Did your classroom include a few potted plants when you were in elementary school? Perhaps there was a slightly sickly spider plant, or a ficus that would drop its leaves when the furnace kicked on and off. Classrooms can be a challenging growing environment for many houseplants, so we asked Justin Hancock, horticulturist with Costa Farms, for choices that will stand up to the test.
First, though, here's why every classroom needs at least one plant:
- Studies have shown that indoor plants improve the air quality. Perhaps their best-known attribute, thanks to investigations by NASA as well as several universities, is their ability to clean the air of toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, such as benzene and formaldehyde.
- Plants increase oxygen levels; in photosynthesis, they take in the carbon dioxide that we breathe out, and let out the oxygen that we breathe in.
- They add moisture to the air, releasing it through transpiration. Moisture in the air combats dry skin and nasal passages.
- They might even help kids and teachers with their work! Various studies have shown that the presence of plants reduces stress levels and increases our productivity—plants have even been shown to improve memory and attention span. (Texas A&M Agrilife Extension provides a detailed look at the emotional and physical effects of plants (indoors and out) here.)
Next, classroom plants should be able to:
- Deal with dry air and various light levels
- Deal with hot temperatures or cold temperatures or both (they’re at the mercy of the school's HVAC system!)
- Deal with lapses in watering or with overwatering, since "watering plants" is often one of the jobs assigned to different kids over the course of the year, and most schools have week-long breaks built into the calendar
- Grow well and look good without frequent repotting or pruning
- Offer some sort of additional cool detail that might spark an interest among kids (such as spider plants that throw pups)
- Help purify the air
At last, here are Justin’s top five plants for classrooms, plus his comments on each:Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) One of the Plants of Steel, it’s in the nearly indestructible category as long as it doesn’t stay wet all the time. High to low light, dry air and inconsistent watering aren’t an issue for this guy. It doesn’t need pruning (except to remove old leaves as they age out), and it has good-looking variegated foliage. Cool fact: There are a bunch of different varieties, so you can have two or three or four different ones in the classroom and see how they grow differently.
Snake plant (Sansevieria) Another Plants of Steel, snake plant is about as carefree as any houseplant can be. It adapts to light and watering and it can be kept in the same pot for so long that it breaks it. Like Chinese evergreen, there are some different varieties; Hahnii types only get 6 or so inches; Robusta types can grow 24 inches; and traditional types can reach 48 inches or more. Cool fact: You can harvest a leaf, cut it in chunks, pot it in sand and grow a bunch of new plants that way.
ZZ plant (Zamioculas) This one has most of the characteristics of Sansevieria except it doesn’t come in different varieties. You can grow it virtually anywhere as long as it doesn’t sit in water. Cool fact: The leaflets can be potted up and each will grow into a new plant! This plant is quite responsive to pot size; one fun experiment is to get two plants at the start of the school year. Keep one in its pot and put the other in a pot around 6 inches wider. See how much bigger that one gets by the end of the school year! More on ZZ plant.
Red Aglaonema (Aglaonema) This is one of the most colorful houseplants. It takes low, medium or bright light. It tolerates drought and doesn’t mind irregular watering (just don’t keep it in soggy potting mix). The red, pink, gold, or white variegation is lots of fun!
Pothos (Epipremnum) Again, it meets the growing requirements—low/medium/high light, low water or medium water (just don’t let it be wet all the time). Cool fact: If you grow it up on a totem, the leaves get much larger and more tropical looking. And the bigger they are, the more air they clean!