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Meet: Margaret Burchett, indoor plant and health expert

Margaret Burchett. Photo - Robin Powell

Margaret talks about the possible health benefits of keeping indoor plants. Houseplants are making a comeback and the fact they absorb VOC's helps sell the sizzle!

At the School of the Environment at the University of Technology Sydney you’ve been researching the impact of plants on indoor air quality for 15 years now. What are your major findings?

We keep discovering great things and the research is continuing. But basically we have found that a single indoor plant – just one of the common ones like a Madonna lily, Spathyllum – reduces the carbon dioxide in the air by 10-25% and reduces the volatile organic compounds, which are toxic, by up to 75%.

Does it make a difference what plant you chose?

Not much. It is the bacteria in the potting mix that takes in those VOCs. So you do need a healthy plant – the plant nourishes the root system bacteria, it’s a symbiotic relationship. As for CO2, there is a difference between plants and we are looking now at how light levels affect this.


Do you need a lot of plants or very big plants for these effects?

No, just one will do. We looked at 200mm pots and at larger sizes and the larger ones weren’t any better.


What implications does this have for the way we design our workspaces?

If we installed plant green walls, or hedging along filing cabinets, that would significantly take up CO2 and reduce the amount of volatiles in the air. That would reduce the need for ventilation by heating and cooling systems, cutting the cost of air conditioning and shrinking the carbon footprint of the building.


'Madonna Lily'. Photo - Robin Powell

Are there effects on individuals as well?

There are a whole range of studies. We looked at the effect of having a plant in an office over a semester on mood states and we were staggered by the results. Just one plant reduced anxiety, hostility, fatigue, confusion and depression by 30-60%. And stress levels were halved. Other studies have found a plant increases productivity. One group looked at work satisfaction and found that those happiest at work had a view of green out of their window, and a plant on their desk. The next best was a plant on the desk, not simply a view. We need that living green close by.


Are plants magic then?

That’s what people ask me. But it’s not magic, it’s evolution. We evolved in the green parkland of the savannah and living green still gives us an automatic feeling of calm.


So do you have plants on your desk?

Oh yes, there used to be six but there’s only two here today. People keep coming by and saying ‘Oh that’s so lovely’ and so we give them away. We’ll have to get some more!



Text: Robin Powell


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Author: Robin Powell