Your Houseplants Have Some Powerful Health Benefits

9 minute read

Every morning, I spring out of bed, eager to check on my housemates: Alvin the monstera albo, Allison the other albo, Dominic the philodendron domesticum variegated, and Connie the Thai constellation monstera. Yes, my vegetal friends all have names—which you understand if you’re a plant person, too.

Collecting and caring for houseplants boomed in popularity 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 blossomed on social media, like the #PlantTok corner of TikTok, uniting plant parents and making it easy to swap tips (and mail each other cuttings). The consensus among these enthusiasts: Plants are an accessible, interesting way to make an otherwise drab space more inviting, and there’s a unique thrill to watching them grow.

Plus, there’s a robust body of research indicating they make us happier and healthier. Libby Bolles, a lifelong plant lover, opened Fancy Leaf Plant Co. in Parrish, Fla., in 2021, and she’s passionate about introducing her customers—and her kids—to the joy of plants. “Taking care of plants brings overall health and wellness to your life, and it’s something you can nurture that doesn’t talk back,” she says. “I tell people, ‘Let them bring you life, the way you do to them.’”

Here’s a look at six of houseplants’ most intriguing science-backed benefits.

They may reduce anxiety and stress

Plants are soothing. In one study, researchers asked people to repot a houseplant or complete a short computer-based task, and afterwards, they checked participants’ heart rate and blood pressure. Then the groups switched tasks. After working with plants, people reported feeling comfortable and soothed, and their blood pressure dropped. The computer task, on the other hand, caused them to feel uncomfortable and “artificial,” and was associated with a spike in blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity. The findings 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 our body,” says Melinda Knuth, an assistant professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University. “We hold our stress hormone, cortisol, in our saliva, and we know this is decreased when we’re around plants.”

Even looking at pictures of plants has shown to have a positive impact on stress levels. When patients in a hospital waiting room were exposed to either a real plant, a poster of a plant, or no nature, researchers found that both the real plants and the posters were linked with lower levels of stress.

Plants can sharpen attention

Research suggests visible greenery is restorative and increases the ability to concentrate, including among kids.

In one study, for example, elementary-school students were assigned to a classroom with a fake plant, a real plant, a photo 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 concentration. Additional research found that kids in classrooms with a wall of green plants scored better on tests for selective attention, which means focusing on one particular thing while tuning out irrelevant or distracting information.

Knuth says she has 50 to 60 plants at home, and 45 in her university office, including a variety of philodendrons, such as an imperial red and prince of orange. The supporting research “is one of the reasons I justify having so many,” she says.

They could help patients heal faster

Plants may play a role in speeding up recovery from an illness, injury, or surgery. According to one research review, hospitalized people who had a view of plants or trees were calmer and had better clinical outcomes, including a reduced need for pain medication and a shorter hospital stay, compared to those who didn’t.

“They found that simply looking at plants had some benefits,” says Derrick Stowell, a past president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. As a horticultural therapist, he’s used plants to help a variety of people, including those with mental-health conditions and people recovering from a stroke. For example, someone with a severe brain injury might struggle with impulsivity; horticultural therapy is one way they can practice making choices, like what to plant in their garden. Or a person recovering from substance use disorder who’s trying to improve their nutrition might start growing microgreens. Often, these sessions are held in a community setting, like a public garden, but at the end of treatment, Stowell helps clients figure out how their new skills can be applied at home. “That’s where houseplants and growing plants at home comes in,” he says.

They can increase happiness and life satisfaction

The unofficial motto of the plant-loving community is “plants make people happy.” It’s true: In one experiment, people who spent five to 10 minutes in a room with a few houseplants felt happier than those in a plant-free room. Levels of comfort and positive emotions increase with the duration of exposure to plants, according to one research review; the authors noted that purple and green plants were particularly effective at reducing negative feelings. Spending time around plants is also linked with increased self-esteem and greater life satisfaction.

Plants “give us a little bit of predictability when things are uncertain,” says Gary L. Altman, associate director of the horticultural therapy program at Rutgers. “There’s an evolutionary response when you see green—it’s almost like you created yourself a sanctuary. It reduces feelings of fear and anxiety, and even if you’re angry, it’ll calm you down.”

They might make you more productive

Conveniently, I now have a work-related excuse to buy more plants: Research indicates they boost productivity. One older study found that after plants were added to a windowless computer lab, college students worked 12% faster. Other research focused on employees at a call center, and found that those who had a view of plants made up to 7% more calls per hour than those who couldn’t see any plants. Yet another study found that office workers were 15% more productive after plants were introduced into their workspace.

They can make indoor life a pleasure

There’s good reason interest in houseplants spiked 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 findings “support the idea that exposure to greenery may be a valuable resource during social isolation in the home,” the study authors concluded. They theorized that this was in part because houseplants encourage feelings of “being away” while at home—providing welcome relief during prolonged periods in the same place.

How to get started with houseplants

Every black thumb can be transformed into a green one, experts say. Start by visiting your local garden shop—the workers there can help you figure out which plants will thrive in your house, plus dispense care and feeding tips. (The two most common ways we kill plants? “By over-loving them and under-loving them,” Knuth says.)

If you’re not sure which plant to bring home first, consider one of these options:

Snake plants. This thick-leafed succulent—commonly referred to as mother-in-law’s tongue—is particularly resilient. “You literally cannot kill it,” Bolles says.

Microgreens. Stowell and his family started growing microgreens like broccoli, cabbage, and kale during the pandemic. It only takes about seven days to harvest them, he says. “You can see some immediate success, you get to taste it, and you’re adding nutrients.”

Orchids. Orchids can be slightly tricky to care for—but the payoff is worth it. Certain types smell fragrant, “and for some people, scent is a really uplifting thing,” says Jane Perrone, owner of about 140 houseplants and author of the upcoming book Legends of the Leaf: Unearthing the Secrets to Help Your Plants Thrive. Plus, a flowering plant can be “an amazing spectacle, and it gives you something fun to focus on and observe.”

Spider plants. These plants, which have narrow, cascading leaves, are “underrated,” Perrone says. They’re very easy to propagate, which means lots of people enjoy giving their friends and family baby plants. “That’s a really meaningful experience, and it encourages connection with other people,” she adds.

Peperomia plants. Often called radiator plants because they enjoy warm drafts, peperomia typically have oval, fleshy leaves. Stowell suggests opting for an aesthetically pleasing watermelon peperomia, which, as its name suggests, looks like a melon.

Jade plants. One of the nice things about these succulents is that “if they break or get too big, you can cut them and start new ones very easily,” Altman says. That’s a healthy attitude to carry into plant parenthood in general. Caring for plants “is a bit of an art form,” he says. “Chances are you’re going to kill some plants. That’s part of the learning experience”—and makes every plant you manage to sustain all the more rewarding.

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