The popularity of collecting and caring for houseplants has boomed during the pandemic, especially among younger adults who often don’t have abundant outdoor space. Americans spent $8.5 billion more on gardening-related items in 2020 than in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Vibrant communities have flourished on social media, like TikTok’s #PlantTok corner, uniting plant parents and making it easier to swap tips (and mail each other cuttings). The consensus among these enthusiasts: Plants are an accessible and interesting way to make a dull space more inviting, and there’s a unique thrill to watching them grow.
Plus, there’s a strong body of research suggesting that it makes us happier and healthier. Libby Bowles, a lifelong plant lover, opened Fancy Leaf Plant Co. Based in Parrish, Florida in 2021, she is passionate about introducing her clients — and her children — to the joys of plants. “Taking care of plants brings overall health and wellness to your life, and it’s something you can nurture that doesn’t give you back,” she says. “I tell people: ‘Let them give you life, the same way you give them life.’”
Here’s a look at six of the most interesting, science-backed benefits of houseplants.
May reduce anxiety and stress
Plants are soothing. In one study, researchers asked people to replant a houseplant or complete a short computer-based task, and then, they checked the participants’ heart rates and blood pressure. The groups then switched tasks. After working with plants, people reported feeling relaxed and calm, and their blood pressure lowered. On the other hand, the computer task caused them to feel uncomfortable and “artificial,” and was associated with higher blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity. The results suggest that “indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress,” the study authors concluded.
“We see a clear connection with the fact that being around plants improves cortisol levels in the body,” says Melinda Knuth, assistant professor of horticultural sciences at North Carolina State University. “We retain the stress hormone, cortisol, in our saliva, and we know that this hormone decreases when we are near plants.”
Even looking at pictures of plants has been shown to have a positive effect on stress levels. When patients in a hospital waiting room were exposed to either a real plant, a plant poster, or no nature, researchers found that both the real plants and the posters were associated with lower levels of stress.
Plants can sharpen attention
Research suggests that visible green spaces are beneficial and increase the ability to concentrate, including among children.
In one study, for example, elementary school students were assigned to a classroom with a fake plant, a real plant, a picture of a plant, or no plant. Brain scans revealed that only those who spent time in the company of a real plant experienced improvements in attention and focus. Additional research found that children in classrooms with a wall of green plants scored better on tests of selective attention, which means focusing on one particular thing while ignoring irrelevant or distracting information.
Knuth says she has 50 to 60 plants in her home, and 45 in her university office, including a variety of philodendrons, such as imperial red and prince of orange. The supporting research, she says, “is one of the reasons I believe there are so many of them.”
They can help patients recover faster
Plants may play a role in speeding recovery from illness, injury, or surgery. According to one research review, people in the hospital who had a view of plants or trees were calmer and had better clinical outcomes, including a reduced need for painkillers and shorter hospital stays, compared to those who did not.
“They found that just looking at plants had some benefits,” says Derek Stowell, former president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. As a horticultural therapist, he has used plants to help a variety of people, including people with mental health conditions and people recovering from stroke. For example, a person with a severe brain injury may experience impulsivity; Horticultural therapy is one way they can practice making choices, such as what to plant in their garden. Or a person recovering from a substance use disorder and trying to improve their nutrition might start growing microgreens. Often, these sessions are held in a community setting, such as a community park, but at the end of therapy, Stowell helps clients figure out how to apply their new skills at home. “This is where houseplants and home growing plants come in,” he says.
They can increase happiness and life satisfaction
The unofficial motto of the plant-loving community is “Plants make people happy.” That’s right: In one experiment, people who spent five to 10 minutes in a room with few houseplants felt happier than those who spent a room devoid of plants. Comfort levels and positive feelings increase with duration of exposure to plants, according to one study; The researchers noted that purple and green plants were particularly effective in reducing negative emotions. Spending time around plants is also linked to increased self-esteem and greater life satisfaction.
Plants “give us a little bit of predictability when things are uncertain,” says Gary Altman, associate director of the Horticultural Therapy Program at Rutgers. “There’s an evolutionary response when you see green – it’s as if you’ve created a sanctuary for yourself. It reduces feelings of fear and anxiety, and even if you’re angry, it will calm you down.
It may make you more productive
Conveniently, I now have a work-related excuse to buy more plants: Research suggests they boost productivity. One old study found that after adding plants to a windowless computer lab, college students worked 12% faster. Other research focused on employees in a call center and found that those with a view of plants made 7% more calls per hour than those who couldn’t see any plants. Another study found that office workers became 15% more productive after introducing plants into their workplace.
They can make indoor life fun
There’s good reason interest in houseplants has surged during the pandemic. According to the results of one study conducted during stay-at-home orders in Bulgaria, people who had houseplants or a garden experienced fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who did not. The results “support the idea that exposure to greenery may be a valuable resource during social isolation at home,” the study authors concluded. They hypothesize that this is partly because houseplants encourage feelings of “being away” while in the home, providing welcome respite during long periods in the same place.
How to start with houseplants
Experts say that every black thumb can be turned into a green thumb. Start by visiting your local gardening store, where workers can help you figure out which plants will thrive in your home, as well as provide care and feeding tips. (The two most common ways to kill plants are “over-loving them and under-loving them,” Knuth says.)
If you’re not sure which plant to bring home first, consider one of the following options:
Snake plants. This thick-leaved succulent plant—commonly referred to as mother-in-law’s tongue—is particularly resilient. “You literally can’t kill her,” Paul says.
Microgreens. Stowell and his family began growing microgreens like broccoli, cabbage and kale during the pandemic. He says it only takes about seven days to harvest them. “You can see some immediate success, taste it, and add nutrients to it.”
fruit garden. Caring for orchids can be a little difficult, but the payoff is worth it. Some species have a fragrant scent, “and for some people, the scent is really uplifting,” says Jane Perrone, owner of About 140 Houseplants and author of the upcoming book. Leaf Myths: Revealing the Secrets to Help Your Plants Thrive. Additionally, flowering plants can be “a wonderful sight, giving you something fun to focus on and observe.”
Spider plants. These plants, with narrow, cascading leaves, are underappreciated, Perrone says. They are very easy to propagate, which means that many people enjoy giving their friends and family little plants. “It’s a really meaningful experience that encourages connection with others,” she adds.
Peperomia plants. Often called radiator plants because they enjoy warm currents, peperomia usually have fleshy, oval leaves. Stowell suggests choosing aesthetically pleasing watermelon peperomia, which, as the name suggests, looks like a watermelon.
Jade plants. One of the nice things about these succulents is that “if they break or get too big, you can cut them back and start new plants very easily,” Altman says. That’s a healthy attitude to take in plant parenting in general. Plant care, he says, “is kind of an art.” “You’ll probably kill some plants. “That’s part of the learning experience” — and it makes every plant you manage to maintain that much more rewarding.
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