The best plants to clean indoor air

October 30, 2015

Growing up, I noticed my mother had a natural affinity with plants. She had about fifty of them, spilling from the house into the garden in mismatched pots. On weekends she’d tend to them lovingly, talking and singing to them, softly and often out of tune. The plants responded by thriving under her care.

So you can imagine my hesitation at introducing plants into my current home. For me, it signaled that I was one step closer to becoming my mother.

But then, one day, whilst researching ways to improve the wellbeing of our daughter Isla, who suffers from allergies, eczema and asthma, I stumbled upon the NASA Clean Air Study.

In the late ’80s, NASA studied houseplants as a means of providing cleaner air for space stations. They compiled a list of the plants most effective at removing contaminants from indoor air, including benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene and ammonia. (Try saying that fast three times!)

And, no, these toxins aren’t confined to the cosmos. They are inconspicuously floating around the homes on planet Earth, too.

Common household items like furnishings, upholstery and cleaning products can emit a variety of toxic compounds, contributing to ‘sick building syndrome’. Yikes! I don’t know what ‘sick building syndrome’ is, but it sounds like something I need to see my GP about.

With this newfound knowledge and Isla’s wellbeing in mind, I began introducing plants into our home. First, the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), the only plant proven to remove all the pollutants tested by NASA.

The Peace Lily is a great introductory plant for brown thumbs like me, because the leaves droop to indicate the plant needs water. (I’ve since learnt this is an indication of plant trauma, so don’t try this at home, folks!)


Next, we welcomed a Warneckei (Dracaena deremensis) to the family. This striking plant has green-and-white-striped, sword-shaped leaves that add bold colour and texture to the home. The plant also removes benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and xylene from the air. Bonus!


When, to my surprise, these two plants didn’t die right away, my confidence grew and I added a Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum) to the family. This was a sentimental one, propagated from a cutting of one of my mother’s plants, still going strong in her garden even though my mother has been gone 15 years. When a spiderette sprouted under my care I almost shed a tear.


Finally, I put a Mother-in-law’s Tongue in each bedroom. (This sounds wrong on so many levels.) Also known as the Snake Plant, it converts carbon dioxide into oxygen at night, so my family can breathe better while we sleep.


Now, picture this: I was watering my plants, dusting the leaves, fertilizing the soil, and whispering sweet nothings, with one-year-old Max on my heels. I turned my back for a moment, and in that split second Max took a fistful of soil and shoved it in his mouth.

So there I was trying to clean the air while Max was eating dirt behind my back.

I rushed to wash Max’s mouth out with water, and then, still in a panic, I called the Poisons Information Centre (13 11 26, just FYI). I explained my poor parenting moment to the very sweet lady who took my call. I think I made sense, but it’s possible that all I said was, “baby, fertilizer, mouth, help!” She calmly explained that there wouldn’t be enough fertilizer in the soil to cause any harm to Max other than a sore tummy and runny poo. Phew. I might have imagined it, but I thought I heard a chuckle before she hung up the line.

Now, with six plants and three children in the house, I think I’ll take a break from adopting another living thing that depends on my care – for a while, anyway. But, incase you’re wondering, here is a link to the NASA-approved best plants to clean indoor air.


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