The 8 Best Indoor Plants for Mental Health, Say Wellness Experts
Science shows our plants take care of us, too.
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There are some major reasons gardening and houseplant collections have become such popular social media trends. With so much worry in the world these past few years, Jamie Keaton Jones, LICSW, PhD—a psychotherapist and adjunct professor in Washington, DC—says for many people, tending to plants has surfaced as a hobby that’s enabled many individuals to focus their attention on something positive, while experiencing greater comfort and beauty from the company of a living being inside their spaces.
“Plants and exposure to greenery have been found to have multiple mental health benefits, such as lowering stress, decreasing feelings of depression, increasing sociability, restoring focus, improving cognitive performance, improving mood, and increasing self-esteem,” Jones says.
The Mental Health Benefits of Interacting With Plants
Research has shown there are many benefits to being in the presence of nature, whether that’s in a forest, having a small garden, or keeping a few household plants. “One study showed that patients at a hospital who had plants in their room reported less pain, lower blood pressure, less fatigue, and less anxiety than patients without plants in their rooms,” says Dr. Jenny Seham, PhD, Attending Psychologist, Director, Empowerment Series Garden, AIM (Arts and Integrated Medicine) Montefiore Health Systems in the Bronx, NY. How is this? She explains: “Cortisol, the stress hormone, has been shown to lower with plant interaction, lowering fatigue, irritability, and blood pressure. Gardening and care for plants can help people turn people away from negative thoughts or emotions.”
Gayle Weill, LCSW, a social worker in New York and Connecticut, says, “Studies have shown that plants and gardening aid in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression, while increasing productivity and serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for uplifting mood.”
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A Way to Stay Grounded
Our lives are busy and largely sedentary, with a lot of time spent behind screens. Weill suggests raising plants can be an opportunity to practice true presence in the here-and-now, focusing on something pleasant and worthwhile as it’s right under your nose. “Rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, [plant care] helps one focus on the present moment and provides a feeling of accomplishment,” she says.
Tyler Keith, LCSW, a social worker specializing in stress, coping issues and behavioral issues in Wilmington, NC (and an avid gardener) refers to this process as “grounding.” He explains: “Grounding is a mental health practice and spiritual practice that supports individuals’ senses of connectedness; a feeling of purpose, direction, or a place in the world . . . whether [you’re] talking about growing a garden, tending to a single potted plant, or admiring trees both indoor or outdoors.”
Keith adds that when we experience grounding, changes happen in our bodies. “Our heart rate slows down when we are grounded, our breathing becomes more full,” he says. “Muscles can relax as they become more oxygenated.”
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How Plants Help Us Connect
“I’ve seen the positive effects of community gardening on mood, motivation, energy, socialization, knowledge, collaboration, creativity, and self-confidence,” notes Dr. Seham. “These experiences can support empathy, increased community engagement, and a desire to support others. Plants can help people relax and feel calm, while stimulating creativity with the potential to engage multiple senses, sight, smell, [and] touch,” she says. “Activities like watering and tending to plants, responding to sunlight, recognizing what plants and humans need to thrive can be meaningful experiences.”
Keith adds one note before you fill your online shopping cart full of plants or run to the nearest nursery—while plants can definitely be helpful, they’re one part of a holistic wellness routine. “Gardening and plant care aren’t a cure-all,” he says. “Having a plant does not immediately or directly impact mental health processes. It is simply a piece of the puzzle that some can benefit from in exercising mental health maintenance that exposes individuals to positive thoughts and feelings.”
So, How Many Plants Do You Need?
If you’re wondering just how many plants you need to reap the benefits, Jones says it’s not about how many plants you have, but rather “about your interaction with the plant.” She poses the questions: “For example, is it placed where you frequently see it? Is it thriving?”
If you have a small space or aren’t sure you’re ready to be a full-on plant parent, starting out with a ton of plants could become overwhelming. Dr. Seham shares that in her experience, “Just one plant can make a difference. It can engage you by its smell or color that creates a positive mood response with every interaction.”
