A Tale of Two Grandmas: Houseplants and COPD

Growing up, I had the privilege of having two, wonderful grandmas. They were as different as night and day, but both of them were special ladies.

My Mimi was a firecracker. She was always teaching my brother and I to do things that my mom hated (i.e. flipping off my grandpa behind a menu at a restaurant or letting us watch TV shows that my mom would NEVER let us watch). We loved it, and thought she was the coolest grandma ever!

Whenever my Mimi would visit, I would drag her to my room for some “talk time,” and would share my little world with her: boys, trainer bras, best friend drama – you name it. When I got older, I would talk to her every Sunday on the phone like clockwork.

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A sweet moment between my Mimi and I (circa 1987)

My Grandma Joyce was the complete opposite. While she was sassy in her own right, she enjoyed teaching my brother and I church songs while she played the piano or would make (terribly inaccurate) birdcalls for us. When we would go visit her, we would enjoy roaming around her property in Indiana, looking for fossils in her creek bed and fishing in her pond.

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My Grandma Joyce and I (circle 1988)

Despite these women’s differences, they both were hit by the same affliction at the end of their lives: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Mimi had COPD from her life-long smoking habit – an addiction that she just couldn’t kick. Grandma Joyce smoked when she was younger, but stopped when she was older. Yet the damage was done.

Both of my grandmothers died with COPD; because of this, COPD is a topic that is close to my heart. I am honored today to have guest writer Erin Lowry of 1stClass Medical sharing how houseplants can have a positive impact on those who struggle with COPD.

– the {house}plant momma

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a progressive disease that makes breathing continually harder to do. COPD is a broad term that covers multiple lung diseases, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma. These diseases can trigger coughing, which in turn causes an excess amount of mucus, wheezing, chest tightness, as well as other similar symptoms.

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Image from British Lung Foundation

While cigarette smoke is a main cause of COPD, you do not necessarily need to smoke a day in your life to get COPD. Any harmful pollutant in the air can also cause COPD; additionally, constant exposure to those pollutants (smoke included) can worsen the effects of COPD. Minimizing these triggers means doing what you can to avoid the irritant or keeping your home clean to lower the amount of pollutants in your home.

Many respiratory patients spend roughly 90% of their time indoors, as outside air has been believed to cause COPD flare-ups. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there may actually be more indoor air pollutants than outdoor air pollutants. One reason is that many homes now have a better seals against the outside, which helps them be more energy efficient. However, this process also locks in pollutants. Also, pollutants such as harsh fumes from cleaners, dust, and pollen can get inside and embed themselves into carpets and upholstery. All of this may mean the home is not as safe for COPD patients as they might think.

A safe and relatively easy way to reduce these pollutants in your home is to invest in houseplants. Indoor plants are known to reduce harmful pollutants from the air by up to 87% in only 24 hours! How, you might ask? Plants use the process of photosynthesis to take in carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air, and in turn, release clean oxygen. By absorbing the unhealthy gases and releasing clean gases, plants can help clean the air; this is much easier – and cheaper – than paying for an expensive machine to clean the air for you!

In 1989, NASA put together a list of plants they believe to help clean indoor air the most efficiently. English ivy, peace lilies, flamingo lilies, variegated snake plants, chrysanthemums, and bamboo palms are all great plants to remove many pollutants in the air.

If you aren’t familiar with these plants, here is some basic information about them.

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English Ivy: English ivy needs to be grow in a shaded area with rich soil; it should be watered enough to keep the soil moist. It’s vines can grow up to 50 feet long – or more – over time.

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Peace Lily: Peace lilies need partial shade, but can survive off virtually no sun at all. They should be watered when they start to droop.

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Flamingo Lily: Flamingo lilies are from the rainforest, so they enjoy growing in a humid area, in a pot of moss-based soil. This lily requires enough water to keep the soil moist; however, do not allow the soil to get overly wet and make sure the pot has a way to drain.

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Snake Plants: Snake plants grow best in a pot with good drainage or in a soilless potting mix, so that it does not get overly moist. These plants can handle indirect sunlight, and only need to be watered when the soil dries out.

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Chrysanthemums: These plants need regular watering, poured under their leaves to avoid any fungus growth. Chrysanthemums do not like humidity and only bloom for 3-4 weeks total, leaving behind their beautiful leaves.

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Bamboo Palm: Bamboo palms only need indirect or filtered light. They like to have their soil kept moist, but be careful not to overwater, as it can lead to root rot.

All of the best plants for the air quality are also fairly low maintenance. This makes it easier for those with COPD and other respiratory diseases to maintain a plant without having to constantly provide care for it. Many of the plants listed only require enough water to keep the soil moist and a minimal amount of indirect light.

It should be noted that many of these plants are not pet friendly. If you have pets, make sure you get non-toxic plants or keep your plants in places you are confident your pet cannot reach. (To learn more about plants that are pet safe, click here).

Before bringing home any plant, I recommend making sure you are well educated about the plant you are buying. Speaking with a specialist at your local nursery or garden store, or doing research online, can help ensure you know how to care for the plant in your climate and region.

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A note of caution: If you aren’t careful, an over-watered plant can produce mold; this will have the exact opposite effect of the plants air cleaning purpose.

Houseplants have many benefits for their owners, but for those with COPD, those benefits can be life – and health – altering!

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