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5 Double-Duty Houseplants: Ferns With Benefits

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With certain houseplants, there’s more than meets the eye.


We were visiting at the beach a few weeks ago and I was not as vigilant as I should’ve been about applying sunblock. My daughters ended up with patches of painful sunburns. I mentioned to my hostess that I was going to run to the drugstore to buy some aloe lotion.

“Why?” she asked, heading to a window crowded with plants. “I have some right here.” She snipped off a spiny, fleshy leaf and cut it open to reveal the gooey aloe inside, the same stuff that comes in a pricey bottle at the drugstore. I slathered it on my girls, glad to save myself a trip to the store, and marveled that a pretty potted plant could come in so handy.

Aside from the fact that potted plants in your home can add visual appeal and create a more relaxing environment, certain plants can offer added natural benefits, from cleaning the air to soothing a stomach, to bringing you good luck (that is, if you believe that sort of thing!).

Fill your sunny windows with these plants and enjoy not only the general benefit of their presence (studies have shown that they help hospital patients recover faster), but some additional advantages as well.

  1. Aloe: This spiky succulent plant needs lots of sun, water and warmth to stay healthy, but it’ll reward you plenty for your care. Cut open a leaf and use the gelatinous inside to soothe burns (both from sun or fire), relieve the itching of bug bites or poison ivy, or to moisturize sensitive skin. You can even scrape out the gel and include it in a smoothie or juice – it’s high in vitamins and amino acids.
  2. Mint: Put a pot of mint on your kitchen windowsill and you’ll be able to grab a leaf or two to chew when your stomach’s upset or you need to freshen your breath. Or just crush a few leaves in your fingertips and inhale their aroma for a pick-me-up or a natural de-stressor. Of course, fresh mint is also delicious in iced tea or lemonade, or chopped up and sprinkled into a salad.
  3. Spider Plants: A common and hardy houseplant (read: hard to kill, even for failed green thumbs like myself), the spider plant is one of the plants that NASA studied as a way to keep air clean and healthy in future space stations. It can help filter formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and residual manufacturing chemicals from the air.
  4. Gardenias: In a world where supermarket shelves are devoted to artificial fragrances for the home, why not go for the real thing? Gardenias are a bit tricky to grow, but the heady aroma of their flowers makes it all worthwhile. They like bright light and moist soil. If you have trouble with such a finicky plant, there are other flowering houseplants, such as jasmine or eucalyptus, that might be easier to maintain as living air fresheners.
  5. Areca Palm: Another of the plants that NASA found beneficial for improving indoor air quality, the Areca palm acts as a natural humidifier – a large plant (around 6 feet tall) can put as much as a liter of water into the air in a day! Obviously you need to have plenty of room for a plant of this size, and it needs bright filtered light to be healthiest.

It’s nice to know that certain houseplants can offer a natural, waste-free way to clean or humidify the air and even improve our health!

Do you ever use your houseplants for more than just décor? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Jessica Harlan

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Every Monday, I'll be here to share one, two, three… sometimes even ten! eco-friendly ideas at a time, so we can all do a little bit to save the Earth.

When I'm not making lists, I'm taking care of my two daughters, volunteering in my community, and writing articles about food and cooking — I'm the author of three cookbooks: Ramen to the Rescue, Tortillas to the Rescue, and Quinoa Cuisine (co-written with Kelley Sparwasser), and my fourth, Homemade Condiments, will be available in Fall 2013.


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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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  • Kerry K. 2 years ago
    I put aloe leaf gel over my hair conditioner. It works great, you just leave on for a few minutes, then rinse.
  • Mary S. 3 years ago
    Nature provides us with many remedies for the taking.
  • Elsie G. 3 years ago
    If you grow Aloe or mint, or any plant that will be ingested or put on skin, does it need soil other than the ones sold in stores. I read some of the ingredients on the bags and I get alarmed about eating the mint and cilantro I have growing on my window sill. The warnings on the bags say that the soil should only be handled while wearing gloves, that it contains certain toxic ingredients, etc. What type of soil is best for plants that one will eat or apply to the skin?
  • Julie W. 3 years ago
    Great info about the spider and areca plant. Thanks for posting.
  • Heidi W. 3 years ago
    Love it! Have a few house plants already and I'm transplanting some spider plants from outside to inside this week.
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