The studies are piling up on plant benefits in the workplace. Increased energy, reduced stress reactivity and quicker recovery, reduced symptoms of sickness and reduced sick-leave, higher productivity, the list goes on. But how well can they cope with low sunlight or none at all?
And without all that, they look good. Plants give you something to appreciate and spend the odd moment on. You can always find plants that are a good match for your indoor environment.
Low maintenance, low-light tolerant, and generally low risk plants are a great starting point. If you’re feeling like bringing a little piece of nature into your work space, read-on.
Yes, many plants can grow in an office with no windows. There are real and measurable benefits of plants in an office that include: reducing stress, increased productivity (as much as 12% quicker reaction time), reduced coughing (by as much as 37%) and respiratory symptoms, lower diastolic blood pressure (by up to 5-10%), lower fatigue (by up to 30%) and an improved self-reported psychological state. Good office plants are tolerant of low light and air humidity, and tolerant of inconsistent watering (over or under-watering).
Common examples include: Epipremnum Aureum (Golden Pothos or Devil’s Ivy), Philodendrons, Maidenhair Ferns (these like higher humidity, can be challenging), Maranta Leuconera (Prayer plant), Mentha (Mint), Sansevieria Trifasciata (Snake Plant), Aspidistra Eliator (Cast-iron plant), Dracaena Braunii (Lucky Bamboo) and Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreens).
What makes a good desk plant?
A lot of interesting indoor plants are from tropical jungles. Even “bright” Indoor lighting intensity can be hundreds of times weaker than sunlight. This means we need plants that are adapted to lower light environments in nature. For tropical forests this is the mid-story and forest floor. These plants are usually dark with chlorophyll, and lush, to capture more light.
Low maintenance is another consideration. Plants that can handle a bit of neglect and still look good could be what you’re after. Consider how often you’d like to water, how much you travel, and the humidity needs of the plant. It needs to be a good fit with your overall situation. Overall, plants that are tolerant of low water and humidity are great choices.
It’s important to choose plants you find attractive. And you want them to look good for as long as possible. Some plants have incredible flowers under the right conditions, but might not have the right conditions in your office.
What is a good plant for my desk at work?
There are the low-light safer options, and plenty of more exotic and demanding plants if you're up for the challenge. Let's start off with ones that will thrive in low light, and with relatively low maintenance.
Low Light Plants
Important factors for choosing a plant for your desk are: low maintenance, low-light tolerant if you’re not near a window), and something you like the look of. Arguably the most popular office plant is Epipremnum aureum, also called Devil’s ivy or Golden Pothos. It grows like a vine, is easy to propagate, and is low maintenance. Philodendrons are another great tropical vine.
Crotons can give a great splash of color, but they need higher light levels. They’re a little trickier to grow, but worth the effort if you’re up for it.
Zamioculcas zamiifolia is a great, deep green plant that grows vertically. It has a succulent, shiny-leafed look. The leaves grow from tall thick rhizomes. Don’t water too much or it can rot the roots (tubers).
Another great, hardy option is the Aspidistra Eliator (Cast-iron plant). It’s tolerant of low light, temperature fluctuations, low humidity, and irregular watering. Sounds pretty good right?
Chlorophytum comosum (spider plants) are another fantastic go-to. They practically propagate themselves, and they're very tolerant of neglect and lighting conditions. They're epiphytic, and often variegated (dark and lighter coloring on the leaves).
If you're willing to go the extra mile, while could include getting some artificial lighting with the right spectrum, your options open up a lot. Here are a few of them.
Anthuriums are Epiphytic (take in a lot of nutrients from the air). They like a loose draining mix. They don’t like salt buildups, so it can be good to repot occasionally, and water with a lower salt/mineral water like distilled, reverse osmosis, or rainwater. They do like higher humidity, so consider looking into methods of increasing humidity.
Ficus Benjamina (Ficus trees) are a little challenging, but if conditions are right they can really thrive.
