Air-purifying houseplant

Asparagus fern, one of the top air-scrubbing houseplants.

Sure, most people know that houseplants can be used to improve the quality of indoor air. But a new study from the University of Georgia shows that certain houseplants that are better than others.

Researchers tested 28 plants and identified a set of five “super ornamentals” that removed the most contaminants in a process called phytoremediation. So, look for these beauties in your local greenhouse:

  • Purple waffle plant (Hemigraphis alternata)
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Variegated wax plant (Hoya cornosa)
  • Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus)
  • Purple heart plant (Tradescantia pallida)

Going into the project, the researchers knew that plants would reduce indoor pollution. The big surprise: “the poor air quality we measured inside some of the homes we tested” said Stanley Kays, UGA horticulture researcher and one of the study’s authors. “We found unexpectedly high levels of benzenes and many other contaminants that can seriously compromise the health of those exposed.” Indoor pollutants, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can emanate from many things, including furniture, carpet, plastic, cleaning products, drywall, paint and adhesives.

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How do you know if your indoor air is polluted? Testing is expensive, but adding plants is a simple way to ensure that the air is better. Try a diverse mixture of houseplants, including some of the “super ornamentals”, above. It’s not clear why some plants are better at scrubbing indoor air. “That’s one of the things we want to learn,” says Kays. “We also want to determine the species and number of plants needed in a house or office to neutralize the problem contaminants.”

Research will continue at UGA, where Kays and his team collaborate with researchers in Korea. “Scientists [in Korea] are substantially ahead of us in phytoremediation research,” Kays says.