There are all kinds of reasons for keeping indoor plants. Aside from the obvious benefits of complimenting the decor with colour and texture, plants naturally provide a variety of environmental and psychological benefits. A 2008 study by Dutch researchers confirmed that plants in hospital rooms reduce patient stress. Researchers have also found that being in the presence of plants improves cognition and can increase memory retention and attention spans by 20 per cent. Not only do they look pretty, but plants are also good for our mental health. And that's not all. They're good for our physical health, too.
A Mediterranean Garden by jayscratch
If it weren't for the mighty photosynthesizers of the plant kingdom, the carbon that makes up animals would be trapped in the atmosphere, and there would be no oxygen for us to breathe. But plants don't just do this work for us outside. Studies by NASA have shown that indoor plants can remove harmful gasses such as formaldehyde and VOCs commonly found in our homes. Plants not only make the air smell nicer, but they also make it healthier. Less stress, cleaner air — the only question is which plants to get.
I contacted Robin Braun, horticulturalist and manager at KJM Country Gardens in Vancouver, to ask what she thought made a good houseplant. "I think what makes a great houseplant depends on what an individual is looking for. For beginners, one that will survive a little trial and error is ideal. Plants such as dracaenas, pothos, and peace lilies are very forgiving and great to learn on." If you're looking to go off the beaten path, I got Robin to share a special rare plant. But you'll have to wait until the end of this post for that one!
The following is not a definite list. There are hundreds of thousands of plants out there, after all. This is a suggestion of some of the easily accessible plants that do well here. Remember: plants are living beings, and they all have different water, sunlight, and nutrient requirements. While growing plants indoors largely isolates them from the outside climate — allowing us to grow plants from beyond our hardiness zone — we need to pick plants suitable for the conditions in our homes and offices. Many popular houseplants come from tropical areas and aren't accustomed to the shorter daylight hours we experience in the winter. This is compensated for somewhat by the artificial light we use indoors and by choosing plants that are somewhat adaptable. Not just any plant from the tropics will grow well in our homes, but there are many that thrive.
Just like in a garden, the placement of plants can make all the difference. Remember that south-facing windows will get the longest exposure to direct sun, while west- and east-facing windows will get morning and evening rays. Plants that are susceptible to cold can be damaged if they are too close to a drafty window in the winter, and shade plants won't be happy roasting in front of a south-facing window all afternoon. Make sure you keep your plants happy, and they'll pay you back tenfold.. As Robin says, "Having houseplants completely changes how you feel in your home. They clean the air and make you happier".
1. Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
Sansevieria trifasciata by Peter A Mansfeld
One of the plants recognized by NASA for its ability to improve air quality, the snake plant is a beautiful and exceedingly tenacious perennial. A member of the asparagus family, it is also called "mother in-law's tongue" for the sharpness of its leaves. Often variegated, the long, stiff leaves are a beautiful brilliant green with stripes like a tiger's. The snake plant produces very peculiar, showy flowers. This is a great beginner plant in that it is considered exceptionally difficult to kill.
Water: With the snake plant, you're more likely to over-water than to under-water. Let the soil dry out before re-watering, and only water every few weeks in winter.
Light: One of the great things about this plant is its adaptability to nearly any light condition. You can place these in pretty much any room. They tolerate direct sun or low light and can be moved onto patios in the summer or kept in the shade year-round. Highly versatile.
2. Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Suspensions chlorophytum comosum variegata by ppiniriste 85
Native to southern Africa, spider plants are among the most popular indoor plants — and with good reason. They are often hung in baskets the show off the long, variegated leaves, which provide an elegant stroke of colour. This is a great low-maintenance plant for the novice horticulturalist. Very adaptable, the spider plant can tolerate temperatures ranging from 2°C to 32°C and is known to propagate easily. In addition to being pretty and easy to maintain, spider plants are excellent air purifiers, highly effective at removing formaldehyde and xylene gas.
Water: While these plants are pretty tough, they need to be watered regularly. Make sure to give them plenty to drink in the summer months. The spider plant is quite forgiving, but if the leaves take on a greyish tinge, you know you need to give them more water.
Light: The spider plant prefers partial shade or indirect light, but it will survive in most light conditions. It doesn't tend to like too much direct sun, which usually isn't a problem indoors.
3. Red-Edged Dracaena (Draceana reflexa)
Getting bigger Draceana reflexa by troy mckaskle
This beautiful little tree is prized for its showy, irregular leaves and for being very easy to care for. One of the plants recommended by Robin, it's a great plant for offices, where it appreciates the constant light and temperature. Like other plants in this list, this draceana was part of NASA's clean air study.
