En Español

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

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


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)


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?







More General Botany Questions

Are leaf margins of Chilopsis linearis toothed from Austin
December 22, 2013 - Are the leaf margins of Chilopsis linearis, Desert Willow, smooth or toothed? The NPIN descrip says willow-like. Most willows have toothed leaf margins. Thank you.
view the full question and answer

Contacts with botanical illustrators
July 16, 2006 - I am interested in preparing 3D (stereoscopic) illustrations of plants and flowers. Can you give some contacts with botanical illustrators for guidance? Are there any guidelines about botanical illust...
view the full question and answer

Where do snake herb and skeleton-leaf goldeneye get their names?
October 05, 2014 - Dear Mr. Smarty Plants, Where does snake herb, and skeleton leaf goldeneye get their names from? Thank you.
view the full question and answer

Monocarpic plants for Indiana
October 06, 2005 - We were in Hawaii this summer and became acquainted with the Silversword. This plant (according to what we were told) blooms only once in it's lifetime (of 50-70 years). Are you aware of any other pl...
view the full question and answer

How Do Persimmons Breed - Starkville, MS
August 14, 2012 - Thank you for your earlier response about the genders of native persimmon trees. We have two, a much larger one that has borne fruit for years and years and a smaller one that I'd just assumed was m...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center