Amid the noisy coverage of high cost health care and high-tech medicine, one inexpensive, low-tech therapy has received scant attention. This approach has proven a highly effective adjunct therapy for a broad range of conditions: mental illness, disabilities, AIDS, autism, orthopedic recovery, brain injuries, substance abuse, depression, cancer, Alzheimer’s, attention deficit disorder, obesity and burn victims.
Horticultural therapy represents a green revolution in medicine, one that policymakers, the public and a certain green-thumbed First Lady should give their full attention. Right now there are more than 500 healing gardens at U.S. health facilities, and the number, you might say, will only grow.
This “revolutionary” therapy has been around since ancient Greece. In the days before antibiotics and sterile conditions, fresh air and natural surroundings offered patients welcome respite from crowded and unsanitary conditions. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the country’s first Surgeon General and a pioneer in the treatment of mental illness, was convinced that gardening speeded the recovery of asylum patients.
In the 1950s, the psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger introduced gardens and greenhouses to the renowned Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, an institution that emphasized concern for the patient’s total environment. Dr. Menninger believed that working in the garden evoked a work ethic among patients, and enhanced their social and cognitive skills. Kansas State University soon introduced the first graduate program in horticultural therapy, and a new field was born.
The power of horticultural therapy offers a unique array of benefits to patients. Gardens represent a fresh horizon: a realm of sensory stimulation in welcome contrast to regimented clinical facilities. In the tranquil, soothing realm of the garden, patients become participants, rather than passive objects of medical scrutiny.
The garden awakens all of the senses: visual, tactile, olfactory, kinesthetic. In tending a plant the patient is engaged with daylight, air, water, earth, the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun—reconnected to the natural world. These senses are not abstract.
Plants are egalitarian, non-judgmental partners, providing patients with a sense of purpose, self-reliance and accomplishment. As one tends the plant, the plant responds. Every bit of love is reflected in the plant’s health, beauty and productivity.
If this sounds touchy-feely, well, it most wonderfully is. But the fuzzy feelings inspired by horticultural therapy are bolstered by a growing body of scientific research. The researchers’ findings substantiate green therapy’s extraordinary health benefits.
Thanks to biofeedback measurements, researchers know that, within minutes of stepping into a garden, a patient—or non-patient, for that matter—experiences positive changes in stress level, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. By working with plants over time, patients demonstrate enhanced mood, improved coordination, and reduced pain awareness (requiring less pain medication). Best of all, active garden participants recover more quickly.
How can you explain these extraordinary results? Richard Mattson PhD., Professor of Horticultural Therapy at Kansas State and a pioneer in the field, cites three factors that help account for plants’ healing powers.
Professor Mattson, who worked alongside Dr. Karl Menninger, and developed the nation’s first horticultural degree program at KSU, says that plants are in our DNA. Over a few hundred million years, man co-evolved with plants, using them as shelter, protection and sources of nourishment. A dynamic mutual relationship with plants has long been necessary to human survival.
The second factor, also rooted in evolution, is nurturing, an activity ingrained in who we are. The will and ability to bring a plant (or child) to life, nurture it into growth, and helping it survive is an indispensable human endowment. In nurturing, we ourselves are nurtured, and help promote our mutual survival.
When he comes to the third factor that might explain plant’s healing properties, Dr. Mattson confesses, “This one drives people a little crazy.”
Plants radiate what he terms a “halo effect.” In effect, the stored energy within the plants—the conjunction of sunlight, air, and minerals is felt and absorbed by humans. Just as we absorb the stored energy of plants in eating them, we also do by interacting with them.
Skeptics may scoff at such notions of plant energy—How pagan! How new age! Show me the data!
I feel sure, however, that patients engaged in plant therapy and most home gardeners have first-hand knowledge of the “halo effect”—the glow when you grow.
Curious? Embark on an experiment in your own laboratory: your back yard.