Indoor Plants Help Clean the Air

Spider Plants are great for filtering indoor air pollution

Many people are drawn to the aroma of a new car, a recently varnished cabinet in all its unscratched glory, or “spring fresh”- scented cleaners. We may revel in newness and hygiene, but the smells associated with “fresh and clean” are often due to toxins in a variety of household products. When released into the air, these chemicals become indoor air pollution and have been linked to a variety of illnesses, including nausea, asthma, cancer, and neurological, developmental, and reproductive disorders.

While it’s impossible to eliminate them completely, you can reduce levels by choosing products with fewer toxins, and growing indoor plants to filter some of the harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) out of the air. If this seems like horticultural hocus-pocus, worry not; indoor plants have proven their worth in many scientific studies that tested some of the most common VOCs such as formaldehyde (paper products), benzene and toluene (plastics, detergents, glue), and ammonia (cleaners, fertilizers).

To get the most out of your indoor plants’ filtration benefits, it helps to know a few factoids. One of the most important things to know is that the foliage has only a secondary role in the removal of undesirable compounds. Most of the action happens in the soil, called the “potted plant microcosm” by researchers, where VOCs are metabolized into harmless byproducts. Carbon monoxide is also taken up by soil bacteria for their metabolic processes, and by plants to stimulate root growth and seed germination.

Unfortunately for those who lack a green thumb, your dead plant coffins (pots of soil with deceased plants) will not keep this microcosm alive. Plants and soil microbes have a mutually beneficial relationship in which plants provide sugars for soil microbes; microbes, in turn, help plants access more nutrients and water.

Another fact to consider is that some plant-microbe teams are better than others at VOC reduction. Examples of great air-cleansers include Boston Fern (Nephrolepis obliterata), Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Purple Heart Plant (Tradescantia Pallida), Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens), and Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica). NASA’s list of clean air plants, created after their seminal research of the late 1980s, is easily found with an internet search and provides more plant ideas.

On the flip side to this biofiltration boon, some potted plant microcosms actually emit VOCs as well. Soil bacteria is responsible for some, so plant selection can help. However, most come from cultural practices, which the plant guardian has more control over. Selecting plant species whose needs match your home environment will prevent a lot of problems, as keeping them healthy will be easier. If necessary, use horticultural oils instead of toxic pesticides to deal with pests. Feed with organic fertilizers instead of synthetics; better yet, choose plants with lower fertilizer needs, and place them outside, if possible, when it’s time to feed so that some of the VOCs are gone when the plant is brought back indoors (some plants do not like being moved, so do your homework first). Choosing clay or ceramic over plastic containers can further reduce VOC emissions.

For more information on caring for indoor plants, check out the SJ County Master Gardener website at If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112.


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