Plants: More Than Meets the Eye

When I first think of a household plant I automatically envision beautiful, brightly colored flowers brightening up a room. However, can there be more than meets the eye to these common household plants? YES!

I first experienced the beneficial aspect of plants with my grandmother in the kitchen cooking. I was about 7 years old helping my grandmother cook some bread. As she took the bread out of the oven, it smelt so good that I could not possibly help myself from touching the bread as well as part of the pan it was baked in to try and sneak a bite. Only instead of getting a tasty treat, I burnt my finger in the process. I quickly pulled my hand away, with no major damage done. What I then remember is my grandmother quickly grabbing a small branch from an aloe plant we had growing in a pot on the counter. She squeezed the branch and gently rubbed the burned spot with the branch’s gel. The gel instantly relieved the burn as well as take my mind off the incident. The plants scientific name is Aloe Vera also known as Aloe barbadensis. Aloe Vera has more uses than just the common kitchen burn; it can also be used as burn gel after spending the day outside, for insect bites, rashes, and minor wounds.

Figure 1: Aloe Vera Plant Image

Aloe Vera contains organic chemical compounds such as complex sugars (mucopolysaccharides, MPS), vitamin C, and vitamin E1. The MPS’s make up the gel characteristics, which help seal the wound as well as reduce inflammation, provide antibacterials, and dilate the capillaries, which increases blood flow to the injury. Vitamins C and E are common vitamins that help stimulate the immune system. What an amazing plant! When the idea for this blog was discussed, I knew I wanted to investigate other common household plants and their hidden medicinal/ beneficial uses.

Another beneficial aspect of plants common in a home or any other enclosed space is the idea of “growing fresh air”. When NASA was investigating sending people in space in (obviously) very tightly enclosed environments, they had to identify potential issues to having such an enclosed environment in comparison to the regenerative qualities of Earth’s ecosystem. In the late 1960’s Bill Wolverton headed up this investigation for NASA. During this investigation his team identified 107 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that would be produced and exist within small enclosed environments. VOCs include harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene (for more info on these chemicals see reference 4). These VOCs are known as irritants and potential carcinogens, making the inhabitants of an enclosed environment become ill and irritated. Not only would this problem exist for a tightly enclosed rocket ship, but also the more energy efficient tightly sealed homes that were starting to be built. A solution to the air quality problem needed to be solved. As part of the experiment, NASA created a “BioHome”. The BioHome was made of all synthetic material and tightly sealed. Because of how tightly sealed the BioHome was, after some time anyone that entered or spent time inside the BioHome would complain of irritation and respiratory problems. Then plants were added, and remarkably the complaints heavily decreased. Additional scientific qualitative and quantitative analysis of the air quality also showed a large decrease in the VOCs that had present in the recent past. Upon Wolverton’s findings, he authored a book entitled Eco-Friendly Houseplants. In this book he discloses his results of the most beneficial household plants and their abilities. Below is a list of Wolverton’s top 9 plants for restoring the qualities of Earth’s ecosystem2,3,4.

Table 1: Wolverton’s top 9 plants for restoring air quality.

Additionally, a study conducted by Ruth K. Raanaas, et al. at Norwegion University of Life Sciences in 2010, showed the effects of indoor foliage on a patient’s well-being during a residential rehabilitation program5. The study watched coronary and pulmonary patients that were “highly emotional” upon arrival to the rehabilitation facility over a two year period. At the start of the second year the common areas of the facility were inundated with plants. With the arrival of the plants, a patient’s physical and mental ability improved as well as their overall satisfaction. This study highlighted the potential for indoor plants to contribute to a patient’s well-being.

Not only are plants beneficial indoors, they can also provide valuable qualities to humans outdoors. One of the most irritating things about a pleasant summer evening outdoors is the nasty, irritating mosquitoes! However, have no fear, helpful plants could be near! Before you grab the icky bug spray, think about growing mosquito-repelling plants near your patio or favorite outdoor area. There are 5 common (and rather beautiful) plants that easily grow in the United States as well as have the ability to repel mosquitoes6. The first and most commonly known mosquito-repelling plant is the citronella plant. This plant might ring a bell with you as being part of another common mosquito-repelling device, the citronella candle. The other four plants include: Horsemint, Marigolds, Ageratum, and Catnip. Furthermore, Catnip has been shown to be 10 times more effective than DEET as an insect repellent (University of Iowa study7).

Figure 2: Catnip Plant Image

The beneficial aspects of common household plants for humans are endless. They provide monumental amounts of mental and physical value for a person’s well-being as well as add color and flavor to a room. There are far too many advantageous characteristics of plants for me to address in this one posting (i.e. pollination, a food source, and decomposition) however I hope you have become aware of the hidden characteristics of such beautiful objects. Next time you go home or even for your dorm room during college, you should consider growing a plant, and allowing yourself to benefit from their remarkable qualities.

