Green house effect - how house plants can purify your air
Adding a plant here and there can create a nice aesthetic around the home - and rid your house of chemical pollutants
From my grandmother's point of view, plants belonged in the garden. There was no way she would have brought one into the house. As a result, nobody in the family had any confidence with house plants. We didn't know what to do with them and felt guilty when they died, which they inevitably did.
Then someone gave us a spider plant, on the basis that it was virtually impossible to kill. It started off as a neat bundle of green striped leaves but soon began to produce cute little baby spider plants on long white stems. Within a year, the plant had taken over the kitchen dresser. We called it the triffid. It was a plant that didn't know when to stop.
We didn't know it at the time, but spider plants were one of the subjects of a NASA investigation in the 1980s. The study looked for plants that would clean the air in space stations and, when the first list of air-filtering plants was published in 1989, the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) was close to the top. Later studies showed what worked in space stations also worked on planet Earth.
It's good to surround yourself with green and growing things. House plants - from the tall swaying stems of a kentia palm to the tiniest bijoux cactus - can create a lovely aesthetic. In fact, they work particularly well alongside the current trend for large scale floral prints and big blocks of colour, as seen in Marks & Spencer's Homeware Collection for spring/summer 2016 (main picture).
Plants also make us feel closer to nature. That notion has been with us since the tree-hugging 1960s and it still holds good.
On a more scientific level, houseplants also do their bit in eliminating real household nasties. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are pollutant chemicals that slowly evaporate from furnishings and products within the home: ammonia from cleaning products; formaldehyde from upholstery and synthetic fibre carpets; trichloroethylene from cleaning products, printers and photocopiers; and xylene from paints and adhesives.
Every home has these emissions to a greater or lesser extent. Needless to say, you don't want to be breathing this stuff.
"A single spider plant beside your computer can do so much good," says Fiann Ó Nualláin, author of a number of books on holistic gardening. According to the NASA study, the little triffid is especially good at cleaning up the emissions from printers.
The NASA list of air-cleaning plants also includes several others that you'll find in the local garden centre, like the peace lily (spathiphyllum spp) and the snake plant (sansevieria trifasciata).
"That's a really hardy plant," says Ó Nualláin. "It's often called mother-in-law's tongue, but personally I find that name offensive."
You can pay anything from €12 to €75 for a snake plant, depending on height, but a peace lily can cost as little as €7 from Urban Plant Life. It is also good for humidity control (cheaper than a dehumidifier and a great deal prettier).
Ó Nualláin suggests that you consider placing houseplants in terms of their health benefits as well as the way they look. Dracaenas (D. deremensis, marginata or fragrans), for example, are great at removing toxins from the air and also tolerant of shade.
They'll be happy in dimly lit bedrooms. Christmas cactus (schlumbergera spp), aloe vera and snake plants are also good bedroom plants - they're night time oxygenators and continue to remove carbon dioxide from the air while you sleep.
Tall plants like dracaenas work well in hallways, flourish in low light and represent good value. A 1.5m dracaenas marginta costs €40 from Urban Plant Life.
Or you could go for the cast iron plant (aspidistra elatior), named for its ability to withstand neglect, for just €18. In George Orwell's novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936) the plant was a symbol of suburban respectability: "Behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras… they 'kept themselves respectable' - kept the aspidistra flying."
In 1930s England, one gathers the aspidistra wasn't the trendiest of plants. Now it's back in style along with old-fashioned succulents, cacti and trailing plants like philodendrons.
"It's a bit of a 70s vibe," says Mark Grehan of The Garden in Dublin's Powerscourt Centre. Many of his customers are young apartment-dwellers.
"They want to green the place up a bit," he says. "They don't have a lot of money but they'll come in and buy a little plant for €20 and a nice pot to go with it. Then they'll be back for another one in a few weeks. They kind of get addicted."
Born-again urban gardeners are even growing their vegetables indoors. Some planting schemes, like the wall-hung Vertical Garden (€60 from Design 3000) use a little soil. Others use none at all.
If the word 'hydroponic' puts you in mind of illegal horticulture, remember that it merely means growing plants in water. Anyone who has sprouted beans on the kitchen windowsill has engaged in hydroponics. This year, Ikea introduced the Krydda/Växer series for growing your own indoor hydroponic vegetables. A three-tier starter kit costs €183.
It works all year round and requires nutrients and an LED cultivation light (both included in the starter pack). While this is a very cool idea, it feels a little bit like preparing for the apocalypse.
I'm reminded of the butterfly in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. He wanted to be a flower but ended up as a specimen in the curio chest. He consoled himself that being impaled on a pin was like getting married - one is stuck.
"That is poor consolation," said the potted plants in the parlour.
"But one cannot quite believe the potted plants," thought the butterfly. "They associate too much with people."
For more info, see thegarden.ie, ikea.ie, theholisticgardener.com, design-3000.com, dfs.ie, urbanplantlife.ie, kingstonlaffertydesign.com.