Office plot

Today is the first day of National Plants at Work Week, which aims to promote the use and benefits of indoor plants. You may have been eyeing up the windowsills in your office with a view to growing your own chillies or sweet peppers, but did you know that you can grow your own fresh air too?

Modern buildings use a lot of synthetic materials – both in the building itself and in the furnishings. These synthetic materials can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, including nasties such as formaldehyde, ammonia and benzene. And they’re not the only thing releasing toxins into our air – we do too! Humans release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane as well as alcohols and ammonia. These are called bioeffluents, and when you add together synthetic materials, bioeffluents and poor ventilation (a common mix in many buildings) you’ve got a recipe for Sick Building Syndrome – a mixture of ailments including allergies, asthma and fatigue.

The good news is that research done for NASA into how to create a breathable atmosphere for a lunar base has led to an understanding of how to use common houseplants to improve indoor air quality and prevent sick building syndrome.

Rather than simply being passive and pretty, plants actively manage the environment around themselves, creating their own small ecosystem. They can increase humidity, create air movement, manage the microbes that live in the soil around their roots and emit phytochemicals into the air that prevent the build-up of bacteria and molds that are harmful (to both them and us). When plants suck toxins out of the air and down into their root zone, the microbes in the soil remove them for us – they eat them!

The best houseplants for cleaning the air tend to come from tropical environments, and so like a humid environment. To keep them filtering your air, you’ll need to keep them happy – raising the humidity by regular misting or by grouping plants together, and wiping dust off leaves with a damp cloth.

Although any plant will have a positive effect on your air quality, tests have shown that some are better than others. One of the best is the Areca palm (also known as the yellow or butterfly palm), quite a large plant that is good in office environments. It loves humid environments and frequent watering. A good choice for a smaller room may be the Rubber plant, which needs feeding in summer but does not like too much water.

Peace lily

For a sunnier position, try Ficus Alii, although it should be kept away from drafts. If space is at a premium, the Boston fern may be for you. It loves regular misting and tepid water. And if you fancy something that flowers indoors, you can’t do better than the Peace lily, as long as you give it plenty of water and wash its leaves occasionally.