These plants can grow up to three metres, given the right conditions, though it can take some time. More typically, they grow to be one metre. They are quite easy to care for and can take some neglect. Commonly available in striking variegated varieties, they are beautiful plants to bring into any room.
These showy leaves can get a bit out of hand and can use some pruning now and again. The plant will often shed lower leaves. This is normal and doesn't mean your plant is sick.
Water: Don't over-water them! Try to keep the soil moist, but let it dry out a bit in the winter. One of the great advantages of these plants is that they are quite forgiving if you forget to water them now and then.
Light: For maximum vitality, try to give your draceana high levels of indirect light. They don't like too much exposure to direct sun, so placing them near an east- or west-facing window could suit them well.
4. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalus)
Why bother with synthetic air fresheners when you can have one of these lovely smelling herbs? This is a very generous plant, providing a wonderful scent, fresh tasty herbs, and serving as a nice decoration. This plant is not uncommon in gardens, and it makes a good houseplant too.
Long respected for its medicinal properties, rosemary is said to improve memory and alleviate headaches, and it's an antioxidant. It was traditionally associated with weddings, used a symbol of remembrance. Simply touch the plant to release its delicious aroma. Commonly used as a culinary herb, it is a good plant to put in your kitchen.
Water: You're more likely to hurt this Mediterranean plant by over-watering it than by under-watering it. Let the soil begin to dry out before watering.
Light: Rosemary likes light. The more light you can give them, the better. A good windowsill plant.
5. Aloe vera
Aloe Vera Plant by Jonathan Silverberg
This succulent plant is famous for its ability to treat burns and other skin irritations, but did you know it's also a powerful air purifier? This species has been in use as an herbal medicine for possibly thousands of years, and it's known only in cultivation. There are no wild varieties.
A very popular garden plant in warmer climes, aloe is perfectly comfortable as a house plant in Vancouver, preferring temperatures ranging from 21°C to 26°C. There are many varieties available, with various shapes and sizes. Once mature, they produce brilliant summer flowers if grown in proper conditions (without enough sunlight, they won't flower).
You can squeeze the gel out of the leaf once you break a leaf off at the base of the plant. The gel is used as an ingredient in drinks and also for topical relief of skin irritations.
Non e vera by Racchio
Water: This plant is great at holding water. The thick leaves are mostly made up of stored water and will retain that moisture for days, even after being removed from the plant. Try to keep the soil moist (not wet) and your aloe should be fine. It needs less water in the winter.
Light: These plants enjoy light — especially if you hope to see any flowers. Try to give them as much sun as possible.
Cost: $10–$20 (depends on size)
6. Jade (Crassula ovata)
Crassula ovata by candiru
Sometimes called the "money tree," this tenacious plant is thought to bring good luck. This might have something to do with the remarkable ease with which this plant propagates. A fallen leaf or branch can easily grow into a new plant. In fact, this is the jade's primary method of reproduction. Even branches that have been left drying in the sun for days will take root and establish themselves as a new plant if given the chance. If taken care of, this plant can live for decades.
Jade is a great beginner plant for anyone interested in practicing bonsai.
Water: Like all succulents, jade is particularly good at retaining water. This makes it ideal as a house plant because you don't need to water it too much. Be mindful though: like other succulents, jades don't like being over-watered, either. Only water if the soil is dry.
Light: This plant is from South Africa, so it likes to get light. Try to give them as much sun exposure as you can. While they prefer direct sun, they are able to succeed with indirect or even artificial light. Try placing near a south- or west-facing window, but consider moving it someplace warmer during the winter months.
7. Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.)
Spathiphyllum Hybride by Maja Dumat
Originating in the tropics of South America, the peace lily is not truly a lily, though it is quite peaceful. Another of Robin's recommendations, it is recognized as an all-star houseplant for its beauty as well as for its tolerant and forgiving nature. Like the other plants on this list, the peace lily is no freeloader. In exchange for room and board, the peace lily will remove a variety of harmful pollutants from the air, including benzene and ammonia. NASA considers it to be one of the top-ten air cleaners. These plants are great indoor plants, as they enjoy the same temperature as us — about 20°C to 25°C. They tend to die if temperatures drop below 7°C.
Water: One of the best things about this plant is that it will tell you when it needs water. The peace lily will droop slightly when thirsty. Watch for that, and try to water at least once a week.
Light: In the wild, this is an understory plant. That means they are happy in indirect light. Too much light will cause yellowing. Keep out of direct sunlight.
8. Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.)
