Clearing the air: Houseplants can do the work for you

Jeffrey Eleveld, known as “The Plant Man,” explained on Nov. 12 to a fascinated audience at the fourth session of The Greens at Cannondale’s Community Health Series how plants, in our bedrooms, bathrooms, dining rooms — any room in the house — can keep us healthy.

During the day, plants swallow up the CO2 that we exhale and remove toxins and mold. They supply oxygen at night. They are beautiful climate-control systems. We don’t see the toxins in our homes, but they are with us —  formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia, alcohol, and acetone. The toxin trichloroethylene is a product of photocopiers and printers.

So which plants are the best housecleaners? Mr. Eleveld, who is a certified horticulture therapist, supplied a complete list with the amount of toxins each plant can be expected to remove. These percentages came from a study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to find out which plants were best to filter the air of the space station. Certain plants can remove as much as 87% of indoor air pollution within 24 hours.

“I have seven peace lily plants in my bedroom,” he said. “They are one of the very best houseplants you can buy. They collect CO2 during the day and release oxygen at night.  In the bathroom, peace lilies will collect mold as a grey film on the lower leaves, which you can just wipe off.  Most houseplants use regular potting soil, only need indirect bright light or low light, and, most important, should be kept dry between waterings.

“Overwatering is the No. 1 reason that plants die,” Mr. Eleveld said. “I wait till leaves start to droop a little. That’s when they should be watered.

“Boston fern tops the list for removing formaldehyde, but it sheds, so if you don’t mind the occasional mess, buy it. It’s attractive and adds humidity to the air, so it’s especially useful during the winter. Aloe vera is also a good choice.”

Dracena marginata (dragon tree), rubber plants, English ivy, lady palm, pygmy date palm, and weeping fig are some of the most effective toxin removers.

“When I get up in the morning, I check my plants,” Mr. Eleveld said. “I often give them a big breath of CO2, to encourage photosynthesis. That’s how plants produce their own food. They take in CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen.”

Mr. Eleveld named trees “the lungs of the earth.” They’re made to clear the air, but deforestation is causing an increasing accumulation of airborne toxins. Cutting down trees is cutting out oxygen.

“Just like people, plants have to adjust to their environment. Plants in a greenhouse are living in what I call the ‘Donald Trump lifestyle.’ They have just the right amount of light, water, temperature, humidity. When you bring them to your house, it’s like moving them to Alcatraz! Less light, possible over- or under-watering, uneven temperatures. You have to supervise them, like pets or children.  Under the right conditions, plants can live long lives. I know someone who has an 83-year-old Christmas cactus that belonged to her grandmother. Its cuttings have made hundreds of new plants.”

Two plants that are really pretty as well as efficient are Gerber daisy and chrysanthemum.

“In the old days,” Mr. Eleveld said, “flowers would be removed from hospital rooms at night. That actually decreased the oxygen. Now we know that plants in the bedroom improve the quality of the air.”

Mr. Eleveld can be reached at 860-877-0704 or