worsen the indoor environment. Mold can often be recognized by a white layer on the soil, but the infestation can also be in the invisible root area. “In the worst-case scenario, the air will become full of allergens that weaken the immune system and trigger allergies such as asthma or chronic rhinitis – that’s why I advise: better no houseplant than a neglected one,” says building biology expert Kaiser. He recommends watering moderately, regularly cleaning dust from the leaves and replacing the soil from time to time. In addition, if the plant can tolerate it, it’s better to use planting balls or expanded clay balls instead of soil.

“In rooms where people sleep, like a bedroom or a child’s room, I generally advise against plants,” Kaiser says. “When we sleep, our organism shuts down, and the immune system is more vulnerable – so you shouldn’t take any chances.” But if you don’t want to go without the sight of fresh greenery, even in the bedroom, there’s some good news: studies show that even looking at pictures of nature dispels stress and anger and contributes to our well-being.

3. Choose the right plants

It’s equally as important to pay careful attention to the choice of plants: some plants cause allergic reactions themselves, such as the popular ficus (Ficus benjamina), the rubber tree (Ficus elastica), the Christ thorn (Euphorbia milii) or the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). This is because the allergen contained in them is similar to the latex allergen. People with a latex allergy in particular should strictly avoid these plants.

There is a rubber tree in a pot on a parquet floor.

The rubber tree is not for allergy sufferers – its sap can cause allergic reactions on the skin and in the mucous membranes.

Plants which don’t require much water, such as cacti and succulents, are more harmless, especially for allergy sufferers and lazy plant owners. They are low maintenance, and mold growth is less likely. As a general rule: “The larger the surface area of the leaves, the better CO2 and pollutants are absorbed and filtered.” Even cacti help to improve air quality thanks to their surface. Greened walls, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, have an even greater impact. Depending on the preferences of homeowners, the living canvases can be filled with plants, mosses, grasses and ground cover varieties – as a DIY project or with the help of a professional.

Conclusion: plants make the home healthier and more attractive

Potted plants, if chosen well and cared for properly, are real health aids for body, mind and soul. But not only that: with their natural shapes and colors – and sometimes lush flowers – they also make a home more cozy and attractive. And the best part is that they match any style of interior. Whether a windowsill full of colorful orchids for flower lovers, a palm tree for people with chronic wanderlust, or a discreet cactus for minimalists – there is a plant to suit every taste.

Plantlady” Miriam Schmid from Lucerne is a real indoor plant lover you can learn a lot from. On Instagram, she shows how beautiful life in a living room jungle can be thanks to lush green pictures. She regularly posts images of tropical potted plants such as Monstera, peace lilies (Spathiphyllum), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia seguine or maculata) and devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) – and gives followers plenty of tips on location preferences, plant care and climbing aids, as well as on advantages and disadvantages. Her conclusion about living surrounded by countless potted plants: “Never feel stressed at home. Never dry skin. Always good air. Always relaxed. Always happy.”

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