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Be Prepared for a Learning Curve
Like with any new skill or hobby, taking care of houseplants or growing a garden comes with a learning curve. Give yourself a little grace. “We aren’t supposed to be good at everything right away,” Keith says. “It takes time, energy, and investment to learn what plants need, such as sunlight, soil preferences, moisture levels, and proper potting methods!”
Allow yourself some time to learn the basics, be patient, and leave room for a little trial and error. Dr. Seham advises: “Start with one plant, and make the maintenance part of your daily routine, like making coffee or brushing your teeth.”
Chia-Ming Ro, garden consultant and owner of Coastal Homestead in Los Angeles, compares caring for plants to dating. “You’ve picked up some new plants, but you really don’t know much about them. In the coming weeks you learn more about them, get to know them, and how to treat them,” she says. “Sometimes it works out great because your ability to adapt to their needs align. While some plants don’t work out because you haven’t figured out how to make them happy. Or, some are simply too high maintenance!”
So with all that, what do these experts recommend as the best plant picks for bringing more harmony into your home? Here’s what they propose are the eight best plants for your mental health.
Sword-shaped with dark green leaves, the snake plant’s mustard yellow or white stripes make it stand out. Plus, it’s ideal for newer plant parents. “Snake plants are patient with new gardeners, as they are not quick to cook in the sun and die. These plants are great for building your confidence in your plant-care skills,” says Keith.
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With light green foliage and plenty of leaves, spider plants are another low-maintenance selection. “They do well with humidity and actually can handle varying forms of light, but they do best with medium light,” Keith says. “Sometimes people will put spider plants in their bathrooms to have a warmer, cozier feeling in the space.”
Occasionally, spider plants grow offshoots that can be snipped and potted as new plants. If you want a plant that’ll keep on giving, this is one to choose.
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Aloe vera is a novice plant owner’s dream, because it’s forgivable, adaptable and helpful to have around the house. Seham says, “Aloe vera produces a healing gel that you can use straight from the leaf.” “I recommend having an aloe in the home, as it is helpful for burns, cuts and scrapes,” says Keith. The juice from the leaves soothes pain, he adds, and helps injuries heal faster. That goes for sunburn and bug bites, too.
Pothos are adaptable plants with waxy green, chartreuse or variegated heart-shaped leaves. “They can exist in a lot of different ways, as they grow long vines that can trail or hang from a pot and grow downward,” says Tyler Keith. As a bonus, pothos also looks fantastic when supported with a trellis.
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A beautiful herb that attracts plenty of pollinators, lavender is also well known for its relaxing scent. It “has a calming effect, aids in reducing stress, promotes sleep and has anti-inflammatory properties when used as a topical for skin,” Weill says.
This means it’s great both in the garden and indoors, if you have a very sunny spot. Be sure to keep it in a pot near a window with lots of light if you grow it inside. Some gardeners need artificial growing lights to keep their plants happy. You can clip and dry the sprigs, and then keep them in a bowl inside your home or even sprinkle them in your bathtub.
“The experience of growing, picking and using herbs from your own garden has a positive impact on your mental health,” says Seham. Caring for herbs is a satisfying way to create a positive sensory experience.
Sun-loving basil is delicious in meals, and some types have health benefits, too, according to Weill. “Holy basil has properties that help relieve stress and anxiety,” she says. “The leaves are used for many purposes and act as an adaptogen, which is a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress. Having it can improve mental clarity.”
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This fragrant green herb is part of the mint family and is simple to cultivate. “Known for its calming properties, it has a light lemony scent that can be wonderfully intensified by rubbing the leaves between your fingers,” says Seham. “It has been used to improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, improve appetite and help with indigestion.”
She adds that lemon balm is common as a tea and is also used in beauty products, such as lotions and lip balm.
Spearmint is a hardy herb that grows quickly and is also part of the mint family. “It is great to just smell the leaves, without even needing to make a tea, for an immediate soothing effect,” Seham says. Give spearmint access to plenty of light if you decide to try it as an indoor plant. When growing outdoors, plant it in a container or confined space to prevent it from taking over the garden.