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Do Ferns Really Clean the Air?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Many plants can help contribute to cleaner air quality, helping to filter out harmful chemicals and increase oxygen levels. Ferns are particularly well adapted to use in apartments and small houses, because they require minimal upkeep, grow in a wide range of climates, and are very beneficial to air quality.

NASA was the first organization to do substantial research into the role plants could play in cleaning and maintaining air quality. During the SkyLab project, NASA began looking at plants such as ferns as cost-effective, low-upkeep solutions to keeping future space stations fit for human habitation. Various houseplants are able to draw in harmful chemicals from the air and fix them in their soil, where they become relatively harmless.

Although people have known for some time that plants draw in carbon dioxide and respirate oxygen during photosynthesis, which helps improve air quality for animals, it is only in the last few decades that researchers have discovered their benefits go far beyond oxygen enrichment. Three common pollutants, trichloroethylene, benzene, and formaldehyde, can all be absorbed and fixed by common plants.

In the modern age, building has become a fairly toxic endeavor. With the heavy use of plastics in everything from sealants to carpeting, new houses are full of off-gassed toxins that can cause low-level sickness in inhabitants. These symptoms are generally classed as being part of Sick Building Syndrome, and ferns and other plants can help reduce or eliminate the symptoms entirely.

Formaldehyde is a toxin present in nearly all modern buildings. The EPA estimates an average 800 cubic foot (23 cubic meter) room contains roughly 1,800 micrograms of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can cause symptoms ranging from nausea and headaches to dizziness, skin irritation, and shortness of breath. It is estimated that common Boston ferns can remove a full 1,800 micrograms of formaldehyde from the air per hour. This means that placing the plants in a room can virtually eliminate formaldehyde that may be introduced through off-gassing.

The EPA recommends placing two plants for each 100 square feet (9 square meters) of floor space. While ferns are certainly some of the easiest to look after, and grow in a dynamic range of environments, many other household plants can help absorb dangerous toxins as well. The areca palm, for example, is thought to be one of the best absorbers of xylene, another dangerous toxin. Plants such as dwarf date palms, spider plants, philodendrons, peace lilies, and snake plants are also great for improving air quality and reducing airborne pollutants.

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Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Aug 28, 2012
Are there certain types of ferns that are better at increasing oxygen levels and improving air quality than others? I know there are several different types of ferns and was just wondering if one would be more beneficial than the other.

My mom is in a nursing home and they have several plants scattered all throughout the home. This sounds like it would also be a good idea to have a few of these plants in her room. They would have to be plants that didn't need a lot of direct sunlight, so I think ferns would do real well.

She also loves peace lilies and that is another plant that might help her have some better air quality in her small room.

By julies — On Aug 28, 2012

I have only tried growing a fern one time, and it ended up dying. The leaves just started falling off and pretty soon it was completely dead.

Because of that I thought ferns were kind of tricky and wondered if I would be able to grow one or not. I don't have much of a green thumb, so that might be part of the reason.

I was glad to read that philodendrons were also helpful for improving air quality. That is one plant that anybody can grow, and I have two of them in my house. I think I might buy another one to have on my desk at work to help the air quality at my work space.

By sunshined — On Aug 27, 2012

My grandma always had indoor ferns in her house and out on her porch. Many times I would hear her comment on how they helped purify the air.

She lived out in the country and would have had so much better air quality than what we have today. She knew many years ago that ferns helped clean the air around you. I think we could use that more today than ever before.

Ferns really are pretty easy to grow. As long as they are kept moist and misted frequently, they will last for many years.

By golf07 — On Aug 26, 2012

This makes me want to go out and buy a couple of ferns for my office space and to have at home. I had always heard that plants were good for the air, but never realized how much effect one or two ferns could have.

Many years ago I had an asparagus fern that I had growing outside. It sounds like I would have received more benefit if I had brought it indoors.

By sherlock87 — On May 09, 2011

I always wondered why so many office buildings, apartment complexes and hotels had started using ferns. Now I realize it was not only because they look nice, but because they actually benefit the environment.

By mitchell14 — On May 07, 2011

I have also been taught that you can use fern leaves to ward off mosquitoes- it looks silly, but taking one fern frond and putting it in your hat, or tucked behind your ear, can dissuade mosquitoes from coming near you.

I bet this also related to their ability to purify air.

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