Leafy Friends With Benefits

Beyond their decorative qualities, indoor plants can deliver a roster of positive impacts, purifying the air you breathe and lifting your state of mind. Find the right fit for your space with these guidelines.

Money tree in home

When you think of “houseplants,” what comes to mind? Be honest. Obligatory get-well gift? Predictable prop in all-too-pristine interiors? Let’s take a minute to reframe our terms. Green things in pots deserve a little more credit. A lot more, actually.

A single houseplant can transform an entire setting by bringing the outdoors in, lending verdant color and a living layer of texture. From big focal points placed beside a sofa to a cluster of potted plants arranged on a windowsill, their natural beauty adds a happy exclamation point. Look at the gorgeous rooms we all love to pin. Chances are they’re flaunting some greenery.

But plants are far more than decoration. Boston ferns, spider plants, golden pothos, peace lilies, snake plants and aloe vera are effective air-scrubbers. They can improve the air quality in your home by absorbing carbon dioxide (the stuff you exhale) as well as indoor pollutants like benzene (found in plastics, fabrics and cigarette smoke) and formaldehyde (found in carpet cleaner, detergent and fabric softener). 

Plants are also good for your mental health. A study conducted by Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found a 12 percent boost in longevity among women who live surrounded by plants vs. those who are plant-less. Women with a houseful of green demonstrated lower levels of depression, more chances for social engagement, higher levels of physical activity and less exposure to air pollution. 

Are you ready for a green buddy or two?

Here are some plant-shopping basics to help you get started.

Assess your square footage. A towering plant will look cramped in a tight apartment, just as a petite one will get lost in a spacious condo. Estimate your space and select a plant that’s proportionally sized. You probably wouldn’t put a giant sectional sofa in a studio, so don’t put a 10-foot-tall plant in 3-foot-wide pot in a compact apartment.

Check your natural light. While a dark apartment is great for easing into hibernation mode, it’s not ideal for all plants. Plants fall into three categories of light needs: Full sun, meaning they need six to eight hours of sun, part sun, meaning they need four to six hours of sun and part shade, meaning they need just two hours of sun. Track how much sunlight your room gets in a day, then get a plant that’s right for that amount of light. Hint: Those plastic labels on plants will tell you how much light it needs.

Evaluate your gardening skills. Plants run the gamut from low maintenance to downright fickle. Decide if you’re up to the challenge of keeping a prima-donna plant happy, or whether you will prefer one that doesn’t need much help from you to be healthy.

Keeping your findings from those basics in mind, let’s continue the search with a few suggestions for houseplants that match your circumstances.

What’s your square-footage situation?

I live in a tiny studio apartment. Go with a cactus. Many varieties stay small (less than 6 inches) and most cacti grow very slowly, so they won’t get too big for your space.

Their needs range from part-shade to full-sun, so match the plant to your light. The best thing about cacti? They need very little water. Give them a drink twice a month and they’ll be happy.

I have all the space in the world. We’d suggest a dragon tree. Spiky and dramatic, dragon trees grow to 6 feet tall. They are tough and need little water. Give them a drink a couple of times a month and they’ll thrive.

Note: This plant is toxic to dogs and cats. If you have animals who chew on plants, try another large, dramatic plant, like a schefflera.

What’s your natural-light level? 

I get little to no sunlight. Try a Chinese evergreen. This tropical thrives in low light and needs warm, slightly humid air. Its leaf tips will turn brown if the air is too dry. Water them well and let the soil dry before watering again.

Remember, over-watering is the number one cause of death in houseplants.

I get so much natural light I need sunglasses indoors. Sounds like a Croton would be a good fit. This colorful shrub with leathery leaves adores bright light.

Crotons need humidity, so if the air is dry in your home you may need to spritz its leaves with water. Water it regularly, but be sure to let the soil dry out completely between waterings.

What’s your green-thumb status?

The gardening gene skipped a generation. You might like a snake plant. This bombproof succulent can grow anywhere and take all the neglect you can dish out. It tolerates low light but does best in bright light. Water it a couple of times a month, letting the soil dry out between waterings.

Fun fact: Snake plant is also called mother-in-law’s tongue, a sly reference to how its spiky, tough leaves are like the tongue of a testy in-law.

My gardening skills are pro level. We have two options to suggest. First, something finicky – a calathea. This bold houseplant needs low light, regular watering and high humidity. The soil needs to stay moist but not saturated. Its leaves turn brown if it gets too dry.

Try putting it in (but not directly under) the shower once a week for a gentle shot of water and moist air. It’s also prone to sunburned leaves if it gets too much light. 

Second, if you’re up to the challenge, try a fiddle-leaf fig. Fiddle figs are uber-trendy. Designers and stylists love their dramatically shaped leaves. Check out hip design blogs and you’ll see a fiddle fig in many of those gorgeous rooms. The problem is, designers pick plants for looks, not ease of care. Fiddle figs are prima donnas. Give them too little or too much light, too much or too little water, or let the air in your house get too dry and below 68 degrees, and the tree will drop its leaves and die.

Keep yours away from drafts. Place it by a big window with bright (but not direct) light. Spritz its leaves with water in the winter to replicate conditions in its native home, the humid West African jungle. Don’t fertilize more than twice a year or it will get leggy and die. Plant it in loose, well-drained soil so it doesn’t get root-rot and die. Like we said, prima donna.

And because we like you, here’s a bonus. Do you need luck or money?

You should see the balance on my Visa. Get yourself a money tree. This tropical, also known as a Pachera, is a traditional symbol of prosperity in Asia. Legend has it that the five to seven leaves on each of its branches represent the five feng shui elements – metal, wood, water, earth and fire.

A money tree will balance your home. Money trees like bright, indirect light and humidity. Too much light will scorch its leaves, and drafts will make it drop its leaves. Money trees need loose soil and once-a-week watering. Wait until the top 2 inches of soil are dry before watering again.

Absolutely nothing has gone right lately. Lucky bamboo gets the call. It’s not actually a bamboo at all, but rather, a type of Dracena. Legend says it’s a living example of the feng shui elements of water, wood and earth. Plant it in metal pot and you add fire and metal, completing the five elements needed for feng shui balance.

Lucky bamboo likes indirect light. Some people grow it in water but we recommend planting it in well-draining soil (it’s easier). Water frequently, but don’t let it get water-logged.