Succulents come in a lot of varieties, but they need a lot of light. So unless you have a window, or some bright artificial lighting, you're out of luck.
I’m working on a more detailed article that gets into the pros and cons of choosing plants for your desk at work, sign up for the e-mail list to receive a link in your inbox.
What is the impact of flowers and plants on productivity?
Productivity is deeply related to mood and state of mind. Being in a better mental state is linked with increased productivity. Imagine trying to work while you’re anxious or feeling tense. A reduction of 37% in tension and anxiety might just be what you need. A New University of Technology Sydney (UTS) study found exactly that over a 3 month test period.
The study also found reductions in stress levels and negativity of 20-40%. The paper further goes on to discuss the minimum threshold to see benefits:
“Importantly, just one office plant was enough to make all the difference.”
A 1996 study from Washington State University looks into exactly this (source). When tested, participants in a computer lab (a workplace) showed a 12% quicker reaction time on a computer task when plants were present.
The room had no windows, and fluorescent lighting. A grim setting. The study tested 96 people, with a preliminary study testing 126 which was later refined. The study did look into other factors (sometimes called lurking variables), and here’s what they found:
“Correlations between responses to the demographic survey and treatment assignment were examined. There were no significant correlations between any of the demographic variables and treatment, except for that of having plants at home or work. “
What this means, is that when they looked for non-plant explanations in their data, they weren’t able to find any. If reaction time is a good metric for productivity, then the data shows that it’s improved in a measurable way by plants in a computer lab environment.
Do plants in offices promote health?
A 2002 study looked into the effects of plants and artificial daylight on the well-being and health of office workers, school children and health-care personnel. They saw reductions in staff sick leave possibly over 60%, much of which could be attributed to plants and brighter than normal lighting.
The University of Norway has been looking into this questions through a series of studies over the years. IN one study, they examined neuropsychological symptoms, mucous membrane symptoms and skin symptoms for 51 participants. The study found that the score sum of symptoms was 23% lower when plants were present vs the control group.
They also tracked complaints for coughing and fatigue. Coughing complaints were reduced by 37% and fatigue by 30% in the offices that contained plants. This is a huge improvement.
The study further looked into self-reported metrics:
" The self-reported level of dry/hoarse throat and dry/itching facial skin each decreased approximately 23% when plants were present.”
The study further shows that health metrics and symptoms improve after the introduction of foliage plants into an office setting.
What are the psychological benefits of plants?
What better source of information that a systematic review of the experimental literature. The data was aggregated from 21 different studies on psychological benefits of plants (source).
A lot of psychological effects in the workplace are related to stress. One study in the review found that the:
“Treatment group had systolic BP change consistent with lower stress reactivity and faster stress recovery, higher reported attentiveness.”
Psychological symptoms are also correlated with stress, and studies found there were improvements including less fatigue, dry throat, and coughing. Humans are incredibly visual creatures, so the color may have some deeply-ingrained psychological roots.
Do plants reduce stress?
A 2015 Study by Researchers with the Korean Government and Chiba University in Japan found significant reductions in stress based on physiological and psychological responses. Results included a fall in sympathetic nervous system activity while repotting a plant, and a rise during a computer related task. The study also showed diastolic blood pressure was reduced when interacting with the plant task compared to the computer task.
The subjects of the study were a small group of 24. In the researchers’ own words:
“Our results suggest that active interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with mental work.”
Yes, many plants can grow in an office with no windows and low or no sunlight. You can even grow plants with higher light demands if you're willing to invest a small amount in the right spectrum light-bulbs. There are many good options for office plants, and they can be really low-maintenance. Plants increase productivity, promote health, and have important impacts on stress and human psychology.
I’m Alex Lafreniere. I learned a lot about plants when I built and operated a landscaping company. But, there’s always more to learn. Ever since travelling across the world, I’ve wanted to find ways to bring more tropical and exotic plants into my life. This is the site where I share everything I’ve learned with you.
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