Pink phalaenopsis Orchid by brewbooks
The moth orchid is one of the more difficult plants on this list to care for, but quite rewarding. Moth orchids are worth the extra work not only because they are so visually stunning and air-cleansing, but also because they are just so weird. These are considered the easiest orchid to grow and are a great plant for someone who wants to get a little more involved.
There are about four times as many species of orchid as there are species of mammal. Like most of them, the moth orchid is a perennial epiphyte. While most plants grow in the soil from whence they draw nutrients and water, orchids anchor themselves to other plants. Because they grow on trees and shrubs, their minimal roots aren't designed to absorb nutrients and they have no rhizome. Rather, they absorb their nutrients from the air.
Understanding that is key to keeping your orchid happy. Their roots need to breathe! These plants are susceptible to root-rot if they are improperly potted. Specialized pots and potting mix are available specifically for orchids. Store-bought orchids often come inappropriately potted, and should be transplanted once they have finished blooming. Don't pot orchids with regular potting mix! They don't necessarily need orchid potting mix, but what they do need is a well-drained substrate. The most important thing is that the roots be able to breathe. Bark or pebbles are often used.
Water: Because of their peculiar lifestyle, orchids want to be able to suck up water without being left damp. Water once a week in the summer. It is critical that the water be allowed to drain out of the soil. Cut back the watering to once or twice a month in the winter. These plants are much more susceptible to over-watering than to under-watering.
Light: These orchids are shade plants that evolved to live in the understory of trees. They are low-light plants and can be burned in direct sun, but they won't flower in insufficient light. Indirect, diffused light is best. An east-facing window that captures the morning sun is an ideal home for a moth orchid!
Cost: $15–$30 (can be more, varies depending on variety)
9. Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)
Ficus Elastica by Tangaraj Kumaravel
Believe it or not, but this popular houseplant is actually a type of fig. Long beloved as a houseplant for its low-maintenance lifestyle and tenacity, the rubber plant is also recognized as an air-purifying plant.
In the wild, this ficus can grow up to 40 metres, with a sweeping canopy and thick trunk. They grow pretty quickly, so you'll probably have to repot them every year until they get to their desired size (restricting the root growth is what stops them from reaching gigantic size). The big, glossy leaves are very attractive and will impart a tropical atmosphere to any room.
Water: While they're pretty forgiving, you'll want to keep your rubber plant moist for maximum health. Try not to let the soil dry out, but don't drench the soil either.
Light: These plants don't particularly like direct sun, but they do require plenty of light. If they aren't getting enough, they will become leggy and the leaves will yellow and eventually fall. Try to place this plant in an area with high exposure to natural light.
10. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)
Nephrolepis exaltata by Forerst and Kim Starr
A genetic mutation discovered in 1894 has granted the Boston fern a distinctive, graceful arch. This tropical fern has a considerably softer aesthetic than many of the hardier ferns we often spy outside in gardens and forests. Curiously, this fern doesn't produce spores.
This fern is popular as a hanging plant, as this tends to show off the unique arch of the fronds. This plant is non-toxic and is safe for owners of curious cats. It's also recognized for its capacity to remove air pollutants.
Water: Hailing from the tropical understory, this fern is a thirsty plant. You need to make sure to water them regularly to keep the soil moist. If you notice yellowing, you need to water more. It's best if you mist the leaves to simulate a humid environment.
Light: Ferns have made a living for themselves living in the shade of trees. They don't particularly like direct sunlight, but they do prefer some indirect light. Hang near an east- or west-facing window, or in a room with plenty of natural light.
Bonus: The Madagascar Jewel (Euphorbia leuconeura)
Euphorbia leuconeura serres by Wikimedia Commons
I asked Robin if she had any tips for more exotic houseplants, and she offered up this gem: the Madagascar Jewel. Like all members of its genus, this rare species of euphorbia produces fascinating dish-like fractal flowers. This was already one of my favourite genuses of plants, but this species takes the cake. While euphorbias have become quite the popular garden plant, I've never seen one with such pretty flowers.
Robin's family have been growing seedlings from their own mother plant for decades. She tells me that they are quite easy to care for, though exceptionally rare. If you're lucky, you might be able to find some of Robin's seedlings at KJM Country Gardens.
In addition to the fractal flowers, these plants have some peculiarities. When the plant flowers, pods burst open shooting seeds in all directions. You can then collect those seeds if you want to grow more Jewels. It's like a second Easter! The other peculiarity is that all members of this genus excrete a toxic sap when cut or damaged that can really irritate the skin. Be cautious!
Water: These are succulent plants, so don't over-water them. Once a week or so should be good in the growing season, and once or twice a month in the winter.
Light: This plant apparently succeeds well in either full or partial shade. Put it where other plants won't go!
Cost: $5–$15, depending on size