How houseplants could be the answer to SAD

Could botanicals help us beat seasonal affective disorder? Stylist investigates. 

Houseplants are very much A Thing. You can barely scroll through your phone without seeing a hardy monstera leaf, or sit in a cafe without a die-hard fern lunging towards your coffee. The hashtags #plantsofinstagram and #houseplants have taken root too, already in their millions. But the trend is tapping into more than just Instagram likes. A recently published journal on the relationship between nature and health noted how indoor plants “enhance creativity, improve productivity and mental wellbeing and improve air quality”. The NHS now issues ‘green prescriptions’ – telling patients who suffer with poor mental health to dose up with walks in nature or community gardening programmes, and Leeds Beckett University found that ‘prescribing’ nature works, with 95% of participants’ mental health improving within six weeks of starting activities. Research carried out by the University of Essex for mental health charity Mind found that 94% of people who exercised in green spaces felt it benefited their mental health.

These mood-boosting activities are even more prevalent at this time of year. Statistics on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) vary – it could affect just 3% of the population or up to 30% – but in a YouGov survey, over half of adults said their overall mood is worse in winter. For 25-year-old Billee Brack from Leeds, the 21 plants in her bedroom help keep her anxiety and depression from worsening in the cold. “I really hate the winter, everything is sad-looking,” she says. “To come home to my cheese plant growing new leaves and see something beautiful, crisp and green is positive, and it makes the room feel warmer.”

The trend for potted greenery shows no signs of abating. Sales are up by 70% year-on-year according to retail software Vend, and in September the Garden Museum in London hosted the first ever Houseplant Festival, where attendees could meet their “favourite Instagram plant experts” and attend workshops. Now a book called Bedtime Stories For Plants has been published by the flatshare website SpareRoom, designed for “plant parents” to read aloud to encourage their succulents and spider plants to grow.

But while the millennial love of pots and plants blossoms, humans’ innate tendency to seek connections with nature – known as biophilia – has long been around, first popularised by biologist Edward O Wilson in a 1984 book which suggested that being around plants makes us happier and more relaxed.

“There are basic things we need to survive, like natural light, fresh air and water,” explains Oliver Heath, interior designer and architect. “They’re all signified when we see lots of plants and green. It gives the impression that if plants can be supported, then without a doubt human life can be supported as well.” 

Winter wellbeing

But, given that winter also brings with it single-digit temperatures and shorter days, getting outside isn’t top of our to-do list. Those who suffer from mental health issues such as SAD and depression “face barriers that may make connecting with nature difficult,” explains Stephen Buckley from Mind – things like fatigue or having little desire to leave the house. Plus, urbanisation means a lot of people don’t have access to gardens. 

It’s why we’re entering an era of biophilic design, bringing nature indoors so we can reap the benefits in a world in which we spend over 90% of our time inside. Can houseplants have the same effect as gardens? Website thejoyofplants.co.uk says greenery has such a big impact on mood that it has recently designed the first houseplant suites at the Leman Locke hotel in east London, offering “forest-bathing experiences” for guests.

Each jungle-like room uses different plants to stimulate different moods and atmospheres, from tranquillity to romance to productivity. Studies also suggest that indoor plants can boost our wellbeing: a 2006 Kansas State University study found that surgical patients in hospital rooms filled with plants were more positive, less stressed and recovered faster than their plant-less peers, while a 2007 study in Norway showed that indoor plants kept office workers healthier and more productive, especially during the dark winter months.

“I think the effects [of plants] are much greater when they’re linked to a holistic environmental experience,” says Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey. But given modern life’s demands, she acknowledges that “people like having plants around them.” She continues: “Where we really see consistent effects is on people’s self-reporting of their mood, so feeling happier and like they’re less stressed in the presence of elements of nature, like plants. If people say that it makes them feel better, I think that’s a valid outcome.”

This is also true for Fiona Austin of Body Mind Connecting and Coaching, who believes in nature therapy after working in Spain. “I saw the types of stress and illness were hugely different there, with the longer days and higher temperatures. In Spain, where you wake up at sunrise or meet for a drink in the evening and watch the sunset, you became balanced unknowingly. Everything in the UK is much more out of sync. There’s nothing that can replace being outside, but plants are a biohack. They won’t save you, but every little thing contributes.”

