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Ita Yankovich

Summer seems so far away from this wintery tundra. You may be wondering why we are discussing the topic of plants while you’re digging your car out of the snow. Well, that is because every year we mark the 15th day of Shevat (January 28 this year) as the birthday or new year of trees, and by extension, a celebration of all foliage. 

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (Talmudist; 1249–1310) writes that the winter season extends from the month of Teves until the month of Nissan. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins. We may be smack in the middle of winter, but Tu BiShvat marks a turning point, a time when under all that frozen soil the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring. 

Man is likened to a tree several times in the Torah (Devarim 20:19, Yeshayah 65:22, Yirmiyahu 17:8). Hashem adorns this world with plants for our benefit, both to enjoy aesthetically and holistically. Most of us do not have opportunities to appreciate the beauty of Hashem’s natural tapestry on a daily basis, but one way we can get a glimpse is to surround ourselves with houseplants. 

Houseplants are cheap décor, enhancing the look of any room while improving everything from air quality to your stress level and even concentration. So, go ahead, place a planter on your nearest windowsill and breathe in some good health.

Medicine in a Pot

Next time you engage in the mitzvah of bikur cholim, bring a plant along. Plants have been shown to accelerate the healing process. Patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly shorter hospitalizations stays, fewer intakes of analgesics, lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and in general a more positive disposition, according to a study by Richard H. Mattson and Seong-Hyun Park in the journal HortTechnology. Patients in rooms that faced a green view recovered faster than those without windows or with those facing bare walls. It has been suggested that cultivating plants alleviates everyday stress and instills a sense of purpose, making it an ideal hobby for retirees. 

Houseplants improve air quality during the process of photosynthesis, as they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They have also been shown to remove airborne toxins. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to health problems, especially in children. Asthma has reached epidemic proportions among multiple age groups and is considered the most common chronic disease in urban dwelling children, according to Dr. Luz Claudio, a professor in Mount Sinai School of Medicine of New York. 

Houseplants combat dry air by decreasing dust and injecting moisture back into the air. Of course, a humidifier is best for those with major respiratory issues, but the natural boost from plants is enough to help alleviate symptoms. Dr. Claudio warns that although air cleaners with HEPA filters have been shown to improve symptoms of asthma, they do not reduce levels of all indoor air pollutants. “Some types,” he says, “can actually aggravate the problem by raising indoor concentrations of ozone above safety levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.” 

Mold is another toxin frequently found in homes, often undetected until symptoms appear. Basements and bathrooms are most susceptible due to moisture in the air in a constrained space. Placing a peace lily or Boston fern in your bathroom can help reduce microscopic mold spores in the air by 60%. 

A plant’s cleansing process doesn’t take long. A NASA study on plant-mediated air quality claims that houseplants can eliminate 87% of air toxins in just 24 hours. 

Plants are not just beneficial for the home. More and more workplaces are replacing their artificial with real ones since scientific evidence shows that they improve employee health, morale, and productivity. According to a study from the Agricultural University of Norway, people with table and floor-standing plants reported 37% less coughing and 25% less hoarseness after three months than when they left their offices plant-free. 

It’s hard to feel inspired working in a dreary, gray cubicle, but placing African violets on your desk might just be the pick me up workers need for that mid-afternoon slump. The purple flower has been scientifically shown to enhance brain activity and stimulate adrenaline. Researchers attribute the flower’s purple pigment as a natural endorphin releaser, which also reduces stress. Aside from African violets, spider plants, philodendron, and ZZ plants are best for an office space due to their ability to survive in low light. 

Cactus in the Class 

Forget the apple on the teacher’s desk; a plant will yield better results. A study conducted on sixth and seventh graders in Australia showed that grades increased when there were plants in the classroom and even the behavior of ADD children saw improvement. It also had an impact on attendance with a reduction of sick-leave in primary-aged students, according to the article “Plants in the Classroom can Improve Student Performance” by John Daly. Taking aside all the physical benefits, plants are also great teaching tools for kids, instilling responsibility and compassion for living things that are dependent on them. Plants conceptualize the idea of making brachos and appreciating the origins of our food while being in awe of Hashem’s beautiful designs. The best plants for a classroom are cacti, snake plants, and ferns since they are very low-maintenance and hard to kill.  

Resilience is represented by both humans as well as trees,” said Jack Kliger, president, and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. He announced recently that a sampling of a silver maple tree planted in 1943 at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia will be transplanted at a ceremony at the Battery Park City, in front of the museum. The tree, which has been dubbed “The Children’s Tree,” was smuggled into the camp so that the Jewish children imprisoned by the Nazis could celebrate Tu BiShvat in a secret ceremony. The tree will now be taken care of by students attending PS/IS 276, a middle school located across the street from the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In collaboration with the museum, the school will make the tree part of an ongoing curriculum in Holocaust education.


Seeds of Happiness

Science is catching up with the old Chinese proverb: “One who plants a garden plants happiness.” What is it about plants that make us feel tranquil? Researcher Virginia Lohr, a professor of horticulture at Washington State University, explains that humans are biologically wired to be around greenery. “We are more at ease when we are near things that help us survive,” Lohr explains. 

Behavioral research conducted at Rutgers University showed that the presence of flowers triggers happy emotions, heightens feelings of life satisfaction, and affects social behavior in a positive manner far beyond what is normally believed. They suggest that perhaps this is why potential suitors present flowers to the ones they are trying to court. Take note for your next shidduch! 

For the rest of the country, trees might be celebrated in April on National Arbor Day, but for us Jews, Tu BiShvat marks their birthday as the official midpoint between fall and spring. And even though it may seem like we are in a wonderland of white, winter’s intensity is declining, and nature’s rebirth cycle has officially begun. We may not be able to witness it, but under all that ice, new life is stirring. Until it sprouts, we can gaze at the houseplants that line our windowsills and bask in the multitude of health benefits that Hashem allows them to provide for us. 


Foliage Facts: Did You Know?

The first aspirin used as a pain reliever and fever reducer came from the tree bark of a willow tree.

Not all plants live off water and sunlight. There are plants that actually enjoy a tasty, meaty treat, like the carnivorous Venus fly trap. 

Plants respect family. It has been shown that plants can recognize when a nearby plant is their “sibling,” and they will give them preferential treatment by competing less for valuable resources like root space and sun compared to when they are surrounded by non-related plants. 

NASA researchers recommend at least two good-sized plants for every 100 square feet (about 9.3 square meters) of indoor space.


Top 5 Plants You CANNOT Kill

I know, I know! You don’t have a green thumb and hate plants. But don’t worry, these five plants are extremely low maintenance and practically indestructible.  


Spider Plants (Chlorophytum Comosum


The spider plant is named for the little clumps of small plants that hang off the end of its runners. These little spiderettes can easily be propagated into new plants.


Jade (Crassula Ovata


This plant is small and grows slowly. It can live up to 100 years. It doesn’t require a lot of watering and is very resilient. 



Snake Plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata) 


This sculptural plant is beautiful with its marbled, twisted leaves that stand erect. It is known to release oxygen at night so it’s the perfect plant to keep in a bedroom.


ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas Zamiifolia)


This shrubby plant with bright green leaves grows to about two or three feet tall and is equally wide. It will be happy under a variety of conditions from low light to bright indirect light. It will grow just nicely under fluorescent lights making it ideal for the office. 


Aloe vera

Like all succulents, it needs little water. This plant prefers bright but indirect sunlight, especially in areas with cooler temperatures. It’ll stay happy in the same container for years. If you have a sun burn or any skin irritation, you can crack off a piece and let its oozing green goo provide immediate relief. 



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