indoor-plants-office-relaxed worker

In our stress-filled world, this column has touched upon such remedies as yoga, nature walks, even extract from hemp. Now let’s consider another excellent yet simple way to ease stress that has been hidden in plain sight: houseplants.

Sad to say, published scientific studies on houseplants and stress have yet to occur to any significant degree in the United States. Does reducing stress get the attention it deserves here?

Consider our workplaces: most bosses in both the private and public sectors expect employees to pile on the work hours at the office, factory or shop, and that they take more and more work home. Sparse vacation time is usually so limited as to be not worth taking. America’s work environment frowns upon too many vacation days taken at once, and injects an aura of guilt about vacation days, even when rightfully available to the worker.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, around 5 p.m. during the work week, he reportedly would be out and about in the state house in Sacramento, telling workers to close shop and head home – that their personal lives and recharge time were as important as their jobs. Not many bosses think that way anymore.

So let’s recognize Japan and the U.K. as pioneers in their interesting research into the marvelous effect of houseplants on stress, fatigue and anxiety, both at the workplace and at home. At first glance, it seems simplistic, which makes it all the more fascinating.

From Japan, according to the American Society for Horticultural Science, the University of Hyogoin studied the effects on workers at an electric company with the introduction of a small, potted plant in their workspace. Divided into two groups, one had no plants given to them, while in the other group, each was given one plant to view and look after, keeping either a cactus, bonsai or foliage plant at their desks next to their computer monitor.

Using standard psychological testing for stress, researchers found a significantly lower pulse rate among the group with a plant at their workstation. Those reporting high anxiety levels, before taking a moment simply to look at a plant, were found to have lower anxiety levels after doing so. Also, another 27 percent had a significant drop in their resting heart rates.

From this study, what we “inherently knew,” has now “suddenly been quantified,” said Dr. Charles Hall of Texas A&M University, who commented on this study but did not participate in it.

Then, from the U.K., there’s Emma Mills, an author and consultant on the connection between meditation and wellness. In a recent interview with the news magazine Marie Claire, UK, Mills describes some new science on how plants in the home can reduce tension in people by almost 47 percent.

She explains that indoor plants of any kind “remind us of the outdoors, nature, and a slower pace of life, which is instantly calming.” She speaks of how even the act of watering plants can do wonders for the mind.

Mills referred to other studies that further quantify how plants indoors help us: a 37 percent drop in anxiety; a 38 percent drop in fatigue and stress. Almost incredibly, a drop in rates in workplace hostility and anger has also been attributed to a simple potted plant!

All these new studies point our how we are hardwired to respond positively to the natural environment with this instantly calming effect. Says Mills, “Plants introduced into the workplace help address fatigue of attention,” and that looking at plants, even pictures of them, can “switch the brain into a different level of processing.” Is it time to find that old landscape painting and hang it back on the wall?

Some may ask what kind of plants are likely to thrive in a beginner’s care. Different websites commonly recommend yucca, dracaena, aeschynenthus, and zz (zamiocula) plants. Visit the helpful website: thejoyofplants.co.uk. And right in Riverhead can be found the best resource for advice on houseplants: Suffolk County Cornell Cooperative Extension. Your local florist is an additional resource, though the East End is saddened by the recent closing of Homeside Florists, with their magnificent greenhouse and welcoming, expert staff.

Perhaps the champion of easy-to-raise, tropical houseplants is the banana (aka snake) plant, which has been found as well to be the most effective for filtering and oxygenating indoor air, another welcome feature, in varying degrees, of all houseplants.

It’s also worth noting that most types of houseplants require only indirect light. Artificial light, such as that in most workplaces, can usually suffice as well.

Try creating a space that will enable relaxing and breathing with such plants as hoyas, devil’s ivy, and rhipsalis, that have the steady growth habit of spilling over from a shelf or cabinet. Scientists now agree that potted plants indoors actually and quantifiably offer a pace of life and work that slows us down, yet enable sharper focus and creativity. They inject green into our space, and have been found to provide a sense of achievement. After all, green is the most predominant color on our planet next to blue.

To be fair, the study from Japan also showed that a portion of workers who were provided a houseplant showed no real change in pulse rate and anxiety, and others even saw these reactions increase. In assessing this study, Dr. Hall cautioned that to some, the sudden responsibility for taking care of a plant, and concern “that it might not do well,” create an anxiety in itself. To cause anxiety is the last thing a plant should do. But if a bit of research and self-teaching can give you the confidence you need, it’s still very much worth trying.

So let’s bring the outside in. We have come upon an inexpensive, readily available and now scientifically proven way of calming us in our hectic and often chaotic lifestyles. There’s an irony in this: we can escape from the down-side of our world with something that Shakespeare says “makes the whole world kin,” and it’s as simple as a “touch of nature.”

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg