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Mr. Smarty Plants - Texas native plants that absorb air-borne pollutants

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Monday - December 15, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: General Botany, Non-Natives
Title: Texas native plants that absorb air-borne pollutants
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

hello mr. and mrs. smarty, I'm looking for native Texas plants that absorb pollutants and trap air-borne particulates. I found a list (below), but don't think they're native. Could you give me advice? Thanks! • Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) • Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) • Ficus alii (Ficus macleilandii) • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.) • Golden pothos (Epipremnun aureum) • Arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum) • Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifritzii) • Dwarf Date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) • Rubber plant (Ficus robusta) • English ivy* (Hedera helix)

ANSWER:

You no doubt read about the study done by B. C. Wolverton for NASA to determine the ability of plants to remove harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air inside the Skylab space station. He tested various tropical plants commonly used as houseplants and office plants to determine whether or not they absorbed certain airborne pollutants, the VOCs.  You can see a list of some of those indoor plants which includes some of the ones you asked about. Interestingly, the interiorscape industry made great hay from this study, lauding the cleaner air benefits of having living plants indoors.

None of the plants that you named (nor any of the plants on Wolverton's list) is native to North America:

Rhapis excelsa (Lady palm) is a native of the Far East (China and Japan) and not native to North America.

The currently accepted scientific name for Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (Areca palm or yellow butterfly palm) is Dypsis lutescens and it is not native to North America.

Syngonium podophyllum (American evergreen or arrowhead vine) is not native to North America.

Phoenix roebelenii (Pygmy or dwart date palm) is not native to North America.

Ficus elastica (Indian rubberplant) is not native to North America.

Hedera helix (English ivy) is not native to North America and, moreover, is considered an invasive species and listed on the Federal and State Noxious Weeds list.

A more recent study (Orwell, R. L et al.  2004.  Removal of benzene by the indoor plant/susbstrate microcosm and implications for air quality.  Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 157: 193-207) confirmed that several species of indoor plants were successful in removing even high concentrations of benzene from the air but showed that soil micro-organisms were chiefly responsible for the removal.  Their findings were that:  "Micro-organisms of the potting mix rhizosphere were shown to be the main agents of removal. ...With some species the plant also made a measurable contribution to removal rates."   The study was made in Australia and the plants (Spathiphyllum 'Petite', Howea forsteriana, Dracaena marginata, Epipremnum aureum, Spathiphyllum 'Sensation', Schefflera 'Amate', and Dracaena 'Janet Craig') are not native to North America. 

There have been many studies done on phytoremediation in soils (also, please see the answer to a previous question about phytoremediation) using both non-native and plants native to North America, but information about removing volatile VOCs via native North American plants has been difficult to find.  

Searching academic bibliographic databases, I did find one study using a North American grass:

Cho, Changhwan, et al.  2008.  Effects of grasses on the fate of VOCs in contaminated soil and air.   Water, Soil and Air 187:243-250.  Investigated the ability of native Tripsacum dactyloides (eastern gamagrass) and non-native  Lolium rigidum, (annual ryegrass) to remove the chlorinated VOCs—TCA, TCE and PCE—from air and soil.  Their findings were:

"It is suggested from the results that grasses can be used for purification of VOCs from contaminated air especially in a closed system, but the purification effects are likely to be low."

Most, if not all, plants are capable of removing volatile chemical pollutants from the air; but, as far as we know, no one has produced a list of native plants and their relative capabilities for doing so.  Perhaps the better question is: What types of soil-borne micro-organisms are the most efficient scrubbers of air-borne pollutants?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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