University of Reading: Attractive houseplants give biggest well-being boost

Rounded, leafy and healthy plants give the biggest boost to well-being in homes and offices, while neglected plants can be worse that none at all, new research by the University of Reading and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has found.

The study looked at people’s perceptions of well-being and the indoor environment as affected by viewing different houseplants. People scored plants on how beautiful, interesting, uplifting and relaxing they found them, with preferred plants found to give the greatest benefit to people’s well-being. Healthy plants with a dense canopy resulted in the most positive effects on the way people felt about their indoor environment.

Researchers used images of various species and styles of houseplants to show that people react positively to lush, green plants with a rounded, dense canopy – similar to that of many of the nation’s favourite houseplants such as weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), Calathea and Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa).

Palms were found to have particularly positive associations, as they reminded people of holidays and happy memories. People thought the most ‘beautiful’ plants were those with a softer, rounded canopy, such as devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) but there was no preference for any particular shape.

On the other hand, unhealthy plants were found to reflect negatively on people’s perception of their indoor environment, and researchers recommend removing them.

Houseplants generally only have a small effect on air quality, but the positive feelings associated with houseplants mean they have a greater effect on improving well-being and reducing stress.

Researchers found that demographics such as age and gender did not affect preference for plants or their perceived benefits. This means that healthy, beautiful, green plants are likely to benefit everyone and supports existing evidence that indoor plants can boost productivity by improving well-being and people’s perceptions of air quality and thermal comfort.

Lead researcher Jenny Berger, a Built Environment PhD researcher at the University of Reading and lead author of the study, said: “Our research has shown that when choosing houseplants appearance is important. Plants which people find attractive and interesting are likely to give us the biggest well-being boost and green, lush plants will bring a healthy feeling to the indoor environment. To keep plants looking attractive choose ones you can easily maintain.”

Dr Tijana Blanusa, principal horticultural scientist at the RHS and agri-environment researcher at the University of Reading, who was also involved in the study, said: “This study adds weight to the important role houseplants can play in improving mental health and well-being in the indoor environment. Not everyone has a garden, but most of us can find space for a houseplant.

“Choosing plants that are easy to care for and maintain with the right support – such as the use of self-watering containers for thirsty plants such as peace lilies (Spathiphyllum wallisii) or choosing less water-demanding plants such as Zamioculcas – will ensure they stay healthy and continue to provide these benefits to well-being.”

Five low-maintenance plants for the home and office include:

The ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) is an evergreen with smooth, shiny leaves on upright stems that doesn’t take up much room. It can grow in full shade, doesn’t require a lot of water and is very tolerant of neglect, so it won’t start to look unhealthy.
Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) is one of the hardest houseplants to kill, making it perfect for beginners wanting to feel the benefits of houseplants. Its leaves won’t flop or spread and it is very tolerant to shade. It won’t need much watering – in winter it only needs a top up every month or so.
Devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) is an evergreen climber with glossy leaves and dense canopy and is one of the best houseplants for filtering the air. It is relatively low maintenance, but it does need moist soils and would appreciate misting with water to keep leaves glossy and healthy.
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is another good choice for beginners as it can tolerate a range of conditions. Ideally they like indirect light and regular watering. It will reward you with fast growth and runners with tiny plantlets that can be potted up as new plants.
Aloes are easy-to-maintain succulents that come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the species. Most like full light and not too much water or humidity. Aloe vera is known as the medical aloe because the gel inside the leaves can be used to cool and soothe skin.

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