Old Wives' Tales
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Toxin du jour
Claim: Cut flowers and potted plants suck the oxygen from sickrooms.
Origins: Many negative superstitions attach to flowers that are brought by wellwishers to cheer up the sickly. The blossoming out of season of a tree or plant is widely regarded as an ill omen, possibly even a portent of death, so offerings that come from such a plant are to be eschewed. Another floral death omen asserts bringing white blooms in a home will speed the demise of one living there. Especially to be avoided are white flowers that have drooping heads (for obvious reasons: the sagging head of the flower presages the lolling head of the one about to be fatally overcome) and those that are heavily scented (because the souls of the departed were at one time believed to be resident in such blooms).
In England there exists a strong aversion to having in hospitals bouquets in which red and white flowers have been mixed. Such a combination, it is said, will bring on the death of someone on the ward where the flowers are taken, but not necessarily the demise of the recipient of the cursed nosegay. Red flowers are usually considered lucky, their scarlet hue reminiscent of blood and thereby symbolizing life, so this is a departure from the
Flowers brought to a patient should never be laid upon the ailing person's bed. Also, it is said when the ill or injured person recovers enough to go home, he must
However, the greatest superstition attaching to flowers and sickrooms has to do with the floral offerings' purported ill effects upon the air in enclosed spaces. It is widely and erroneously believed flowers (cut or growing in pots) will suck up the oxygen in a sickroom, thereby depriving the invalid of needed sustenance. Our earliest print sighting of this belief dates to 1923, but the belief itself is clearly older.
Flowers do not deplete sickrooms of their life-giving oxygen. Quite the opposite, in fact: while plants do use oxygen at night, they give off ten times as much during the day, which means their presence enriches the air rather than impoverishes it. As for any residual misgivings about leaving a sick person overnight in a room with plants that are siphoning some of the oxygen from that space, consider this: in an hour, a pound of plant leaves uses about
Ergo, the nurse who enters the room a few times a night to check on the patient uses far more of that space's oxygen than does a whole floral array.
Barbara "the night nurse takes our breath away" Mikkelson
Last updated: 7 February 2006
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