Suffice to say, we are living in unprecedented times – everyday, it seems that things change just a little bit more, and the only thing that is certain is, well…uncertainty. Whether you find yourself isolating with your family of five (or five roommates!), on your own, or somewhere in between, there is one other thing that we can count on to stay the same even amidst all the twists and turns, and that is our plants.
Through thick or through thin, succulents and cacti remain consistent and steady, a reminder that no matter how crazy things may seem, there is still a sense of order in the natural world. They still require sunlight, and (infrequent) water. They still grow and maybe even bloom, regardless of what is on the news that day. And in exchange for providing them with the care they need to flourish, our plants give us a great deal in return!
Plants Help Improve our Mental Health
Not too long ago, “forest bathing” made headlines as the secret to health and wellness, backed by the research indicating that spending time in nature can help to ease our stress and worry, allowing us to relax, think more clearly, restore our energy, and rejuvenate our spirits. With our travel plans currently limited and the wild backcountry out of reach for most of us, having plants within our homes can help to bring these incredible benefits rights into our living rooms…and home offices…and bedrooms…and kitchens. The possibilities of how to work plants into our living spaces are as endless as our imaginations (or Instagram feeds), and can provide a welcome respite from the chaos of our days.
Plants Can Help us Breathe Easier
Numerous studies have indicated that indoor air quality can be even worse than outdoor air pollution! But fear not – for as plants use their leaves to photosynthesize and respire, they are able to help filter many of these harmful air pollutants, such as formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene, out of the air we breathe. As the days grow warmer, throwing open some windows, diving into spring cleaning, and filling a few sunny spots with some succulents and cacti could go a long way towards starting each day with a breath of even fresher air!
Plants Can Boost our Productivity
Great news for all of us who find ourselves suddenly working from our home office (or dining room table) – studies, such as one performed by the University of Exeter, have found that having plants nearby can bring about a real brain boost – by as much as 15%, as compared to a bare work space! Similar studies have shown an improvement in attention span when greenery was placed nearby. Whether you consider yourself a plant junkie or a black thumb, there is no denying that plants are a part of our shared human experience, and finding the right plant for you can have a huge impact on your ability to thrive in an otherwise less than ideal work environment.
Plants Can Even Help Improve our Relationships
The strain of being confined at home with family members or roommates can be a struggle for even the most easy going personalities! Fortunately, another area in which plants excel is in helping us to cultivate a healthy dose of compassion. Caring for a plant, ensuring that it has what it needs to thrive, helps to bring out our innate qualities of nurturing, empathy, and connection to other living beings. The routine of taking time from the stress of daily life to tend to our plants can even serve as a type of active meditation, helping us to slow down, collect our thoughts, and come back to center before tending to our relationships with our fellow humans.
For those of us who find ourselves isolated or quarantined alone at this time, plants can serve yet another function as our leafy (or prickly) companions – in fact, a study performed by the Royal Horticultural Society found that talking to plants really can help them to grow faster and healthier. So why not share any frustrations you may be working through with your succulents? They make excellent (and judgment-free) listeners.
Where to Get Started
If you need no more convincing that succulents and cacti, with their low-maintenance nature, may be the key to bringing more plant life into your socially-distanced days, the next step is the fun part – choosing which plants to bring home! Since most of us aren’t so lucky as to live in homes with huge swaths of west or south-facing windows, we’ve outlined a few types of succulents that can thrive in lower light situations – though they certainly wouldn’t mind a brighter window, too, if you have it!
A fascinating and unique genus of plants, some Euphorbia very closely resemble cacti, but looks can be deceiving! In actuality, these similarities are only due to a phenomenon called “convergent evolution.” Like true cacti, Euphorbia have prickles, but of a very different kind. While cacti have spines, which are modified leaves originating from areoles, Euphorbia most often have thorns, which are modified stems that do not emerge from areoles. Furthermore, Euphorbia also weep a toxic and sticky sap when cut or otherwise damaged, which can irritate the skin (or the mouth of unsuspecting pets or children, so it is worth keeping Euphorbia on a high shelf!).
Like their cacti doppelgangers, Euphorbia also store water for dry spells, and can thus be watered thoroughly but infrequently. Unlike many cacti, however, these strange and cool plants can still thrive in less bright conditions, and are therefore a great fit for a lower light window or room.
Relatively rare in comparison to other genuses of succulents, Gasteria draw their name from the unique shape of their flowers, which resemble a stomach. The leaves of some varieties look quite similar to their cousins the Aloe, while others are sometimes referred to as “ox tongue,” due to their oblong shape. Native to South Africa, where they thrive in shaded conditions, these succulents are especially well suited to life as houseplants. While some succulents, like the rosette-shaped Echeveria, would begin to etiolate if placed too far from a bright window, the tolerant Gasteria would make for a pretty focal point on a dining table or desk in a moderately bright room. One good rule of thumb to keep lower-light succulents happy is to make sure they can still “see” a window, though they don’t need to be placed directly in front of it.
Native to South Africa as well, Haworthia in their natural habitat thrive tucked into the shady crevices between rock outcroppings, which makes them a perfectly suited lower light indoor succulent! Their ease of care, coupled with the sheer number of varieties available, means that there is likely a Haworthia out there for everyone – though bear in mind that the darker green varieties will be able to tolerate the lowest amount of light, while the lime green, silvery, and even purple variations would prefer slightly more light to maintain their unique coloring. A perfect beginner plant, they can also withstand infrequent watering, and have “talkative” leaves that will begin to wrinkle or pucker when in need of a drink.
With their almost hypnotic leaf arrangement and structure, a single Haworthia (or three!) in a simple white pot can be all it takes to transform your desk or countertop into a Zen garden.
Most well known by their colloquial names, such as “String of Pearls,” “String of Raindrops,” and “String of Bananas,” Senecio have recently risen to fame – and for good reason! While their uniquely shaped leaves are more delicate than other succulents, specifically at the point where they attach to the stems, they are an incredibly fast growing plant that will create a beautiful trailing effect in short order. As a bonus, a content Senecio will also send out dainty, daisy-like blooms that smell like cinnamon!
In addition to being gentle with their leaves and stems – especially when repotting – it is also important with Senecio to avoid overwatering. Their leaves will shrivel slightly when in need of a drink, but too much water too often (or a pot with poor drainage) can easily subject these beautiful succulents to rot issues.
No matter what your days might look like now, one thing is for certain – we could all use a little bit of a pause, a moment of calm, in the midst of all the chaos. Whether you’re a seasoned plant parent or a total newbie, succulents can play a role in providing that respite from the stress and anxieties of navigating this new normal. So if that’s a single Gasteria perched on a windowsill, a stunning Senecio draping over the edge of a bookcase, or a whole crew of Haworthia gracing your kitchen counters, find a way to bring a little something green and beautiful into your life – I promise, you won’t regret the time spent “social succulenting.”