All houseplants improve health and wellbeing, but different characteristics draw out different benefits.
Psychologist and Bloombox Club founder, Dr. Katie Cooper, has drawn on a range of research to map out the seven ways plants benefit us, and what to look for when picking houseplants.
This post will help you find the best plants for your needs - whether you’re looking for air-purifying plants, plants that help you cope with stress, or plants that help create a comfortable home environment.
Dust: Best plants for collecting debris
You may have heard people complain about houseplants for attracting dust - but they aren’t producing this debris; they’re keeping it isolated to one place. Indoor plants are a great way of keeping dust away from surfaces, and (more importantly) your lungs. When dust builds up, simply take a cloth and gently wipe down your green friend, ensuring easy breathing for both of you!
Some plants are better equipped for dust-trapping than others. Look for plants with a textured or waxy leaf surface, and plants with a broad surface area, as airborne impurities will cling to them.
Transpiring: Best plants for humidity
Lots of indoor plants come from tropical environments like rain forests, which means they’re adapted to humid conditions.
Rain-forest dwellers love humidity - if they’re kept misted or on a pebble tray they’ll perspire and act as natural humidifiers in your home. In turn, this can help to relieve respiratory complaints (such as dry sinuses, coughs and viral symptoms) and skin ailments (such as psoriasis and dryness).
Purifying: Best plants for clean air
As they photosynthesise, plants help filter VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the air. We associate VOCs with cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes, but they are also found in common household cleaning products and aerosols. VOCs negatively impact our respiratory health, nose, mouth, eyes and throat, and are strongly associated with asthma and repressed immunity in children.
You can find out our top 5 air-purifying plants here.
There’s been some debate over the efficacy of the air-purifying benefits of indoor plants, but studies continue to come out in favour of their effectiveness - especially in sealed environments like skyrise offices and apartments.
Read our summary of NASA’s research on air-purifying plants here.
Form: Plants which help you feel calm
Houseplants - and nature as a whole - help us feel relaxed, and alleviate the body’s response to stress, but there are certain forms which do this best.
Backed by empirical research, evolutionary psychologists have deduced that top-heavy plants an evolutionary response that induces feelings of calm and safety.
For our nomadic ancestors on the Savannah, gaging whether an environment was habitable was a matter of instinct as well as deduction. Areas rich with diversity, and trees with broad overhanging canopies would trigger physiological mechanisms in the brain, indicating the place was hospitable (so theorists say).
Echoes of this remain in our consciousness today, so when in environments with top-heavy plants and trees, we feel relaxed and protected.
Colour: Plants for vitality
Another evolutionary trigger identified by psychologists is the colour green, which has an enlivening effect on us.
Green is strongly associated with health and vitality, which is why it’s often used in hospital settings. Filling your home with lush, bright green plants like the Calathea orbifolia or Green Sweetheart plant.
Pattern: Plants for relaxation and productivity
Fractal patterns in nature restore our cognitive capabilities by attracting our attention without draining it (sometimes called our ‘alpha response’).
Fractal patterns are continuous patterns that could repeat infinitely - you’ve probably seen them in contemporary art paintings (they’re the ones that make you feel dizzy!).But it’s only naturally occurring fractals that have a positive effect on us. Studies show that the human eye is particularly attuned to deal with fractal patterns of a certain dimensional range (Wise and Taylor 2002). And more recently, a paper published in the Journal of Life Sciences confirmed that fractal patterns in nature trigger our ‘alpha response’:a relaxed yet wakeful state (Hagerhall et al., 2015).
When in this state, our minds get relief from the overstimulating effects of laptops and blue screen tech and allow us to focus on specific tasks. Plants with fractal patterns include many calatheas, with the Orbifolia being a prime example, as well as the Spiral Cactus and Echeveria succulents.
Extent: Plants which help you feel grounded
All plants are living things, but there are some that register as particularly ‘alive,’ whether that’s because they grow quickly or move throughout the day according to circadian rhythms.
For example, Calatheas (aka prayer plants) open their leaves with the sun, and close them over at dusk. It's thought that having these plants in your bedroom can help your body prepare for sleep.
And vigorous growers like the trailing Marble Queen Pothos will push their way over bookcases and around banisters so quickly, you'll almost see them move!
It’s with these plants that we feel most compatible. They’re more likely to trigger our nurturing instincts, and they remind us that we too are part of the natural world. This is a feeling that humans tend to get at the top of mountains or in the midst of untouched woodlands, but it can also occur when we build a relationship with a specific plant.
When we are reminded of our small presence in the wider ecosystem, our daily stresses about work and status begin to lose their significance. We are given a new sense of perspective which helps us tackle challenges without being overwhelmed by them.
Boost: Plants that help you look after yourself
One of the ways plant care can improve our mental health is through teaching us how to take better care of ourselves.
In essence, when people nurture their plant collection, they start to apply that nurturing energy to themselves. It’s a subtle process, and not one you’ll necessarily be aware of; but it has proven useful in mental health treatment, and was used successfully by Katie in her therapeutic practice.
Engaging with plants can include anything from dusting your plant’s foliage, to closely monitoring its growth, to repotting it in nutrient-rich soil. So the best plants to do this with like a little extra attention, such as the Vanilla Orchid or plants which like regular misting (Calatheas, Elephant Ears, Tradescantia).
As caring for plants becomes habitual, we are more likely to apply care to ourselves; to other people, and to the environment. If this sound tenuous, neurological studies have shown that plant care can support grey matter in the brain, which is linked to emotion, decision making and self-control.
Connect: Building a mutually nurturing relationship with nature
We also engage with plants via our senses. Monitoring a plant’s health by touch and sight is another way to reinforce the benefits outlined above.
Some plants draw us to interact with them more than others. You probably wouldn’t want to run your hands over a cactus or a Snake Plant, but plants like the Philodendron squamiferum, Velvet Leaf Philodendron and Dumb Cane dieffenbachia invite touch by virtue of their pleasantly textured leaves.
Produce: Plants that boost your self-confidence
Seeing the direct impact of caring for a living thing can make us feel more in control of our lives - something psychologists call ‘self-mastery.’ It can also help us feel confident, and capable of tackling the bigger challenges in our lives.
Again, we can achieve this with all plants, but varieties which produce fruit and flowers give us concrete proof of our nurturing efforts. And trust us, if you can get a Linear Hanging Hoya to produce flowers or a Vanilla Orchid to sprout pods, you’ll feel pretty damn proud of yourself!