Clearing the air

Sunday, 11 May 2014

My new potted Spathiphyllum

Despite that fact that my love affair with gardening was ignited by a humble spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) growing in a teapot on the kitchen table of a share flat in Glebe in 1977, I have always had an uneasy relationship with houseplants. They have never done that well for me. I tend to neglect them. I am terrified when people ask me to diagnose what is wrong with their houseplants, as they present me with a dusty, desiccated fishbone fern in a pot. 'Too much water? Or maybe not enough?' I stutter, utterly bewildered, and try to change the subject.

Gerbera: these can be grown in bright light in pots indoors

However, this past week saw me actually purchase a houseplant to place in our bedroom. The refurbishment of a walk-in wardrobe, using a melamine-clad chipboard, reminded me that I had read somewhere, years ago, that an indoor plant can absorb the unhealthy 'volatile organic compounds' contained in this and other building materials, as well as paints and carpet. A bit of googling revealed that this finding was from NASA's research in the late 1980s, when they looked at how houseplants could remove the high level of these compounds in their model spacecraft. Plants recommended for use by them in this way in the home included the peace lily (Spathiphyllum), Dracaena species, mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), the good old spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), English ivy (Hedera helix) and even florist's chrysanthemums and Gerbera (both needing bright sunny positions indoors)!

In 2002, Australian research demonstrated that it was actually the microorganisms in the potting mix itself that absorbed the volatile organic compounds, with the plant's role being to sustain these microorganisms. Maybe some plants are better at doing this than others? Just three potted plants in an average-sized office will apparently reduce airborne volatile organic compounds to a very low level, so I figured I only needed one plant for the bedroom.

Chlorophytum comosum, the spider plant

I bought a peace lily (one of NASA's top performers), and am vowing to look after it properly. My problem with houseplants has been that I saw them as a different breed of plant altogether from outdoor plants - whereas in fact, they all obviously come from outdoors somewhere in the world! Their needs are like other plants and we should make sure they have sufficient water (depending on the particular plant species), the correct amount of light and sufficient fertiliser to meet their needs; and to ensure they are repotted every year or so. Misting the plant regularly will help improve its ambient humidity, and they should be kept away from radiators and air-conditioning ducts. Like other household objects, they also need regular dusting - never my strong point!

Florists chrysanthemum Little Bob

It is also worth experimenting outdoors with growing plants sold as houseplants. Many are from semitropical regions will grow quite well on a verandah or in the ground in a protected area in the Sydney climate. Released from their pots, they will flourish. Even giving an indoor plant a stint outside in a shady place every now and again seems a kind thing to do. I feel rather sorry for plants destined to live inside but with what they can do to improve the air in our homes, I feel honour-bound to look after my new potted friend; and for those without a garden, they are the way to connect with nature - as research shows that just looking at plants can lift our spirits. If you received a potted florist's chrysanthemum for Mother's Day, you can enjoy not only its pretty flowers but appreciate what it is doing for the air quality inside your house and your wellbeing!