For Alice Vincent, a gardening writer, influencer (@noughticulture) and author of part-memoir, part botanical history Rootbound (out in January), location is irrelevant. She’s encouraging this generation to reclaim how we define gardening. “Urban space is changing how we’re living. Gardens can’t just be defined by the measures put in place by the decades before us,” she says. “A garden does not have to be across the back of the house that you own. A garden can be indoors; houseplants in your lounge, a window box, four square metres on a balcony.”

She began growing herbs on hers, before “it became a compulsion or addiction. I just kept finding myself buying plants,” she says. “It allowed me to achieve a kind of mindfulness that nothing else would, at a time when a lot of things in my life were quite frustrating. There was a groundedness to gardening and growing plants that I wasn’t able to find elsewhere.”

Nurturing nature 

Sometimes it’s not just about what the plants do for you, but what you do for them. “Last year, I went through a miscarriage that really affected me,” says Brack. “I genuinely do think nurturing my plants helped. Maybe it’s the act of actually having something to do and something to watch over. Plants are living things and their growth is a reaction to how you look after them. That gives you a lot of satisfaction.”

In fact, a 2015 study from Chungnam National University in Korea confirmed that the act of caring for houseplants has huge mental health benefits: the experiment monitored the heart rate and blood pressure of individuals while tending to a vining peperomia or using a computer. When looking after the plants, the participants had a reduced heart rate and blood pressure, suggesting that they can lower stress levels. 

For Vincent, the calmness she experiences when she cares for plants comes from seeing something thriving in dark times. “The economy is terrifying, the planet is literally burning, and although it feels small, there’s something undeniably beautiful about how things are going to grow regardless of what is going on in your life. There’s a sort of persistence to it. That can be very calming when it feels like everything else is topsy-turvy,” she says.

For Austin, “Being around plants takes us out of fightor-flight mode. You’re doing something uncomplicated, nurturing or that might increase your awareness of something greater than yourself,” she explains.

Wellness trend 

Improving our mental health is not the only reason we’re filling our homes with greenery. Of people who bought houseplants in the past year, 34% did so to improve the air quality in their homes, according to Retail Insight Network. That rises to nearly 45% for Londoners, a city that is constantly at the centre of negative pollution reports.

But given our wellness-based world, is it that shocking that people are turning to plants to help themselves? “I am really into herbalism and nature for healing and I know particular plants help purify the air,” says 32-year-old Stephanie Barnes, who lives in Brighton, where pollution levels are at the maximum safe limit according to the World Health Organisation. “I really believe in the health benefits of having lots of plants in your home,” agrees Poppy Marples, a 28-year-old interior blogger (@dustsheets_and_decor), also from Brighton. Although she says she’s mainly in it for the aesthetic, her home is bursting with plants because “they help clean the air you breathe and deter illness”. 

A lot of the air-purifying benefits of plants can be traced back to an old Nasa study from 1989 showing that plants helped clean the air in space stations. Plant-selling sites such as Patch and Beards & Daisies tout the toxinremoving qualities of plants to customers, even filtering plants based on their ‘air purifying’ benefits.

While the extent to which plants actually clear the air of dangerous toxins is up for debate – the Nasa experiment was undertaken in a sealed environment, not a regular home with windows and drafts – a study by Liverpool John Moores University found that plants reduced CO2 levels by 50% in an open-plan office, and lower CO2 levels have been linked to reduced fatigue and higher productivity.

Help plants help you

So plants can help us thrive, but how do we help them do the same? Harsh heating, dry air and a lack of light in the winter months can mean we “live in the house with a dying thing, which obviously does not induce happiness,” says Vincent. The main mistake she sees is placing plants where we want them, rather than where is best for the plant. Research what your plants need, or invest in almost unkillable varieties such as aspidistra, nicknamed the ‘cast-iron plant’ because of its ability to put up with almost anything. And remember: a houseplant is for life, not just to perk us up for winter. 

Images: Getty

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