The Healing Power of Plants

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Lauren Figueroa at home with her plants. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Lauren Figueroa at home with her plants. Photo by Johnny Quirin

This article is from the April 2019 Grand Rapids Magazine. Available on newsstands now or via subscription.

Need more green in your life? Experts say we all do — green leaves, vines and stems. Introducing indoor plants into your living space is a burgeoning trend that promotes wellness while adding wonderful bursts of color and shapes throughout a room.

Just how mind-body-spirit enriching is being surrounded by nature, even indoors? Consider that medical facilities are investing in on-site gardens. Among the local leaders in this approach are The Cancer Center at Metro Health Village, where patients can receive their chemotherapy treatments in the beauty and peace of nature, and Mary Free Bed’s $1.3-million Therapeutic Healing Gardens project exists to enable patients to work with plants.

While many of us learned the most basic benefits of plant life in school — a plant takes in carbon dioxide and puts out oxygen — it was a groundbreaking study by NASA in 1989 that revealed the greater extent of how beneficial indoor plants are.

Seeking methods to detoxify the air in space stations, NASA researchers discovered simple indoor plants, like golden pothos or Boston ferns, help to clean the air in a home, reducing contaminants such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Katey Romence, co-owner and the third generation of family-owned Romence Gardens & Greenhouses, cites that study when asked about launching Romence Gardens’ recent venture: shipping indoor plants.

“People weren’t realizing how many chemicals are in our homes — the more cleaning products you use, it’s leaving trace elements in your house,” Romence said. “NASA did this study, and they talked about how one spider plant could (help to) clear a room of ammonia and benzene. Just one little plant makes a huge difference.”

Steve LaWarre, director of horticulture for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, concurs about indoor plants naturally improving air quality.

“We know that because of the way plants respirate — they take in carbon dioxide, they release oxygen — any (plant) that will do well inside will cleanse the air,” he said. LaWarre noted the benefits of keeping plants indoors don’t end there. “When it’s cold or dreary outside, it’s amazing the feedback we get from people when they come into our warm plant conservatory, just the refreshing, mental clarity (it offers),” he said.

Keeping with the Michigan climate, Romence Gardens & Greenhouses is shipping plants from approximately May through October to prevent plants from freezing in transit. It offers more than 10 varieties of indoor plants for shipping, available in 4-, 6- or 8-inch pot sizes.

“We’re focusing on a lot of indoor plants that are pet-safe. We’re also doing work with the best plants that are the best oxygenators,” Romence said, noting her own go-to plants for home are the neanthe bella palm or “parlor palm,” bird’s nest fern and peperomia. Another favorite topping her list is the spider plant, which she is quick to defend as one of the best indoor plant choices, though she hears people remark it’s outdated.

“Spider plants are cool because you can transplant them. With macramé coming back and people having places in their homes to hang plants — we (carry) so many cool galvanized things to hang plants — I’ve seen some really creative ideas,” Romence said.

In keeping with the mid-century modern feel of spider plants, Romence Gardens & Greenhouses has even begun offering workshops in how to make a macramé plant hanger.

Greening Your Space

Another local proponent of indoor plants in interior design is Lauren Figueroa, founder and principal designer of Lauren Figueroa Interior Designs. Figueroa agreed with Romence, saying a hanging plant is a great way to bring in color and fill space, and the “perfect” container can be the ideal accent.

“I feel like plants are sort of a timeless design feature,” Figueroa said, “and for me, they add that extra texture, color and design element I can’t get from a piece of furniture — they’re all unique textures, shapes, sizes. … I also like that they can add a consistent theme through a space, with that bright green color — I use a lot of neutrals, and that green can add a pop of color. What I love about it, too, is people in Michigan are inside so many months of the year, and plants can purify the air. I feel that’s valuable.”

Bearing in mind a home should reflect the client’s personality while honoring their lifestyle, Figueroa chats with clients to find out preferences: Does the client enjoy having plants in the home, and how much care are they open to providing for plants?

“Personally, I do love really eclectic spaces, and those spaces do lend themselves to plants,” Figueroa said.

She said she works with the rules of interior design such as “the rule of thirds,” in which an object should complement the larger object beside it by being about one-third its size, and the idea that in a room, a person’s eyes need “a place to go,” drawing on factors such as height and color. Some suggestions for incorporating indoor plants include smaller plants in interesting containers (Figueroa roams thrift stores for unique pieces for her own home), displayed on shelves beside a grouping of books or a framed piece, or group objects in odd-number combinations, ideally in threes, shown to be most appealing to the eye.

With so many furniture pieces in a room being square or rectangular (sofas, tables, beds, desks), a fun way to use a corner in a room to break up all those linear pieces is to place a tree there. The fiddle-leaf fig is especially popular currently, with large, shapely leaves.

“Sometimes you’re not going to get a plant that’s tall enough, but you can get an old trunk or plant stand to help fill that space,” Figueroa said, suggesting placing even a large tree on a trunk or plant stand behind an object that blocks the displayer but shows the upper portion of the plant at the desired height. “You want your eye to look around the room, so you want your eye to have things of different heights to look at. Is there an area in your room where your eye is not going?” Figueroa asked.

While Figueroa is known for her expertise in interior design and keeps indoor plants in her own home, when it comes to finding the best plant for a space’s location and light, she relies on James and Alexiana Fry, owners of Peace and Toil.

“It’s fun to work with Lauren,” Alexiana Fry said. “When you do what Lauren does, you get to know the people. She throws me things like what their lifestyles are. If they’re people who are home all day, I’d be inclined to get them a fiddle-leaf plant that requires a lot of care, if the person is a doctor and not home a lot, I’d suggest a snake plant.”

Like Figueroa, the owners of Peace and Toil make house calls and work hands-on in clients’ homes.

“The three things I ask are: What light do you have to offer this plant? What’s your lifestyle? and What’s your previous experience with plants?” Alexiana Fry said.

She laughingly admitted her home looks like a plant-hoarder house but just as quickly noted the air is always clean. Her greenhouse motif is the result of discovering the mood benefits she felt from being surrounded by indoor plants.

“Plants make people happy. It’s scientific. When I come in my house and (am surrounded) by green plants, it’s a mood boost,” she said.

Pet owners beware

For all their benefits to humans, some indoor plants are toxic to dogs and/or cats, having systemic effects or causing various degrees of gastrointestinal irritation. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ website, the following are some of the plants that should be avoided in homes with pets:

Aloe
Aluminum plant
Chives
Christmas cactus
Corn plant
Jade plant
Old man cactus
Sago palm
Variegated dieffenbachia
Velvet plant
Vining peperomia

Photo: Lauren Figueroa’s home is an example of how to utilize plants in interior design. By Johnny Quirin.

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