Back to School with Plants

Dorm Plants: Beyond Their Beauty or Pleasing Appearance

Guest post by Beate Schwirtlich

Science confirms what we already know. Plants make people feel better. They benefit us in a way any student who has ever looked up from a book at cold cinder block dorm walls at 3:30 in the morning will appreciate. One researcher describes the plant world as “non-threatening and non-discriminatory”. Studies into what are called people-plant interactions show that people benefit from just being near plants and gardens.

Among the findings:

  • Being near plants improves concentration and lessens mental fatigue.
  • Hospital patients with a garden view got well faster and needed less pain killer than patients whose windows looked out at the wall of another building.
  • People who have houseplants are calmer and more receptive. Interaction with plants makes people more receptive to each other as well.
  • Prison inmates with cell windows overlooking greenery are less stressed and less likely to get sick than other prisoners.
  • A study of 4,000 horticulturalists found that a sense of peace and tranquility and a chance to appreciate beauty were the best benefits of gardening, according to the gardeners themselves.
  • Just looking at a plant can lessen feelings of stress, fear, anger, and can reduce muscle tension.
  • A 1988 Gallup opinion poll found that 88 per cent of those surveyed agreed plants were important “beyond their beauty or pleasing appearance.”

That’s a lot of good vibes packed into one or two windowsill-sized plants. One biologist asserts that the human connection with nature has, throughout history, been not a luxury but a necessity. That connection, the biologist argues, explains why we react so positively to nature today. According to the research, the pleasant feelings we get from being close to nature can actually improve our health.

A spider plant in a dorm room will not only make you feel good: it will also clean the air. Plants produce oxygen while consuming carbon dioxide, and filter toxins from the air, specifically Trichloroethylene, Formaldehyde, and Benzene. These manufactured chemicals are pollutants that have ended up in our air and water. (Benzene, a chemical made of coal and oil, is also produced by volcanoes and forest fires.) They are used in industry and in the home, things like wood products, plastics, detergents and pesticides, and solvents or glue. Compounds like these can move or ‘off-gas’ from a product into the air. All are unhealthy to breathe. Plants absorb these chemicals and produce oxygen at the same time. A NASA study (looking into methods of cleaning astronaut air in space) found that spider plants, pothos and philodendrons filter toxins most efficiently.

Luckily many of the plants that best clean the air can handle the tough conditions of dorm living too.

Certain plants thrive in adversity. Plants such as these will clean the air, clear your mind, and survive the tough conditions of dorm living too. They can handle sleepless nights, loud music, bad food, too much water or too little, and too much heat or cold. And they, unlike some other creatures, will never complain.

Dracaena, Aloe Vera, Mums, Gerbera Daisies, Ivy Bamboo Palm. Mauna Loa, Chinese Evergreen, Burn Plant, Ficus, and Dumbcane are other air-cleaning wonder plants for your living space.

Easy care Dorm Plants

by Gayla Trail

1. Mother-In-Law’s Tongue (Sanservieria trifasciata)

Commonly known as Snake Plant or Mother-In-Law’s Tongue, this succulent is one of the hardiest houseplants around. This member of the agavaceae family can be identified by its long, spiky, variegated foliage, resembling snakeskin but edged with bright yellow/green. Waxy coated, succulent leaves make it drought tolerant, but this particular species is less succulent then other Sanservieria allowing it to tolerate lower light conditions then most succulent plants.

Light: Prefers bright sunlight but will tolerate a wide range of light levels including quite dark areas.

Temperature: Average room temperature is sufficient. Temperatures lower than 50°F can cause base rot.

Water: During the growing season (spring to fall) allow the soil to dry out slightly between watering. In the winter months, water once every 1-2 months. Misting of the leaves is unnecessary.

Repotting: Repot this plant infrequently. It is a slow grower and likes to be in small containers.

Propagation: Beginners should stick to propagation through offsets or division. As the plant grows it will produce many offsets that can be removed and replanted or left in the pot. It can also be propagated by leaf cuttings, but this method isn’t recommended for beginners.

2. Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

A popular indoor plants for beginners due to its tolerance of all forms of neglect. Long, arching, variegated leaves are green on the inside and white on the edges or vice versa. There is a plain green variety but variegated leaved plants are the most popular. They are excellent in hanging baskets. Mature plants will soon form runners or baby plantlets. They form from shoots and hang down the side of the pot–hence the name spider plant. Spider Plants are also known for their ability to absorb dangerous chemicals from the air, perfect for the stuffy interiors of dorm life.

Light: Plants with variegated leaves require brighter light conditions to maintain the variegation. This plant prefers well-lit, indirect sunlight. It can be hung near a window or placed on a table close by.

Temperature: Thrives in average room temperatures but should not go below 45°F in winter.

Water: Water liberally during the growing season (spring to fall) since this plant is such a fast grower. Mist leaves during the summer months to boost the humidity levels. Reduce watering during winter.

Repotting: Repot in summer if the plant is literally bursting out of the container.

Propagation: One of the easiest houseplants to propagate as it basically does the job for you by producing mini versions of itself that are formed on long stems which emerge from the center of the plant. Spider plants can be easily propagated by division.

Common Problems: Although Spider Plants are easy to care for and will grow large and lush under the care of the blackest of thumbs, few can avoid the brown tips that are common to the leaves of this plant. The most common cause is high concentrations of chlorine and fluoride in tap water. This can be prevented by watering with rain or distilled water. Brown leaf tips can also be caused by under fertilizing or low humidity. You can remove the brown tips by trimming them off with scissors, following the shape of the leaf tip.

3. African Violet (Saintpaulia)

One of the features that makes this plant appealing is its ability to produce sets of flowers several times a year, uninhibited by the seasonal constraints that affect most plants. They come in many leaf shapes and flower colours and even dwarf varieties are available.

Light: African violets prefer bright light, but avoid direct sun. They should be placed away from a window, but not in the dark. They will thrive under artificial, fluorescent lights, making them ideal for dorm rooms lit by fluorescent tubing.

Temperature: They do best at temperatures between 60°F and 70°F. Avoid cold draughts.

Water: Maintain moist soil, but let the surface soil dry before watering. Water with tepid water. The best way to water African violets is by placing the pot in a bowl of shallow water instead of pouring water over the top of the soil. With this method you can avoid spilling water on the leaves, which will turn the leaves brown. African violets thrive under humid conditions. Achieve this by placing the pot on top of a dish filled with pebbles and water.

Repotting: They prefer to be root bound. Repot very infrequently.

Propagation: Division or leaf cuttings.

4. English Ivy (Hedera helix)

Another popular houseplant, and a regular in living rooms since Victorian times. The assortment of available leaf shapes, colours, variegation, and sizes of ivy make this plant endlessly interesting. They are easy to grow and will tolerate many conditions. They can be grown in hanging baskets or pots with the vines hanging down or trailing along book shelves and door frames.

Light: They will grow best in bright, indirect sunlight, but will withstand and even thrive under extremes of light intensity including full sun and shade. Plants with variegated leaves will require light on the brighter end of the spectrum.

Temperature: This is another plant that prefers moderate indoor temperatures between 50°F and 60°F. If the climate is too hot, the soil will dry out and the humidity level around the plant will be low, an ideal breeding ground for red spider mites.

Water: Keep soil barely moist, not soaking. Mist foliage regularly to encourage humidity.

Repotting: This is a fast growing vine, so repot in the early summer if the roots are struggling through the bottom holes of the pot.

Propagation: Ivies can be propagated very easily by rooting cuttings. Some variegated varieties may mysteriously begin producing new growth of different colouration. If you snip these off and root them in a new pot you can have a new plant of a completely different variety from the parent plant.

