A quick scroll through Instagram will tell you just how trendy indoor foliage has become. All those ficuses and ferns didn’t gain popularity just because they’re nice to look at, though.

People lined their windowsills with greenery in increasing numbers after NASA released a series of studies dating back to the late ’80s, stating that indoor plants could purify the air. Wolverton BC, et al. (1989). Interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf

Sadly, it seems there was a little wishful thinking going on back then. Researchers now say you’d need 680 plants in a 1,500-square-foot home for the foliage to truly go to battle against toxins. German J, et al. (2018). Critical review: How well do plants perform as indoor air cleaners. https://www.buildingecology.com/download/critical-review-how-well-do-house-plants-perform-as-indoor-air-cleaners/

But indoor plants have other air-boosting and health benefits that you don’t have to create a wall-to-wall jungle to enjoy. Even a modest amount of foliage might enhance indoor air quality. So why not add a few easy-care plants to your living space?

Whether sleeping, binging Netflix, or working in an office, we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And that time spent inside exposes us to indoor air pollution.

Causes of indoor air pollution

You probably don’t think of your coffee table as emitting gasses, but if it’s made of particleboard, it does. The paint on the walls and the upholstery on the furniture are just some of the other items in a home or office that release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like formaldehyde.

Levels of VOCs are typically two to five times higher inside than outside. We’re all exposed to some amount of indoor air pollution, and it’s likely not causing issues. But, in some cases, when ventilation is bad, or for people who may be highly sensitive, it can make you feel sick.

Headaches, nausea, and fatigue are some of the symptoms, and it’s sometimes called “sick building syndrome.”

Although it would take filling your home or office with ridiculously massive amounts of foliage to impact VOC levels, indoor plants can still improve your air quality.

Indoor plants can

  • reduce irritation to eyes, ears, nose and throat
  • prevent or ease coughing and congestion
  • lower your stress
  • boost your attention capacity

Purifying indoor plants reduce levels of CO2 and increase relative humidity. Gubb C, et al. (2018). Can houseplants improve indoor air quality by removing CO2 and reducing relative humidity. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11869-018-0618-9 In other words, they help get rid of stale air and act as a natural humidifier, which can prevent or ease irritation to your eyes, nose, throat, and even lungs.

Beyond improving air quality, foliage just makes people feel better. Interacting with your indoor plants can reduce stress, for example. Lee M, et al. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8

That doesn’t mean you have to chat up your aloe vera — unless you want to. We’d never judge. Repotting, pruning, or watering your air-purifying indoor plants will do the trick.

Similarly, just by being in the room with you, that ficus can help you maintain focus when you’re slogging through a tough task like a school paper or a report for work. Raanaas RK, et al. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting: DIO: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.11.005]. Place a few pots on your desk to boost your workplace happiness

Although houseplants may be intimidating to those who don’t have a green thumb or who fear commitment, many plants are easy to care for — so easy, in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard to kill them.

Each kind has its own favorite environmental conditions, so look for a tag that comes with the plant or search online to find out how much sunlight and water it will need. We’ve pulled together a list of nine virtually indestructible plants.

1. Garden Mum

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Popular and inexpensive at garden stores in the fall, mums have beautiful blooms. These perennials are also great for plant interaction, since they’ll occasionally require some deadheading (the pinching off of spent flowers).

Display them in a cool spot with less than 10 hours of sunlight. These plants are toxic to pets if eaten, so keep them out of reach. You can plant them outside in spring once the danger of frost is gone.

2. Spider Plant

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Spider plants are among the easiest air-purifying indoor plants to grow, making them a great choice for beginners or forgetful owners. Fans of bright, indirect sunlight, spider plants will send out shoots with flowers that eventually grow into baby spider plants or spiderettes.

You can place the babies in their own pot of soil while still attached to the mother plant. Then snip them off once rooted. Give them to your friends or increase the plant life around your own space.

3. Dracaena

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There are more than 40 different kinds of Draceana plants, making it easy to find one that’s a perfect fit for your home or office. Pet owners might want to select a different plant, however, as these are toxic to cats and dogs when consumed.

Draceana plants often grow to three feet tall so they require larger pots and more space. They like to be misted rather than watered.

4. Ficus/Weeping Fig

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The ficus is a tree in its native lands of southeast Asia and parts of Australia. When it grows indoors, it’s a hardy plant that can eventually reach 10 feet. Grow this low-maintenance beauty in bright, indirect light, and allow the soil to dry out between waterings.

When the temps are well above freezing, this houseplant can also be taken outside to spruce up your porch or patio.

5. Peace Lily

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Peace lily plants are relatively small compared to many of the plants on this list, so they’re ideal for compact spaces. Put peace lilies in a shady spot and keep the soil moist without overwatering. Easy to grow, these plants will flower for much of the summer.

Just be aware that peace lilies do contribute some pollen and floral scents to the air.

6. Boston Fern

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These plants prefer to clean the air from a cool location with high humidity and indirect light. They’re relatively easy to grow, but they do need to stay moist. Check your Boston fern’s soil daily to see if it needs water and give it a good soak once per month.

7. Snake Plant/Mother-in-Law’s Tongue

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This is one of the hardest houseplants to kill. Although it does need to be watered occasionally, it generally prefers drier conditions. The snake plant tolerates most light levels, making it any easy choice for just about any room.

8. Bamboo Palm

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Palms thrive in a nice amount of light away from cold drafts. They can bring a lot of green to your space, reaching heights of 12 feet, but they’re slow-growing. Give your bamboo palm at least three years before repotting in a larger container.

9. Aloe Vera

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In addition to being easy to care for, aloe comes with some serious health wins. The plant’s leaves contain a clear liquid full of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, and other compounds that have wound-healing, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

This is a good plant to keep in your kitchen window for a quick burn relief remedy. Just break open a leaf to get that goo.

If your plant doesn’t come in a pretty pot, or if it outgrew its previous one, you can easily transplant it. To avoid adding to indoor air pollution, choose a clay pot and use organic soil.

To maintain your plant’s health and give it the best chance for survival in its new container, water it thoroughly in the original pot before transplanting. Snip away any roots protruding from the drainage holes that might trap the plant in the container.

For easy removal, tip the plant upside down, while holding it at the soil surface, and gently ease it out rather than pulling.

Repotting pointers

  1. Choose a pot that’s at least one inch in diameter larger than its previous container.
  2. Place a coffee filter or piece of paper over the drainage holes.
  3. Add about an inch of soil to the bottom of the new pot.
  4. Remove plant from its original pot.
  5. To promote growth, prune any roots that are straying from the root ball.
  6. Place the plant in the new container.
  7. Add soil around the sides of the root ball until the soil is level with the surface of the plant.
  8. Water it again. Et voilà!

Although plants aren’t a substitute for adequate ventilation and healthy indoor air quality, scientists have developed a houseplant that can up your indoor air-detoxifying game. After genetically modifying the pathos ivy, researchers put it through a test against chloroform and benzene.

They placed the plant in a glass chamber with one of these two common pollutants. In the course of three days, the level of chloroform dropped by 82 percent, and after eight days, the level of benzene dropped by 75 percent.

This powerful air-purifying plant is currently available in Canada, and researchers are seeking approval from the Department of Agriculture for its sale in the United States.

In the meantime, you can grab some benefit from the above houseplants or get yourself the unmodified pathos ivy, because, hey, they must have chosen it for a good reason.