Home & Garden

Houseplants sprout lessons for healthy living in every pot

Winter is an opportune time for children to care for houseplants and to come to realize how plants care for us as well.

Within the home or classroom houseplants are green furnishings. Like furniture, they need dusting and periodic washing. Just as children sponge bathe their skin, they may use soft cloths or paper towels to wash the epidermis of leaves (top and bottom) and stems. Plants with a build-up of dust benefit from a mild soapy solution before rinsing with water. Furry leaved plants like African violets should be brushed with a dry toothbrush.

Finding the ideal light, temperature, and humidity requirements for each type of indoor plant on the premises can be an adventure for the family or class. Sometimes houseplants and their owners are afflicted with similar problems. For example, if a family member notices dry flaky skin most likely plants are suffering too. Most houseplants are native to the tropics where humidity levels are much higher than our homes. Relocating plants to high humidity areas like the bathroom, kitchen or laundry room is one remedy.

Another alternative children take pleasure in at home is to give plants a steam spa treatment by taking them to the shower. In a classroom of youngsters, respiration and perspiration add humidity to the air.

If houseplants show signs of insect infestation, first identify the culprit to determine the correct prescription. Mealy bugs and scale can be treated with a cotton ball or Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. Mites can be eradicated with a forceful water spray. Some insects can be hand-picked off. Children enjoy "nursing" sick plants back to health.

Overwatering is the No. 1 cause of planticide. Houseplants in good health may need watering only once every 10-14 days. Many plants prefer to dry out between waterings. Soil should never be soggy. Children can perform a finger test to determine the moisture content of the potting soil. Insert the index or pointer finger into the soil up to the first joint. If soil is dry, water the plant. If the soil is wet, hold off. To establish a plant's watering schedule conduct the test for a period of 10 days.

Houseplants multiply easily making for the creation of an indoor plant nursery. Leaf and stem cuttings propagate in water or potting media. Some houseplants like the prayer plant and chrysanthemum form clumps just like perennial flowers and can be divided by root division. Other houseplants can be propagated by root offsets like sansaveria, aloe, dieffenbachia, and hen and chicks. Winter propagation gives way to spring plant sales for the classroom or gifts from the growers throughout the year.

While children are learning how to care for plants, of equal importance is coming to realize how plants care for us. Houseplants can be as important as pets in providing companionship and a sense of responsibility. Caring for plants can give a general feeling of success and accomplishment to children who have not experienced paper and pencil academic success. Talking to plants is therapeutic for many.

One major benefit of houseplants to humans is their ability to filter the indoor air of pollutants. NASA in studying the air of closed environments found volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) like benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene in home and office fabrics, carpets, countertops and furniture also in spacecraft occupied by crews. Formaldehyde alone is linked to numerous health problems including eye, nose and throat irritation to arguable claims including asthma, cancer, and respiratory diseases.

When houseplants were placed in NASA's sealed test chambers, the houseplants removed the pollutants. The chemicals are absorbed by the plant tissue and transported to the root system and surrounding soil where microbes in the soil detoxify them.

NASA constructed several biohomes to test the effects of houseplants on large scale air purification. An 1800 square foot home requires 15-18 good sized plants in 6-to-8-inch diameter pots to improve air quality. Furthermore, some houseplants are better filters than others. The most effective plant filters include the following: English ivy, Boston ivy, spider plant, pothos, philodendron, dieffenbachia, dracaena, bamboo palm, weeping fig, rubber plant, and peace lily.

Scientists also note that plants can clean the air of an individual's personal breathing zone, an area of 6 to 8 cubic feet surrounding each of us. These areas are where we stay for hours at a time at a desk, a computer, watching TV or a movie, classroom setting, or sleeping. Houseplants within the personal breathing zone not only add humidity but also filter chemical toxins from the zone.

While children are caring for and growing plants, the plants are caring for and growing fresh air for them, a healthy reciprocity between plants and people.