Join the Green Party! The amazing health benefits of houseplants

The latest Instagram status symbol, houseplants are having a moment. Not only do they look gorgeous, says Louise Atkinson, they give us amazing health benefits too. Here’s all you need to know about making new fronds (sorry).

The hottest home accessory of the moment? The humble house plant, which has found itself elevated from dull to definitely sexy. It has become aspirational to ‘dress’ your bathroom with jungle creepers, style your living space with indoor trees and arrange tasteful selections of greenery of all shapes, sizes and textures. People are even taking plant ‘shelfies’ to post on Instagram (where #houseplants has been hashtagged over 3.5 million times). But the interior design trend for plant-filled rooms is also hugely supported by a growing belief in the health benefits of indoor greenery.

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I had to cut back so many plants during winter but I’m so glad they are slowly coming back now🌿 As long as they have a healthy root system and adequate conditions they should start growing new leaves easily! Never lose hope when a plant seems to be dead,it might actually just be sleeping 😴 🤷🏻‍♀️ • • • #plantsofinstagram #plantshelfie #houseplantplantclub #plantgang #plantsplantsplants #trailingthingsthursday #homeiswheretheplantsare #plantaholic #livingwithplants #welovehouseplants #rhaphidophoratetrasperma #plantparenthood #thejungalow #ihavethisthingwithplants #planttherapy #botanicalpickmeup #houseplantclub #foliagefriday #indoorjungle #plantsarefriends #housebeautiful #houseplantjournal #plantstyling #interiorrewilding

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Horticulturist Fran Bailey is leading the way with three London plant shops, 36,000 followers on Instagram and a book called The Healing Power of Plants that’s been backed by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). ‘We have a real desire to embrace nature and bring greenery into our homes,’ says Fran. Such is the size of this plant-powered craze that she and five other teams had been invited to create house-plant stands at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show (now moved to next year due to coronavirus; instead you can watch her virtual gardening advice video on the RHS channel on YouTube).

Fran first noticed the trend a few years ago as customers at her flower shop began asking for plants instead – particularly those with perceived health benefits. ‘More and more were enquiring about which varieties are best for cleaning the air and which can help ease anxiety or improve your sleep.’ Scientists argue that you require quite a number in a small area to achieve a positive health impact, but, says Fran, you’re likely to become hooked rapidly and start to gather house plants anyway.

Why houseplants are good for you

They purify the air

Science shows plants can be a great way to improve the quality of air in any room – particularly in a double-glazed or centrally heated office environment – because they absorb carbon dioxide and yield oxygen as part of the natural process of photosynthesis.

At a time when more and more of us are worrying about toxins, it is great to know that plants can actively filter the air we breathe. Scientists at Nasa, keen to identify the best foliage to grace their space stations, have even devised a list of top ‘air-cleaning’ plants. They found some – including the money plant and the spider plant – to be extremely efficient at filtering out everyday pollutants from the air, including harmful toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde and xylene found in some furnishings, DIY and cleaning products and air fresheners.

Plants are also great moisture regulators, says Fran, adding humidity to our often dry, centrally heated homes: ‘Whether the air is dry or your room tends to be damp, the plants will help to balance out the moisture levels.’ Humidity and good indoor air circulation have been shown to help prevent the spread of flu and other types of virus.

They boost your energy

The strategic positioning of a pot plant or two can boost focus. Studies show workers are more productive when their office is filled with greenery. Having plants on your desk can increase productivity by up to 15 per cent, increasing ‘workplace satisfaction’ and self-reported levels of concentration, boosting memory retention by as much as 20 per cent.

They’ll help you sleep

Artfully placed around your bedroom, house plants can be a useful aid to restful slumber. Plant-derived essential oils such as lavender and jasmine have long been popular with insomniacs, but plant-lovers now swear by the oxygenating effects of small cactus-like plants called succulents, especially if you keep one or two in a pot by the bed. That’s because certain varieties of plant – notably those which evolved to endure the extreme heat of desert terrain – reserve their photosynthesising until the evenings and continue pumping out refreshing oxygen throughout the night, when other plants stop. Orchids have the same effect.

Fran Bailey
Plant whisperer Fran Bailey: ‘You get best results if you treat your plants like pets’

They’ll ease stress

Being close to nature has been shown to lower stress levels – even looking at the colour green can reduce feelings of anxiety. ‘Simply looking at and touching plants can lift your mood, and there’s no doubt that being in close proximity to plants can facilitate healing and improve wellbeing,’ says Fran. Studies have even shown that hospital patients tolerate pain better if there are plants on the ward.

Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress. ‘They can have a soothing effect,’ explains nutritionist and botanical medicine expert Rick Hay. In fact, the University of Exeter recently published a study which showed being involved with plants can contribute to an increase in wellbeing.

Dr Siân de Bell, the study’s lead researcher, says: ‘While being able to access an outdoor space such as a garden is important, there could be something extra in that sense of ownership.’

They’ll make you happy

‘There is a lot of talk right now about the psychological benefits of “nurturing” your plants and the joy to be had from caring for something and watching it respond,’ says Fran. ‘People are looking at house plants as a way of connecting with nature by bringing the outside in.’

There is certainly something mindful and even meditative about the process of watering, feeding, spraying, nipping and pruning, and a growing body of science now supports the idea that looking after plants – whether that’s digging a veg patch, fiddling with a window box or lovingly spritzing the ferns in your downstairs loo – is very good for your health.

