I don’t need to remind anyone just how much of a winter this winter has been. But it’s worth remembering that buttoning up our homes in defense means the air inside them is getting pretty stale if not polluted at this point. Yes, we could open the windows to help our families breathe easier. But here’s a solution that doesn’t involve frostbite…
It starts, strangely enough, in outer space. During the Skylab 3 mission in the 1970s, NASA scientists realized the high-tech materials they’d used to build humanity’s first off-world outpost were slowly filling the space station with harmful fumes. Some 300 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were building up in Skylab’s air.
On the moon base that was then under consideration, that would be a deal-breaker. After all, it’s one thing to breathe bad air for a few weeks in orbit but quite another to live with it for months or years as the long-term resident of another world upon which opening up the window to let in some fresh air is not an option.
Faced with this conundrum, NASA wondered if plants might be the answer to bad moon base air because on Earth, they essentially act as planetary air purifiers. So scientists built a test chamber, filled it with houseplants, flooded it with pollution, and waited. In short order, they had their answer: the plants had demonstrated air purifying potential. And that’s not all. It turns out that potted plants also produce water vapor that helps humidify indoor air.  Back on planet earth we can harness the power of plants for our own living spaces.
When it comes to houseplants as air purifiers, however, the science shows that some work harder than others. Here are your top 20 best bets in order of effectiveness:
1. Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata Bostoniensis) – the #1 plant in overall purifying performance.
2. Areca palm (Chyrsalidocarpus lutescens)
3. Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)
4. Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
5. Rubber plant (Ficus robusta)
6. Dracaena Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis)
7. English Ivy (Hedera helix)
8. Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)
9. Ficus alii (Ficus macleilandii alii)
10. Peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.)
11. Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans Massangeana)
12. Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
13. Kimberly queen fern (Nephrolepis obliterata)
14. Florists mum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
15. Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
16. Dracaena warneckei (Dracaena deremensis warneckei)
17. Dragon tree (Dracaena marginata)
18. Schefflera (Brassaia actinophylla)
19. Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
20. Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)
Remember that while houseplants excel at removing VOCs and other gaseous compounds from indoor air, they won’t clean up indoor air hazards like particulates, dust, and radon. Still, though your mileage may vary, a home filled with plants will generally enjoy cleaner air than the home without. The key word here is “filled”—a handful of potted plants on a windowsill won’t cut it. Instead, NASA researchers found that one potted plant per 100 square feet of space was needed to create a healthier environment, a small price to pay for air purification that works this hard and looks this good doing it. Now that is the true power of plants.
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!