Houseplants that go beyond just decor

Stress overload is all-too-familiar to many people in this industrialized, technologically-advanced society. When the pressure escalates to the breaking point, many people find it necessary to sit back, close their eyes, and retreat to their "happy place." Oftentimes, this happy place is a vast meadow of bright, blooming wildflowers, a tropical deserted island surrounded by crystal blue-green water, or some other sacred spot where nature entices man with tranquility.

"I think that humans grew up in nature," said Walter Reeves, radio and television's Georgia Gardener. "I think there is a part of our brain that likes to be surrounded by green things."

But it doesn't take imagination to surround oneself with fair foliage. Nature can be brought indoors with houseplants, which also bring a multitude of other benefits.

Reeves said houseplants provide plenty of mental health benefits because they bring about a state of calmness.

This basic need may be the key employers are searching for to increase efficiency among employees. A Washington State study showed that participants reported feeling more attentive and were actually more productive and less stressed when plants were incorporated into their windowless office space.

But it's not just the workplace where people feel more at ease in the presence of plants. Hospital patients recover faster, are less stressed and have lower blood pressure when they are given a nature scene window view versus a cityscape, according to research by Texas A&M University professor Roger Ulrich.

In addition to psychological solace, indoor plants keep good health in check, another study found. By placing plants indoors, sore throat, fatigue and other cold-related ailments are reduced by 30 percent because the plants increase humidity levels and decrease dust, according to a study by the University of Agriculture in Norway.

Gwinnett County Extension Service agriculture/horticulture program assistant Marlene Gillman said houseplants can actually clean the indoor air. She cited studies by NASA's former senior research scientist, Bill Wolverton, who determined that indoor plants in closed, controlled environments removed low level pollutants through their foliage and roots. Through photosynthesis and evapotranspiration, which are natural plant processes, air is filtered through the plant, cleaned, cooled and released back into the environment.

"Philodendron, spider plant and the golden pothos were labeled the most effective in removing formaldehyde molecules," Gillman said. "Flowering plants such as gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums were rated superior in removing benzene from the chamber atmosphere."

But to get the job done, it's going to take more than placing a couple of plants around the home or office, she said.

"NASA studies suggested that the use of 15 to 18 plants in at least 6- to 8-inch-diameter pots will improve the air quality in an average 1,800- square-foot home," Gillman said.

Plant placement is also crucial to the survival of these air-cleaning comfort creatures.

"The number one problem with houseplants, assuming we remember to water and fertilizer, is light," said Mike Butler, co-owner of Bloomin Designs Nursery in Auburn. "Determining if a spot is low light or gets direct sunlight and selecting an appropriate plant is critical to performance and success."

And depending on the amount of light each room of the house receives, plants can be coordinated to specific rooms.

For the living room area, Nancy Wallace, co-owner of Grassroots Girls in Suwanee, suggested Eugenia topiaries and English ivy.

"Topiaries can be groomed into multiple ball configurations," Wallace explained. "The narrow, upright habit of this plant is perfect for side tables or fireplace mantles, creating a nice vertical element."

When it comes to smaller areas of the home, such as the bathroom, Wallace suggested Parlor Palms and orchids, which have compact growth habits and appreciate humid environments.

For the kitchen, think culinary herbal gardens planted in window boxes, and for the bedroom, try placing a pot of fragrant lavender, which is known for its sleep-inducing qualities.