Anyone can do it!

Even if you’ve got a poor track record in plant care, it’s never too late to turn things around and acquire a few green-fingered skills. ‘Saying you’re rubbish with plants is like saying you can’t cook,’ says Fran. ‘It’s just a question of confidence, and you get the best results – and the best psychological benefits for yourself – if you treat your plant more like a pet than an ornament.’

Whether you find yourself gathering house plants around you in a bid to soak up their health benefits, or just because they make you happy, there’s no doubt this home horticulture craze is growing fast. ‘We have a real desire to embrace nature and bring greenery into our homes,’ says Fran, ‘and once you start, it’s difficult to stop.’

Where to buy houseplants

health benefits of houseplants
‘We have a real desire to embrace nature and bring greenery into our homes,’ says Fran. Image: GAP Interiors/Colin Poole

Along with local garden centres and the likes of Homebase and B&Q, there is a huge range of online delivery services which will drop your chosen house plants right to your door. A good place to start is Patch Plants (patchplants.com), which sends out an extensive care guide with its foliage and has ‘plant doctors’ on call in case you have a vegetation emergency. Or, for a monthly surprise, try Beards & Daisies, which offers a range of subscriptions for its signature plants (from £24.99 per month, beardsanddaisies.co.uk)

10 steps to happy houseplants

health benefits of houseplants
The pretty peace lily could also improve your air quality. Image: S Mcleod
  1. Check (with the shop or online) whether your plant prefers a shady or a sunny spot.
  2. Position your plants away from radiators.
  3. Don’t buy just one – plants prefer to be in groups so they can create a microclimate to protect each other.
  4. Feel the compost around the plant with your fingers each day – if dry, give it some water.
  5. Regularly check your plant for signs of what it might need.
  6. In summer months your plant is more likely to grow or flower, so add plant feed (such as Baby Bio) to the water.
  7. In winter many plants become semi-dormant and require less attention (and water).
  8. Gently wipe off dust with a soft, damp cloth.
  9. If you see roots poking out, it’s time to transfer your plant to a larger pot.
  10. Some plants (eg, money plant, philodendron) are toxic – keep away from children and pets.

Fran’s favourites

Swiss cheese plant 
Getty Images/EyeEm

Swiss cheese plant 

Enjoying a surge in popularity as a big architectural plant for a bright spot near a window. Particularly sought after is the new and rare variegated form, which costs around £300 for a small one, or you can try to grow your own from a cutting (try etsy.com, £85).

Calatheas

Calatheas
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Much admired for its striking leaf markings, it’s suited to a shady room or basement flat.

Ferns

fern
Getty Images/iStockphoto/werayuth

Incredibly hardy all year round and come in a variety of textures and forms with different leaf patterns and shapes. They grow happily in shaded areas and love the humidity of a kitchen or bathroom.

Philodendron

philodendron
Bloomroom Vancouver

This trailing plant will give your house a jungle feel.

How to make your foliage feel at home

The best houseplants for the bedroom

health benefits of houseplantsEcheveria and kalanchoe Succulents that stay small, these sun-lovers should be kept in a bright spot and watered sparingly. They produce oxygen at night rather than through the day, so improve air quality as you sleep.

Orchids Not only do these have the benefit of emitting oxygen at night, they also clear the air of a volatile toxin called xylene, found in some paint and varnishes.

Areca palm If you have space, this will make a great focal point in your bedroom. It acts as a natural humidifier (larger plants can give off up to a litre of moisture a day).

The best houseplants for an office

health benefits of houseplants
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mother-in-law’s tongue (also known as snake plant or sansevieria) This has long, elegantly spiky leaves and is the number one plant for clearing toxins from the air.

ZZ Plant This workplace hero can tolerate a certain amount of neglect (if left unattended over the weekend) and is happy in both shady conditions and bright light.

Ivy This lowers levels of airborne mould as well as calming allergies.

Peace lily A tough and very forgiving plant that could improve air quality by as much as 60 per cent.

Rosemary Great if you have a sunny windowsill, this culinary herb has been shown to improve brain function, boost energy levels and lift mood if you rub a few leaves between your fingers and inhale deeply.

The best houseplants for the bathroom

health benefits of houseplantsFerns such as Boston and Birds Nest. They love the humidity created by the shower and will tolerate the lower light levels if you have frosted glass windows.

Rhipsalis This trailing plant loves humidity and can be hung from a curtain or shower rail to create an outdoor vibe.

Air plants These thrive in a humid atmosphere and can live without the need for compost, so can simply be placed on a sunny windowsill or a small shelf in a bright spot. They’re an excellent choice if you are short on space.

The best houseplants for the kitchen

health benefits of houseplantsString of pearls The perfect plant to hang in the kitchen if you have a south-facing sunny window, as it loves the humidity created by the sink.

Rubber plant  This fast-growing, floor-standing statement plant would work well in a kitchen/diner with space and plenty of light.

Ceropegia (also known as string of hearts) A pretty, delicate little trailing plant that is great for tight spaces. Looks lovely hanging from a narrow shelf.

Fran Bailey’s book The Healing Power of Plants is published by Penguin, price £12.99. You can follow Fran on Instagram @forest_london and buy plants online at forest.london

Additional reporting: Charlotte Vossen