Common Problems: Red spider mites may cause you some aggravation. To avoid them keep the temperature moderate, the soil moist and spray the foliage with water regularly. Give the plant a bath every once in awhile by placing it under a gentle sprinkle in the shower. If you want to be extra careful, wash the leaves with water mixed with a tiny amount of soap. Be sure to rinse the soap off thoroughly.

5. Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)

The Devil’s Ivy is a hardy, fast growing trailing plant. They have heart shaped leaves that come in two main variegated colourations. The ‘Marble Queen’ variety has smooth leaves with white variegation, and the ‘Golden Pothos’ has golden, yellow-green variegation. The waxy, smooth leaves retain moisture well, making it tolerant to adverse conditions.

Light: Requires a well-lit habitat to ensure that the variegation does not fade, but will not thrive under direct sunlight.

Temperature: This is a tropical, hot climate, high humidity plant and will thrive at temperatures ranging between 70°F and 90°F. Do not let the temperature drop below 50°F.

Water: As stated previously this is a high humidity plant so be sure to water 1-2 times weekly and mist the leaves regularly.

Repotting: Same as English Ivy above.

Propagation: Fast growing vines like these are easy to propagate through cuttings.

6. Jade Plant (Crassula arborescens)

An easy to grow succulent that will provide many years of enjoyment. Their smooth, fleshy leaves can be as small as ½? small and as large as 1-2 inches long. Some varieties have red edges on the leaves. Over a few years Jades can grow to be as large as 2 feet tall. In maturity tiny, white flowers bloom during the winter months.

Light: Bright light or full sun is preferred. Too little light will result in elongated stems as the plant reaches for light. Jades that have red edged leaves will also lose this trait if light levels are inadequate.

Temperature: They prefer temperatures between 50°–70°F but will withstand 40°-100°F.

Water: Soil should be nearly dry before watering. The amount of time that will take will depend on how much light the plant receives. More light equals more water. Reduce frequency of watering in the winter months.

Repotting: Repot very infrequently. This plant grows slow and survives well when pot bound.

Propagation: Leaves that fall off can be placed in moist soil and will eventually sprout roots, stems and leaves.

7. Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica decora)

If you’re looking for something a little larger to enhance your dorm room this tree is a good candidate. Although they can grow to be gigantic in the wild, in a pot they will grow slow and stay reasonably sized. They have large, dark green, oval leaves with thin copper edging.

Light: Sun or shade

Temperature: Must be kept anywhere between the mid 60s and 70s F as they will stop growing in cooler temperatures.

Water: Keep soil barely moist, being sure not to over water: otherwise leaves will turn yellow and drop off.

Repotting: Infrequently

Propagation: Air layering

8. Cactus

There are many genera of cactus available to the beginner. In fact most cacti available in plant shops are easy care varieties. Care is so minimal for these slow growing plants that they nearly care for themselves.

Light: Bright light or full sun. Window sills are good if sun isn’t scorching or if the window isn’t freezing. Be careful in the winter not to put sill plants between the cold window and the curtains where they will freeze from the window or burn to death from the heater. Put your plant outside in the summer if you can provide a sheltered but bright location. Plants grown indoors can not withstand the scorching rays of the sun.

Temperature: During the winter 40°F at night and 60°F during the day. The key is to provide a dry and cool environment during the winter dormancy period.

Water: Cactus water requirements vary according to the seasons. The goal here is to mimic the changing seasons of the desert.

  • Winter – Give cacti enough water to prevent the leaves from shriveling and no more. Gradually increase water as spring approaches. A little spray now and then is a good idea.
  • Spring – Let soil become dry between waterings.
  • Summer – Water slightly less then spring.
  • Fall – Water once a month.

Repotting: Cacti are extremely slow growers, being most active in the spring. The best time to repot is right before the growth spurt in early spring, but you will only need to do this every 3 or 4 years. Clay pots are best for cacti as they let go of moisture, ensuring that you don’t cause rot from over watering.

Propagation: Offsets and leaf cuttings are easiest. Starting from seed is possible but difficult work for the beginner.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

Subscribe to get weekly updates from Gayla