Pot Luck: Combating Air Pollution with House Plants in Hangzhou

Pot Luck: Combating Air Pollution with House Plants in Hangzhou

Air quality and health in China are issues if you plan on living here for an extended period of time. And while Hangzhou’s air quality is excellent compared to many Chinese cities, most foreigners would agree that if they could improve the air quality in their home, they would. It turns out house plants can play a major role in this, something that the Chinese have recognised for decades.

While houseplants in the West have traditionally been viewed as aesthetic accessories, research has shown that they can perform a more practical purpose within the home. A recent study by NASA, for instance, showed that philodendrons, spider plants, and pothos are highly effective at removing formaldehyde from the air, while gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums were shown to be effective at filtering certain carcinogens.

If you go to nearly any major plant market in Hangzhou, you’ll stumble across plants that are considered air purifiers. As no major studies have yet confirmed these beliefs, much of it is merely hearsay and tradition, it can’t be taken as scientific fact. However, if you do choose to follow this guide in trying to improve your air quality, it certainly won’t hurt you. The prices here include the cost of the pot, though if you want a higher end pot, expect to pay more.

Tiger tail, or hu wei lan 虎尾兰, is a plant often given as a gift to people moving into newly constructed apartments in China to remove toxins from the air. You’ll know tiger tail when you see it because it literally looks like a tiger’s tail, with stripes going across a single large leaf that ranges from small to very tall. Tiger tail is normally sold in bundles of three plants. Short tiger tail plants usually go for around 12 RMB, medium sized for 30 RMB, and larger ones for 80 RMB. Vendors will tell you to water them every two to three weeks, and to put them outside when it’s warm out for extra sunshine. Because tiger tail comes from Guangdong, the plant will die if exposed to weather under 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius).

One leaf plant, or yi ye lan 一叶兰, also eat toxins from the air. Because the plant is a native of Zhejiang province, it’s one of the easiest plants to take care of and is one of the most popular plants for that reason. These single green leaf plants are much larger than tiger tail, and can grow up to 4.9 feet, or 1.5 meters. They go for around 100 RMB around Hangzhou, though the price depends on the size. A plus to one leaf plant is that it will grow new leaf stalks on its own. Water once a month when it’s cooler, and twice a month when it’s warmer.

While some plants in Hangzhou are particularly good at removing toxins from the air, others are especially effective at producing oxygen. The golden tiger ball, or Jin hu qiu 金虎球, is one of these. These golden cacti somewhat resemble sea urchins, especially the larger ones. With the pot, a small one will cost around 15 RMB, while a larger one will go for around 30 RMB. As the plant is a type of cactus, it doesn’t require much watering, maybe once a month. Vendors recommend that you leave the plant outside in the wind to dry off after watering, as overexposure to water can damage the plant. They’ll also tell you to apply the water directly to the base.

A small tree known for both producing large amounts of oxygen and eating dust in one’s home is the making money plant, or fa cai shu 发财树. Sales of this plant shot up during China’s economic reforms of 1978, when its name was changed to the making money plant and it became associated with prosperity. So if you want to wish good fortune on someone as well as good respiration, buy them a making money plant. These trees are recognisable by their twisty roots and small green leaves. For 140 RMB, more or less depending on how old and beautiful the tree is, you can have your very own. Remember to keep it in a warm place, as making money plants are from Guangdong and Fujian and don’t handle the cold well. Water every 15 to 20 days, more so when the weather is warm.

An easier small tree to take care of is the turtle back bamboo, or gui bei zhu 龟背竹 , which is local to Hangzhou. It’s not a bamboo. That’s just what people call it. You can recognise this plant by its unique leaves, which are broad and resemble a turtle shell. Generally vendors will tell you to water every two weeks, and because the plant is from this province, it can thrive without a lot of work on your part. They usually sell for around 130 RMB, but again, prices depend on the age and appearance of the plant.

If you’ve ever noticed the strange roots sold in Hangzhou plant markets known as winter bug, summer grass, or Dong chong xia cao冬虫夏草, you perhaps didn’t know its practical purpose. The root comes from Tibet and takes its name from the fact that in the winter it moves like a bug, while in the summer it becomes a plant again. It’s sold for around 70 RMB a gram, and when eaten, is thought to improve respiration.

I’ll end with one of the more interesting practical uses I’ve found for a plant in Hangzhou. The shake tree and money will fall plant, or yao qian shu 摇钱树, is thought to protect residents from computer radiation. This small tree, which stays green all year and if often sold in a bright red pot, sells for around 65 RMB a plant and makes the perfect gift for a coworker who spends too much time staring at a computer screen.

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