Paging Dr. Green!

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 3:45 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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11 Responses to “Paging Dr. Green!”

  1. Dac said:

    Halo effect? I’ve heard a friend expound on the aura around a plant, a halo that insects can see even if we can’t. Who knows?

    I’d hate to be in a situation that prevented me from gardening, even on the deck or in a windowsill if that’s all I can manage.

  2. Cheryl in msla said:

    I have stage IV breast cancer that has spread to my brain, bones and liver. I can say without a doubt, the best medicine is working in my garden. Even if I am sitting in one spot and weeding, I can not think of anything that restores me the same way.

    • George said:

      Extraordinary testimony to gardening. A hospital official once told me a while ago that television was as effective as many of our common opiate-like painkillers. I was shocked but when I thought about gardening, I realized there might be a parallel. I don’t watch TV (I lied in the recent blog ‘Turning Your Castle Into A Home’), but I remember Billie Holiday said she always knew she had kicked heroin when she no longer wanted to watch TV. There is something awful about it—it robs us, whereas gardening gifts us with the essence of life itself. Gardening, we become life.

  3. Cathy W said:

    Thank you for doing such a wonderful job in explaining exactly how I feel about gardening:) So many people say to me that my garden must take a lot of hard work to keep up and I always say that it’s just a labor of love! great writeup cw

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Cathy.

  4. Duke said:

    I tested HIV+ way back in 1987 when I started experiencing health problems. Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of gardening, a habit which has steadily increased. I’m also an animal nut. If it has fins, claws, tail, fur, wings odds are I’ve had it over the years. So I have my own little zoological garden going here in Northern California. When I’m out in the garden and the turtles are sunning themselves on rocks in their tubs, koi splashing around , etc.. You get the picture! I lose myself in it all and the nasty side effects from my meds. seem not to be quite so overwhelming. My health is pretty good and my doctors keep saying the fact that I’m still alive after all these years is a bit of a medical wonder and that whatever I’m doing I should just keep on doing it! I have every intention of following that advice! If there is anyone out there in a similar boat I would welcome hearing from them and comparing notes.

    • George said:

      Good for you, Duke. Turtles are my second favorite creatures (to bears). Keep up the good gardening and be well.

  5. DK said:

    I would prefer to use DK as opposed to DUKE if you decide to post my comment. This was an afterthought on my part when considering privacy issues. Thank you!

  6. Wayne said:

    I have hundreds of visitors through my garden each year and the single most frequent comment about the garden refers to how tranquil it feels. One guest a week or two ago, confessed that before she arrived she had just been in an unpleasant altercation with her grown son, but within minutes of stepping into the garden, she said all the stress was swept away.

    As to the halo effect, sounds a bit odd to me, but I must confess that I do seem to experience something. For me, when the plants are healthy and growing, I feel something akin to the sensation I feel when I listen to really great classical music. It is almost as though the plants are singing to me. I recently repotted up some 2,000 plus Rhododendron and Azalea seedlings and as I walked among them the other day and saw how happy they looked, I felt as though they were singing. No, I don’t actually hear sounds, I just have that same sensation that I get when I listen to great music.

    The down side is that when the garden is stressed out from too little rain (10 acres with no irrigation system), I feel the plants distress as well. Most likely I am projecting my feelings onto the plants, but the effect in both directions, positive and negative, is still very real.

    • George said:

      Thanks for an extraordinary post, Wayne. I believe that plants “hear” as on some very deep or complex level. I have had precisely the same transcendent experiences working in plant and seed production—the latter being rather mystical, in fact. I shall post about it sometime soon.

  7. bob burroughs said:

    except for those pesky rabbits, groundhogs, deer,
    racoons; i agree with you 99.9%

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