Photo: Rajul Punjabi

Plants and mental health: Why I turned my apartment into a jungle

When I stood on the sidewalk in front of one of the twin Bosco Verticale apartment buildings on a muggy July afternoon in Milan, it looked a lot more subdued than it did from a half-mile away. On my way to see the buildings — whose name translates to vertical forest — they appeared to be mystical, moss-covered fairy tale towers, the windows swallowed up by a swirling coat of lush, dense shrubbery. But up close, they somehow made more sense, even being a complete anomaly in the Euro-chic concrete jungle that is Milan.

These magnificent green monsters are a part of Italian architect Stefano Boeri’s series of vertical forests, living spaces strategically designed to better people’s lives and futures — the superheroes of high-rises. Boeri’s team is in the process of designing and building similar structures in cities all over the world. His pioneering concept has been copycatted fiercely, for good reason: An abundance of plants and sustainably designed residences are projected to help reduce entire cities’ carbon footprint. The abundance of smaller shrubs improve air quality and density, and the trees act as natural air-coolers and air-filters, Boeri told me when I interviewed him last year. Plus, Bosco Verticale has eco-conscious irrigation systems and solar paneling throughout, a feature all of Boeri’s future projects will include.

Photo: Rajul Punjabi

While all of that is impressive — of course, I’d love for the earth to have a future — when I saw the towers, my thoughts swerved toward the mental health benefits that might come with being around all that plant life. Just peering up and seeing verdant, shiny leaves trickling down toward my face made me feel calm and hopeful. It’s old news that consuming plants is good for you. But as I later found, simply being around greenery can be *chef’s kiss* life-changing.

A lot of young people are already sold on this reality. Plant parents are busy individuals who are perfectly happy nurturing something they can’t cuddle with, and they’re reaping a lot of joy, both consciously and subconsciously. Many of these plant enthusiasts assert that caring for something aesthetically stimulating gave them a sense of control, and that the moderate amount of obligation required to do so can be incredibly satisfying.

Researchers theorize that seeing green can reduce stress, boost your mood, and even make you more productive. Imagine these perks on a larger-than-life scale and the benefits you’d reap if you were living in one of these vertical forests. There are 21,000 plants inside Bosco Verticale — many of them, inside people’s homes. The price for these small but luxurious apartments are steep, but that’s the norm for most of Milan. And while they didn’t offer this option when I visited, you can now crash there (for a significant chunk of change) if you visit and get the full experience.

Photo: Rajul Punjabi

While the Milan apartments are less accessible, Boeri’s new development in Eindhoven (about an hour outside Amsterdam) will be an affordable living community with rent stabilization. He’ll mimic this model in other cities, and costs will be offset by energy-conserving features. Housing politics aside, I was dazzled.

It became evident, some months after I arrived back home to my studio apartment in New York, that I needed to somehow claim my own slice of that vertical forest magic. It was winter. The sky was grey. My mind raced — how could I achieve that BPE (big plant energy) in the confines of my dry, shoddily lit, 375-square-foot abode?

I hit up The Plant Shop (a new collection from 1-800-Flowers), in the name of investigative journalism, and asked them to lend me a bunch of plants I couldn’t easily kill, and that couldn’t kill my always-hungry cat. They kindly obliged, and within a week, I was shipped 10 new shrubs of every shape and size, including succulents, money plants, and orchids.

This was my new life, I decided, as I stood among the mysterious leafy living things that were now my roommates. I’d be a triumphant plant parent and imaginary vertical forest-dweller. My skin would glow, bronze, like a well-rested J.Lo, my career would flourish, and Michelle Obama would want to be friends with me on Twitter.

Now let me explain what actually happened. Just two months later, I had already killed a few of these guys. It was a cold-blooded —albeit unintentional — plantslaughter.

It turns out that you actually need a little intuition and some basic knowledge to keep plants alive. You also need a hospitable environment for a plant like the stunning yet reliably temperamental orchid that now sits on my dresser, almost barren. My apartment, as I mentioned, is a arid wasteland, even with two humidifiers and constant spritzing. The first hard lesson I learned: You can overwater plants — actually drown them – especially ones in potters without drainage holes at the bottom.

And now, the good news. Living among plants is a multi-faceted type of glorious. I’ll give you the feelings before the science: Seeing nature and life every morning when I wake up is both refreshing and unexpectedly affirming. Ten plants did not crowd my apartment (many of them were small and sat on shelves or stuck, magnetically, to my wall), but they instilled an effortless aesthetic charm that reminded me of a more beautiful place than New York — somewhere tropical, with colorful birds.

There was also an inexplicable sense of calm that the plants brought to my time at home. My new green home quieted my mind. This helped me think, create, and muse. And perhaps lastly, I took great joy in watering, misting, and tending to the ones that managed to stick by me.

There’s a wealth of science and sociopolitical evidence that backs up my plant joy, too. To give you an idea of the magnitude, there have been over 1,348 research studies conducted globally over the last decade alone, Charles Hall, professor & Ellison Endowed Chair in international floriculture at Texas A&M University, tells Mic. Hall and his team have led some of these studies, so he’s knee deep in the findings. Some of the emotional and mental health benefits associated with plants include (deep breath) reduced anxiety and stress, decreased depression, enhanced memory retention, mitigation of post-traumatic stress disorder, increased creativity, enhanced productivity and attention, reduced effects of dementia, improved self-esteem and — wait for it — greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Photo: Rajul Punjabi

So while I sit here and consider how puny the plant-population in my home is compared to vertical forests, I’m still winning. My personal plant guru, Charles Hall, concurs. “The benefits we derive from being in the proximity of plants occur regardless of whether we are outside in improved landscapes or in the interior of our homes, office buildings,” he tells me. “The love that we have of living things is called biophilia and the principle of incorporating nature into the built environment is called biophilic design, one of the hottest architectural trends today.”

Hall explains that not only are our moods uplifted when we’re around even a few plants, but we show greater compassion, we’re better at household chores, we sleep better, and our actual immune systems are strengthened. I mean, damn. Y’all are out here looking for love in all the wrong places. Go online and buy yourself a Pothos. I named mine Rihanna and she slays all day on my desk at work. And when you figure out how to keep that alive, invest in a Majesty Palm so your cat can bask in the outdoor-ness she’s not-so-secretly craving.

Photo: Rajul Punjabi

Clearly, I’m not the only one whose anxiety was alleviated by having a mini jungle within arm’s reach. While I wish I’d gone into my experiment a little more prepared, other plant-curious can take a less from me and start slow. Alfred Palomares, VP of merchandising at 1-800-Flowers.com and self-proclaimed plant-head, tells me that if you’re a beginner, succulents and air plants are the best option. “They require very little water and care — just put them in a sunny place, and they’re happy,” he says. Other low-maintenance plants include snake plants, ZZ plants, and dieffenbachia (a.k.a dumb cane).

Look, at the end of the day, plants are not a magical cure-all. They won’t repair your relationship with your sibling, do your taxes, or fix your anxiety disorder. And they’re not “self-care” because their purpose is way bigger than just you. But this is the future, if we want a future — a focus on nurturing sustainability, in both the literal and emotional sense. Peace is fleeting. Tend to yours. And if that means moving to Milan, Atraversiamo.