Dakota Gardener: Houseplants for health and wellness

Esther McGinnis, Horticulturist
North Dakota State University Extension

In the winter evenings, my family and I stay in our small sitting room surrounded by houseplants.

Thanksgiving cactus, snake plant, ivy, fiddle leaf fig, calatheas and Chinese evergreen adorn the room.

The downstairs family room is much nicer with a bigger TV and a fireplace. However, something about the tropical jungle vibes attracts us to the small sitting room. Science shows why my family and I are drawn to this cozy area.

Research shows that houseplants can play a role in health and wellness. Studies show that viewing common houseplants can make us feel more relaxed physically and psychologically.

The exact mechanism isn’t understood, but we possibly feel connected to nature by seeing plants indoors. This can be a great restorative benefit for individuals who live in cold, snowy climates.

Plants can make our homes feel more comfortable during winter when the furnace dries the air. Placing several large plants in a small room can raise the humidity to more comfortable levels.

Houseplants can affect our perceptions of a room and make it seem more comfortable, fresh and clean.

These effects extend to the classroom. A study from a junior high school in Taiwan shows that students perceive a classroom with multiple houseplants to be more welcoming. Even more amazingly, the same study documented fewer instances of student punishment for misbehavior and absences on account of illness. Unfortunately, plants in the classroom did not increase test scores.

At the college level, instructor evaluations were higher in plant-filled classrooms. College students rated the classes as stimulating and reported their interest in the subject matter increased.

On a positive note, the students scored the instructor higher for enthusiasm and clearness of instruction. The effects of houseplants on evaluations were most noticeable for college classes taught in rooms that lacked windows.

In the workplace, placing houseplants in a windowless room can increase productivity, lower blood pressure and increase concentration on computer tasks. Another study documented lower levels of fatigue in workplace environments that incorporate plants.

Research projects that study the effect of plants on hospital patients are most impressive. Two studies from 2008 and 2009 evaluated the effects of multiple foliage plants and flowers on patients recovering from appendectomies and thyroid surgery. Both types of surgeries have a standard protocol that made comparison easier between the group of patients who received eight to 12 small plants versus the control group, who received no plants.

In reviewing patient records, the researchers in both studies found that the surgical patients recovered faster in the presence of plants. These patients also took fewer and milder pain relievers, reported less pain and fatigue and were shown to have lower blood pressure.

These initial studies show that indoor plants can have a profound effect on our health and mental well-being in specific circumstances. The one thing we can count on is that more research will be conducted in this interesting area in the future. In the meantime, try an experiment of your own by incorporating houseplants into your interior environment.

Calatheas have interesting patterns on their foliage.