1. Aloe Vera Information, Dr. T. Ombrello, UCC Biology department, http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/pow/aloe_vera.htm

2. NASA, Bill Wolverton, http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2007/ps_3.html

3. Native Backyard Blog, 2/9/11, http://www.nativebackyard.com/2011/02/plants-everyone-should-have.html

4. Ramos, F. Indoor Plants Create Fresh Air, NASA Study Socres Plants’ Ability to Remove Chemicals, 2009, http://francisco-ramos.suite101.com/indoor-plants-create-fresh-air-a121481

5. Raanaas, R.K., Patil, G.G., Hartig, T. Effects of an Indoor Foliage Plant Intervention on Patient Well-being during a Residential Rehabilitation Program, HortScience, 2010, 45, 387-392.

6. eartheasy blog, Solutions for Sustainable Living, April 28, 2011. http://eartheasy.com/blog/2011/04/5-easy-to-grow-mosquito-repelling-plants/

7. Coats, J., McManus, B., Catnip captures attention as a natural mosquito repellent, press release, 2003, http://www.ag.iastate.edu/aginfo/news/catnip.html

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About virginiabruce2012

Hi, I’m Virginia Bruce, but everyone calls me Ginny (so much so my dad even forgets my real name is Virginia sometimes…). I am a very curious person and it is that characteristic that has attracted me to the sciences and nature. I am from southwest Kentucky and enjoy hiking and rock climbing. Currently I am a senior at DePauw University in Indiana, majoring in Chemistry. My hopes for the future are to attend graduate school for a PhD in chemistry and then industrial research. I love learning new things and have a passion for passing on what I hear and learn to others. Coming home from grade school when I was younger, I would often run into the house yelling “Mom! Guess what I learned today” which would then run into some LONG elaborate story I heard or read in my “science” book. I hope you feel the excitement in my blogs still today. Enjoy the hidden science we uncover about everyday items in this Common Sense Science Blog.

3 thoughts on “Plants: More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Hey Ginny,
    I really liked your post. This will for sure entertain a lot of the Biology majors because a lot of us often forget how big of a part in biology plants make up. People are very anthropocentric, so even if we are scientists we tend to focus mostly on mammals, but that really is very wrong and that becomes apparent from your post.
    Something that convinced me of the great usages of plants is the existence of a type of medicine called Naturopathy:
    http://www.naturopathic.org/
    This is a new type of degree that relies on the knowledge that we have of the immense capabilities of plants. Naturopathic physicians are becoming more widespread and there are several schools in the US that offer a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) degree. They treat their patients with extracts from plants and by balancing their diet in such a way to strain away from disease. ND’s believe that a lot of the human diseases can be cured without the need of artificially derived pharmaceutical drugs, but that plants can be the better option.
    I like that this profession draws a limit where they will deffer to an Medical Doctor for severe cases. They are very aware of the limitations of naturopathic help, but the fact that so much of what we know as medicine is rendered unnecessary by treatment with plants fascinates me and reminds me of the natural power of the chemicals that are contained within them.
    Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading it!

    -Elias

  2. Hey Ginny! I really enjoyed your blog post and am convinced to try to find a plant for my duplex this winter! As Elias alluded to, many of the biology majors tend to forget about the value of a good background in botany.

    While this knowledge is important in determining ways in which our lives may be improved by interaction with plant species, it is also important to look into ways in which plants you choose to house may be problematic. Maybe this isn’t a huge issue for college-age students, but anyone who is housing a pet or a small child must be aware of what toxins exist within their homes.

    The American Humane Society lists nearly 100 plants that may be toxic to pets (http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/poisonous_plants.pdf). Among these plants you will find English Ivy, a plant recommended for restoring air quality. If ingested, this plant may cause difficulty breathing, convulsions, vomiting, paralysis, and coma (http://www.blankees.com/house/plants/e_ivy.htm). Though less serious, Aloe Vera may also cause harmful reactions in ingested (http://blankees.com/house/plants/aloe_b.htm).

    This certainly does not mean that we should not harness the powers of plants! I am simply reminded that plants have the power to do great good and harm, so we must be as informed as possible when making decisions about what plants to grow and how accessible we can allow them to be to pets and young children.

    For a few other toxic plants that are common to many households, check out the link below!

    http://www.livescience.com/11356-top-10-poisonous-plants.html

  3. The thought that there are plants that are able to repel pests like mosquitos intrigued me and made me wonder about plants that attract beneficial insects. Beneficial insects are ones that aided in ridding gardens of pests like aphids or armyworms. Some examples of these insects are lacewings, hoverflies, ladybugs and parasitic wasps. If a gardener wants these insects to inhabit his garden all season, he may plant flowers such as Basket of Gold, English lavender, and goldenrod. One thing to remember is that if you use this form of pest control, you cannot use most pesticides because those kill the good insects as well as the bad. One technique instead is to determine areas that are the most pest-ridden and carefully place plants attracting beneficial insects where they will help the most.

    So how do these plants attract the insects anyway? Plants give off plant volatiles, which are complex compounds that we detect as fragrance. These plant volatiles allow plants to communicate with the surrounding environment, such as attracting insects. Insects often need these plants as a source of nutrients or a suitable oviposition site. The two main theories are that the insects either use olfactory signals to recognize a species-specific compound or a specific ratio of compounds. The second theory is currently favored. Either way, it is pretty interesting how the plants and insects are able to have a mutually beneficial relationship!

    http://coopext.colostate.edu/4DMG/PHC/benefici.htm
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100517144816.htm
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1360138505000968

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