Houseplant Rx: The power of indoor plants to soothe our souls

November 22, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

Keara OConnor pic

Pictured above: Keara O’Connor, a recreational therapist who holds a certificate in horticultural therapy, has witnessed the power of plants with patients at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville.

Whether it’s a Christmas cactus cheerfully blooming by the coffeemaker or that spider plant flaunting its foliage on an office desk, indoor plants can make us feel comfier and more relaxed.

These living, breathing citizens of nature can elevate our lives in ways that a plastic knickknack—or a plastic rubber tree—will never accomplish.

“It’s about having life and greenery—things that connect us to our human origins—near us, and bringing the outside in,” said Sarah Nolimal, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Display Greenhouses, where she oversees a thriving assortment of tropical, semi-tropical, desert and topiary plants. 

Keara O’Connor, a recreational therapist who holds a certificate in horticultural therapy, has witnessed the power of plants with patients at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Recently, she was working with a 53-year-old patient diagnosed with early onset dementia and neurocognitive impairment, using indoor gardening activities. When he was ready, she guided him to the hospital’s courtyard where raised garden beds awaited.

He stepped outside, smiling and standing with his eyes closed, head tilted toward the sun, O’Connor said. He enthusiastically planted flowers and vegetables and enjoyed the process of scooping soil from a large container into a pot, saying, “I just love the smell of dirt.”

“During the colder months, it is the intention that we allow patients the opportunity to interact with houseplants and continue to reap the benefits of interacting with the natural world throughout the long days of winter,” she said.

Nurturing nature indoors

Although there are countless varieties with few demands, plants do need attention, which could be a deal breaker for some. And while it’s true that a fake rubber tree requires little more than dusting, that’s also a drawback.

“Having something to tend to can be very meditative for people,” Nolimal said. “An indoor plant is not just a decoration. It’s almost like a pet; it’s something you care for and take responsibility for.”

Plus, there’s the satisfaction of watching those hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp.) multiply or discovering your slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum maudiae) has bloomed. Satisfaction breeds confidence and maybe even a new way to grow.

Where to start

When purchasing an indoor plant, give yourself (and the plant!) a fighting chance. Evaluate your space, matching the plant’s light needs with what you’re able to provide. Remember to purchase a healthy specimen and heed the care instructions on its label. In addition to light, consider moisture, humidity, and temperature. Some plants need to be fertilized more frequently than others, and soil requirements will be key if/when you are repotting them in a new container.

Don’t let your office’s indirect light deter you, though. Many plants can handle low-light conditions. Low-light tolerant plants Nolimal suggested include pothos and sansevierias (a group that includes the snake plant). But do be cognizant of how often you’re in the office. Consistency in care is a key factor to success if a plant needs to be watered frequently.

“In an office, humidity might also be a factor,” Nolimal said. “Offices can be quite dry, and you’d have very little control over that if you don’t go in regularly. At home, you’re able to modify it somewhat, by misting or filling plant saucers with water.”

Need additional advice? Here are resources to help you find the perfect indoor plant:  

Make fast friends with these five laid-back plants

These five plants are “user-friendly.” Dozens of additional plants qualify as easy-care, but these were chosen for their tolerance of low-light conditions, ability to handle some neglect and for being non-toxic to children and pets.

  1. African violet (Saintpaulia spp.) is an old-fashioned favorite for a reason: low demands, fuzzy-soft leaves you can pet, and charming, colorful blossoms. The petite size is a plus for a crowded desktop. It prefers bright, indirect light from the east or west. Try not to get water on its leaves.

  2. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) bestows profuse and vividly colored blooms in the winter when Midwesterners really need them. Despite its name, they’re not necessarily timed for Christmas. It likes medium light—ideally from the east or west.

  3. Hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp.), a succulent, is so named because the main “mama” plant (i.e., the hen) sprouts smaller rosettes around it (aka her chicks) to produce beautifully textured combinations. A south or west window is optimal.

  4. Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is legendary in the indoor plant world for its durability, producing lovely, sinewy leaves with an easy-does-it attitude. It appreciates bright, indirect light from any direction.

  5. Zebra cactus (Haworthia spp.) is a succulent renowned for its hardiness, with boldly striped, pointy leaves. It prefers south-, east- or west-facing windows but will take what it gets. It prefers tough love to indulgence, so don’t overwater.

This article was developed in collaboration with our partners at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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