Ancient wisdom to fight against pollution: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
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Ancient wisdom to fight against pollution: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan

How on earth did they know back in 1,000 BC that sansevieria would reduce pollution at the burning grounds?

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 03, 2016 20:35 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
Pollution,Sansivieria,Mother-in-law's tongue
At the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. We’ve been using plants like the sanseviera to clean our air since about 1,000 BC. Maybe it’s time to bring them home again.(AFP)

Our Capital saw its first winter morning fogs this week. Along with views of enshrouded cityscapes, several posts appeared on social media of beautifully misty balconies and gardens. One comment said, “Plant more sansevieria for the pollution.” Delhi gardeners know it as ‘sansivera’. Varieties of these sharply pointed succulents are native to our soil and are also known as ‘snake plant’ and ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’. I generally avoid keeping thorny plants around, but this comment suddenly opened a long-lost file from childhood in my head.

Chasing after this connection, I first checked out ‘sansevieria’. There’s quite a lot of information out in the ether about this plant. It is indeed upheld as one of the top house plants for purifying the air, along with money plants and areca palms. Charming also was the botanical tidbit that it was named after a count of Naples, Italy, in 1870. Even more fascinating was the information that, after much research, NASA decided to put this plant on the rockets it sent into outer space, to help keep the air fresh for astronauts.

An Indian CEO, Kamal Meattle, is said to have built on this finding of NASAs and worked with Indian researchers to freshen the air in his New Delhi office building — using six air-purifying plants per employee. And, speaking at a TED talk, he reported a 20% jump in productivity.

Watch the Kamal Meattle TED talk here

Elsewhere, I read that sansevieria “removes at least 107 known air pollutants, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide... [and] also produces copious amounts of oxygen throughout the night, making it an excellent plant to keep in the bedroom. Sansevieria is an extremely resilient species that can go for weeks without water and seems to thrive in just about any climate, including those with low light, although they do appreciate direct sunlight and fresh air”.

En route, I discovered from a study of plants conducted in Chennai that “one of our spectacular jungle flowers is the ‘kaaya’ (Memecylon edule) referred to in ancient Tamil Sangam literature. It is a large shrub with clusters of deep blue flowers arranged like a powder-puff, and red berries. The blue flowers are compared to the neck of a peacock. In the second century Tamil epic Silappadigaram the colour of the flower is compared to the complexion of Durga. A dark complexion was considered beautiful in Tamil Nadu. Marco Polo, the Italian traveler, who visited South India during the thirteenth century, recorded that people tried to make their children acquire a dark complexion by anointing them with oil and exposing them to the sun. White was considered an inauspicious colour and was associated with the ashes of the cremation ground” (Marco, incidentally, did not like us much, for this and other reasons).

The sansevieria or mother-in-law’s tongue. Do you have one at home?

This brought me back to the ‘sansivera’, to sansevieria roxburghiana, called ‘maral’ in Tamil Nadu, where it is considered an inauspicious plant because it is grown at cremation grounds. How on earth did they know back in 1,000 BC that sansevieria would reduce pollution at the burning grounds! Time we brought it home again, wouldn’t you say?

The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Dec 03, 2016 18:01 IST