Opinion | Plants are more important than ever in the time of COVID-19

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

These are dire times, and dire times call for having a plant as a companion. I’m being completely serious.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire on April 30, though experts expect the quarantine order to last longer than the end of the month. This means more time alone or more time stuck in close quarters with family — you can decide which scenario is worse, though neither is ideal.

And even when the order is lifted, social distancing measures will likely still be in place. Seeing friends and extended family will be a tricky road to navigate for the next couple months. Luckily for you, you have plants. Plants make for great companions during the COVID-19 pandemic because they offer many social, emotional and physical health benefits, yet plants cannot contract nor spread COVID-19.

Students around the world, as well as adults and young children, are now trying to manage their mental health at home. These weird times are a worst-case scenario for many people who struggle with depression and anxiety. But spending time around plants is correlated with reduced blood pressure, slowing of the heart rate and alleviation of mental exhaustion — all of which are symptoms of anxiety. Some doctors literally prescribe buying houseplants to people who are suffering from acute anxiety.

Plants are also great for the workspace too, as some studies suggest that they improve concentration and productivity by up to 15%. Right now, many people’s workspaces are also their living spaces, which has been causing significant distraction, especially for people who are trying to share workspace with family members, children or even roommates.

And even for people living alone, or with fewer human distractions, a worldwide pandemic just makes focusing difficult. Having the time to be creative and productive doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has the concentration to be productive. Many adults are finding that they can’t even sit down and read a book right now. A houseplant, in this situation, certainly couldn’t hurt.

A lot of studies also suggest that taking care of plants can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression in people — something that is, not surprisingly, very prevalent right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Caring for plants provides a sense of purpose and distraction for many people, and it’s rewarding mentally to see the plant you’ve cared for bloom and thrive.

On a similar mental health note, local governments have been encouraging citizens to spend time outside not just for exercise, but also for fresh air. Clean air exposure is vital for a person to maintain a strong immune system and adequate mental health. We know that outside, plants help clean the air through the process of photosynthesis, and indoor plants do the same. In fact, research conducted by NASA found that houseplants can remove up to 87% of inside air toxins in just 24 hours. This clean air likely boosts the immune system — as well as mental health, as mentioned earlier — in a similar way that outside fresh air would. And while being outside is still vital, right now it just isn’t practical, or even possible, to be outdoors all day.

All of this aside, it’s just healthy mentally for someone to live in a space that feels personalized, like a real home. Indoor plants are an excellent way to decorate inexpensively and effectively. Which is to say that they aren’t just aesthetic decoration, but instead an item that will really be of extensive mental benefit, too.

Typically houseplants are studied in terms of benefits, but it’s true that all plants are good for your health. So while acquiring a houseplant on your next Trader Joe’s run is a great idea, if that isn’t a practical financial or safe option for you, there are still countless ways to benefit from being around plants. Consider sitting in your garden for an hour or so, if you have one. If you don’t, then consider visiting a local park and paying attention to the greenery around you — as long as you maintain a safe distance of 6 feet from the people around you. Really, a person can reap the benefits of houseplants just by looking at greenery in some way, shape or form.

And there’s no need to be intimidated by the prospect of taking care of a plant. Houseplants come in many different forms, and there are extensive guides that help people choose the best plant for their climate and experience level. Anyone can take care of plants.

I wish I knew when this lockdown would end, and when the world will heal. But I don’t, and the truth is, nobody does. So for now, I’m just going to be hanging out with my plants, and trying my hardest to keep them alive. Plants are a safe and easy form of self care, and though it might sound crazy, it’s certainly worth a try. Just give the poor shrub a chance.

Leah writes primarily about books, writing and the spices of the world. Write to Leah at [email protected].