Life is unpredictable. The rhythmic flow of our day-to-day existence can be interrupted without warning, our entire life’s course rerouted in a single instant. Try as we may to develop the creature comforts of a stable, secure life, uncertainty is the inevitable gamble we take when building relationships and growing mutual dependency with other living beings, including our relationships with plants.
Impending change can send people running toward the fixity of static objects. With houseplants, their artificial analogs offer a lot of the perks of planthood without all of the work we put in to navigate light and room temperature. We get it. As much as we love our plantcare routines, it would be a lie to say that dusting fake leaves once a quarter didn’t sound like a vacation compared to weekly waterings and seasonal window rotation.
This frustration isn’t new. The making of plant replicas isn’t a modern concept but began as an artform that dates back milenia to ancient Egypt, Rome, and China, followed by South America and parts of Europe. Fake leaves, flowers and entire plants have been woven from silk and nylon, painted onto paper, shells and metal, blown from glass, sculpted with wax or clay, and plumed from feathers. Now, fake plants are almost exclusively made from polyester due to its malleability and low cost.
Artificial plants weren’t solely created for ancient aesthetics, though. They have also been used as scientific models and for educational purposes to more accurately depict plant species that are either difficult to maintain indoors or have since gone extinct.
When taken out of the museum or classroom and placed side by side inside of someone’s home, which type of plant, the living and the lifelike, really is the most beneficial? To find out, we compared three beneficial elements of plantcare—ambience, quality of life, and financial cost—to determine how real and artificial plants measure up against each other.
Vibe Check: Are Real Plants More Healing Than Fake Plants?
Plants light up a room with ambience in a way that few objects can. But what about artificial plants that appear to be shockingly real (at least from a distance)? The presence of living houseplants has been shown to increase recovery time for hospital patients, sharpen focus in the workplace, and even improve emotional and mental health. Plants’ polyester doppelgangers can produce remarkably similar results in waiting rooms and offices alike.
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In places where plantcare may be cost prohibitive, where there is not enough light to nurture green life, or there are not enough workers to maintain plants, especially in facilities like hospitals and nursing homes, studies show that artificial plants still get the job done. Fake plants rank lower than their living counterparts when surveyed by patients, family and staff, who prefer plants that are alive, but the consensus is that artificial plants are better than no plants at all (Blaschke 2017).
A room with a view overlooking trees or a garden improves patients’ emotional state and recovery time, and even just a picture of plants or scenic nature painting proves more beneficial than a beige wall, because "we didn't evolve in a sea of gray cubicles." (Fulton 2014).
Staring at a concrete parking lot aids no one. Not only do indoor plants contribute to healing and focus, but having an outdoor natural setting to look at like a park, treetops, or even a lawn that has activity is shown to greatly improve people’s moods and sense of calm. Watching a squirrel hop across tree branches or a bee flit from one flower to another in search of nectar reduces fatigue and improves one’s satisfaction in life (Clay 2001). This sets living plants apart in their multitasking ability to hold our attention and help us heal all while facilitating other forms of life.
For Your Health: Do Fake Plants Have the Same Effect + Benefits as Real Plants?
There is a lot of work that plants do every day that we take for granted because it is invisible to the naked eye. Plants are silent cleaners of the air, helping filter out harmful environmental pollution, maintaining humidity in the home, and literally increasing oxygen in our homes.
As low-maintenance as fake plants are, they do not aid in cleaning our air or giving back in a meaningful way like living plants do. Yes, real plants are at risk of plant death at some point, but they are biodegradable, so when they’re time is up, they return to the cycle of decomposition, growth and rebirth. Another perk about living scenic landscapes is that real plants offer shelter to other microorganisms, insects and small animals, their root systems help prevent soil erosion outdoors, and their powers turn gas into oxygen, which helps to combat climate collapse.
If taken care of, polyester plants can outlive most of us with as little upkeep as gently dusting the leaves a few times a year. The downside is, of course, that the plastic from these fake plants does not benefit the soil at the end of their lives, and takes well over 400 years to eventually break-down.
Plants on a Budget: Which is the Cheapest?
Given that most artificial plants today are made from plastic, one would automatically assume that they are cheaper than real plants. But that isn’t necessarily so. We compared the cost of living plants and fake ones on mainstream platforms and, depending on the size of the plant and its pot, most plants run the same price whether they are made from plastic or are alive.
With artificial plants, there’s no risk in plant death but also there’s no perk of growth. A young living plant costs less money than a full-size adult fake plant, and everything it needs to thrive is already free (or cheap): sunlight, water, soil and time. Another bonus is that real plants can be propagated. You can prune their growth, stick the cutting in a vase and have another new plant that’s ready to be rooted in a few days. Fake plants can’t be shared. What you get is what you get, without the ability to modify or grow it.
There Is No Nurturing Plastic
We aren’t shaming artificial plants. They have their uses and can enrich people’s lives in ways that are similar to living plants. But they don’t offer nurturing care to our shared ecologies the way that real houseplants and outdoor plants do because they’re not part of them. Fake plants are antithetical to what a healthy ecosystem is all about: a place where life can thrive and multiply.
With fake plants, the care in plantcare is rendered obsolete. Because these plants aren’t vulnerable, there’s no need to check on them. They are predictable, reliable and risk-free investments, but their static composure ensures that the relationship between plant lover and plant object is one based on convenience not nurture. Fake plants are to real plants as stuffed animals are to pets: they can hold meaningful value and develop nostalgia in our lives, but they can only truly be decor. Because they are not alive, there is no dialogue. No wandering vines, no rambunctious new shoots, and no surprise blooms.
Artificial plants have a purpose, no doubt. They stem from ancient historical and cultural contexts, but as placeholders for the real deal, they can only offer a ‘better than nothing’ barely getting by appeal. Real living plants show us a different way of being in a relationship that is actively engaged in growth, that helps to heal the earth, not pollute it, so that we can share a more abundant—albeit unpredictable—life with each other.
Blaschke, Sarah, et al. “‘Artificial But Better Than Nothing’: The Greening of an Oncology Clinic Waiting Room.” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 10.3(2017): 51–60.
Clay, Rebecca A. “Green is good for you,” American Psychological Association, 32.4(2001):40.
Fulton, Cindy, "The Impact of Real and Artificial Plants on the Patient Experience in the Hospital Setting" School of Physician Assistant Studies, 2014.
Rines, George Edwin, ed. "Flowers, Artificial" Encyclopedia Americana, 1920.
Cover image Alexa, Plant swirl by Adrien