Turn Your Apartment Into An Apothecary With 7 Healing Houseplants
Though the U.S. healthcare system might disagree with him, there’s a terrific—and quite possibly apocryphal—quote typically attributed to Plato suggesting that all humans need to “replenish our bodies … are the trees and the plants and the seeds.” While it wouldn’t be prudent to rely on sprouts or herbs as one’s primary medical treatment, many of the drugs we pick up at the pharmacy (or under more illicit circumstances) were originally derived from wild plants. Flora-based healing treatments are as old as human history itself.
From hay fever-obliterating teas to a boiled leaf with the power to soothe your itchiest tender bits, your local home and garden store offers a variety of affordable natural plants that are sure to beautify your space and proven to improve your day-to-day wellness (though it’s quite likely the placebo effect is a contributing factor).
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For better air quality
The now-infamous Clean Air Study, published by NASA in 1989, revealed that certain houseplants are better than others when it comes to purifying the air we breathe. Obviously, any correctly functioning plant knows how to convert carbon dioxide into fresh oxygen, but the top-ranking specimens on the list—like snake plant and peace lily—are ideal for anyone who’s sensitive to the (many) indoor chemicals we unknowingly breathe in on a daily basis.
For example, snake plant, also known as mother-in-law’s-tongue (ostensibly, because of its sharp-pointed, robust leaf seen in the turquoise pot here), scored top marks for reducing levels of benzene (which weakens the immune system) and trichloroethylene, as well as filtering out significant amounts of formaldehyde. So prolific is the plant’s oxygen output that, according to some schools of thought, if you happened to be sealed in an airtight room with a crate-full of these plants, you’d have enough oxygen to survive.
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To reduce anxiety
Need to chill out? Recent studies have shown that plants—just regular, ornamental plants in general—have the unique ability to calm our nerves, as well as lower blood pressure, minimize the effects of physical pain, and reduce anxiety in post-surgery patients. For a real good-vibe boost, though, try lavender.
“If you just keep lavender by your bed, it’s great for sleeping,” says herbalist Jacqueline Zajdman, 34, whose interest in plant medicine led her to create a line of specialty tinctures with names like “Vitality” and “Lucid Dreams.” Zajdman ranks lavender, which is easy to grow indoors, as one of her favorite antidepressants and sleep aids. “It’s a gentle nervine, meaning it’s a herb that automatically relaxes your nervous system. Just the smell of it triggers your brain to go into this third-eye dream space.”
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I’ve got two words for anyone who regularly struggles with respiratory issues: facial steam. Unlike aromatherapy, which traditionally relies on the use of expensive essential oils, a DIY facial steam simply requires a handful of leaves or flowers from any oil-rich plant.
Take rosemary—which some studies have linked to higher cognitive performance. It’s loaded with “volatile oils” that open up our mucous membranes, and it acts as a powerful antibacterial agent to clear up infections. Simply throw some fresh rosemary in boiling water, let it simmer, then lean over the pot with a towel over your head, and let the leaves do their magic.
“If you have a sinus headache, or you’re clogged from a cold, then doing a facial steam after the herbs have boiled for a while can do wonders for your breathing,” Zajdman notes. Other tall, slender stalks like oregano, lavender, and sage can be used with similar results. “When a leaf is shaped that way, it means it has a lot of concentrated oil. It doesn’t need a lot of water to stay alive, which is why [these herbs] grow so well in the desert.”
For dry skin
Marigolds, otherwise known by their Latin name calendula, are an easy-to-grow annual cultivated throughout the world. Historically used in European apothecaries, the bright orange blooms are often dried and sprinkled into dishes during cold winter months to add a burst of summer sunshine. But, like many edible flowers, the anti-fungal, anti-bacterial petals can also be applied directly to the skin, to treat fungal infections.
Rose geranium, often used as an antidepressant, is another natural substitute for store-bought lotions and creams. “It’s great for softening the skin. If you’re making geranium tea, take out the petals and put them on your skin—they’ll feel like silk,” recommends Zajdman. By crushing up the petals and applying them as a poultice, you’ll be able to treat any number of skin rashes or break-outs, whether it’s warts, acne, or cold sores.
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Succulents are undoubtedly one of the most popular types of plant to grow at home. Beloved for their plump, shiny leaves, the species has an innate ability to retain liquid, meaning they can withstand your occasionally absent-minded watering routine.
One of the most unique members of the succulent family, purslane looks great in a pot indoors, and is actually edible. In fact, it’s got the highest amount of alpha linoleic acid and vitamin A of any edible plant, notes self-help guru Anthony William, as well as six times the vitamin E count of spinach. In addition to helping the immune system and improving vision, it also has anti-inflammatory properties that help it tackle eczema, boils, sores, and, yes, hemorrhoids.
Most of us avoid nettle, or stinging nettle as it’s commonly known, at all costs while hiking in the woods, and with good reason—when it comes into contact with skin, the tiny hairs on nettle stems can cause serious irritation (hence the name). But few know just how useful this menacing, fast-growing weed actually is.
“It’s one of the top nourishing herbs, and it has the most chlorophyll of any land plant,” adds Zajdman. The serrated weed is known to cure fatigue, stress, achy joints, and even low libido. Best of all, it’s easy to grow in the garden, though you’ll need to harvest the antioxidant-packed leaves with thick gardening gloves, and then boil them in water before actually ingesting them. This eliminates the plant’s painful defense mechanism, and allows the abundant medicinal mojo to shine through.
Once the leaves are cooked, sip the resulting tea to treat everything from urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and high blood pressure (some say the leaf extract even helps with balding). But its ability to vanquish seasonal allergies may be its most winning quality. With a surprisingly high count of iron as well as vitamins C, A, and K, cure-all nettle inhibits the secretion of histamine, hence alleviating the symptoms associated with hay fever, like itchiness, sneezing, and red eyes.
For stomach cramps
Michelia champaca, or golden champa, is a gorgeous, cold-tolerant, tropical tree native to Southeast Asia, with brilliant orange, lily-like flowers. It’s in the magnolia family, so you can bet it’s one of the sweetest smelling plants you’ll ever own. Though it rises to 25 feet at full size, it can also be grown as a smaller, wonderfully decorative indoor plant.
Loaded with medicinal properties, golden champa can be used to address any number of aches and pains, from worms to excess phlegm, to gout and even vertigo. In some cultures, it’s used as an aphrodisiac. But one of its most famous applications involves the treatment of stomach and intestinal cramps.
Create a soothing tonic by blending the leaves into your morning smoothie or juice, and allow the plant’s natural chemical wizardry—which includes oleic and palmitic oil—to melt your tummy troubles clean away. Just remember to appreciate the beautiful golden blossoms: they’re quite valued, as one of the top ingredients in “Joy,” the world’s most expensive perfume.