Is Plant Therapy a Real Thing?
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Gardening: an activity for the mind, body, and soul
To all the avid gardeners out there, myself included, we know that there’s something magical, even mystical, about gardening. Smelling the fresh dirt, brushing the sweat from our forehead, feeling the sun’s early morning rays, and talking to our plants are just some of the perks of gardening. Some of us do it for fun, others to produce our own food, and some to de-stress. I think it’s fair to say that after a gardening session, we feel way better. Do plants actually have therapeutic capabilities? If you’ve ever asked yourself this, you are in for a treat.
Let’s dig in
Horticultural therapy is an actual thing, and not just anything, but a thoroughly developed discipline within horticulture that’s gaining relevance by the minute. It’s an ancient practice that’s being revolutionized by modern thinkers. Rutgers University defines it as ‘the use of plants and plant-based activity for the purpose of human healing and rehabilitation’. It can help heal people with physical, mental, emotional, and social disabilities. Plants are ‘non-discriminating, non-threatening and respond to anyone providing care regardless of age, intelligence, race, religion, and cultural background’, according to the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers.
Our most recent WAGS feature, Perla Sofía Curbelo Santiago, is certified in Horticulture Therapy by the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Oakton Community College. They define the discipline as ‘ a professional direction in the use of plants, gardens, and experiences related to nature to achieve measurable results of physical and mental health in the individual’, as stated by Perla in her Agrochic article. This goes beyond our backyard garden and transcends into a practice that’s conducted in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, residential settings, and even prisons!
A brief historical glimpse
For the past 40,000 years, humans have survived because they have established themselves close to nature, having the resources that they need at their fingertips (Soderback et al., 2004). The American Horticulture Therapy Association (AHTA) has pinpointed the discipline’s origins to ancient Egyptian times ‘where physicians prescribed garden walks for those suffering from mental disturbance’, as stated by PLANTation Services. It has been attributed to even earlier times, around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia. The literature says that the Persians created gardens to stimulate all the senses by combining, ‘beauty, fragrance, music (flowing water), and cooling temperatures’, (Detweiler et al., 2012). In the United States, Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered as the Father of American Psychiatry, stated that gardening had curative benefits for people with mental illnesses (Detweiler et al., 2012). One of the most remarkable uses of horticulture took place after World War I to improve the care of returning wounded veterans. In 1959, the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine and the New York University Medical Center added a greenhouse to their rehabilitation unit. In 1972, the first horticulture therapy interdisciplinary curriculum was established at the Horticulture Department of Kansas State University in association with the Menninger Foundation (Detweiler et al., 2012).
Ever since then more universities and organizations have followed their example, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Five major European cities represented by 6 organizations have come together to form the European Urban Gardens Otesha (EUGO), a transnational project to connect urban gardens and promote sustainable lifestyles. In Argentina, projects and organizations have been developed to promote horticultural therapy and sustainable lifestyles, like for example the Garden Club Argentino and the Grupo PRODA. In Puerto Rico, the Carolina Campus of the Ana G. Mendez University is developing a Professional Certification in Horticultural Therapy, not only to promote its benefits but also to boost businesses in the agricultural sector to offer health services, as the article by the institution states. The topic is growing more popular by the minute, and it's probably gained even more popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people have refuged in their gardens and backyards to alleviate stress.
A place of peace and mutual benefits
At first glance, a therapeutic garden may not seem different from a regular one, but it’s methodologically designed to facilitate interaction regardless of age and physical, mental, or social capabilities. The AHTA has several guidelines that include basic features such as, ‘wide and gently graded accessible entrances and paths, raised planting beds and containers, and a sensory-oriented plant selection focused on color, texture, and fragrance’. More specifically, the gardens must have the following elements (Hazen):
Scheduled and programmed activities
Features modified to improve accessibility
Well defined perimeters
An abundance of plants and people/plant interactions
Harmless and supportive conditions
*According to rethinkurban.com, placemaking is ‘the process through which we work together to shape our public spaces, rooted in community-based participation. It involves the planning, design, management, and programming of shared-use spaces to bring together diverse people and to improve a community’s cultural, economic, social, and ecological situation.’
According to PLANTation Services (2020), aside from the interaction between plants, horticultural gardens provide a space to improve memory, cognitive abilities, language and motor skills, socialization and to lower stress levels. They contribute to physical and vocational therapy by helping strengthen muscles and teaching problem-solving skills. They are places to gain hands-on experience, not only about crop production and botany but also in terms of teamwork and companionship. This goes both ways, to the people that facilitate the practice and those that are receiving it.
A professional standpoint
As green infrastructure gains more importance, more professionals are needed to create these spaces accordingly and to make them accessible to the public. It’s vital that they are as inclusive as possible. Green spaces cannot be limited to the wealthy class of society. We all need ‘green time’ to unwind from our preoccupations and therapeutic gardens are a type of green infrastructure. The Town and Country Planning Association of the United Kingdom define it as ‘a network of multi-functional green spaces and other green features, urban and rural, which can deliver a quality of life and environmental benefits for communities’.
Career options for horticultural therapists can take place in any type of healthcare and social setting, working hand-in-hand with community members. In general, there are three pathways: clinical practice, community horticulture, or therapeutic garden design, but they can be combined depending on the scenario. The discipline brings together horticulture, social sciences, landscaping, and therapy. The Horticultural Therapy Institute provides examples of some possible positions for graduates of the discipline:
Special education after school program
Community and public garden programs
Therapeutic recreation in a children’s hospital
Residence for people with dementia
Rape crisis support group
Residential farm for youth at risk
Physical therapy in a rehabilitation hospital
Vocational services in a veteran’s Hospital
More than a hobby
Gardening is much more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle that can improve the quality of life of those who practice it. Today, we have seen another side to it, one that has an enormous potential to benefit people that tend to be marginalized and forgotten by society. Horticultural therapy offers a promising future because it’s developed around inclusivity and bringing people together regardless of their status. It also offers a career alternative for people who are interested in the sociological effects of interacting with plants. From prehistoric times up until modern civilization, plants have always mesmerized us with their quiet yet impressive capabilities. It definitely serves to show that we, as a society, cannot persist without nature by our side. Mother Nature never disappoints. She always offers a fulfilling and enriching experience. Horticulture therapy is proof of that.
If this topic interests you and you’d like to obtain a certificate in horticulture therapy, here are a few resources:
American Horticulture Therapy Association. 2020. Horticulture Therapy: History and Practice. https://www.ahta.org/horticultural-therapy.
Detweiler, M. B., T. Sharma, J. G. Detweiler, P. F. Murphy, S. Lane, J. Carman, A. S. Chudhary, M. H. Halling, and K. Y. Kim. 2012. What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly? Psychiatry Investigation. 9 (2): 100-110. doi: 10.4306/pi.2012.9.2.100.
Hazen, T. Therapeutic Garden Characteristics. https://www.ahta.org/assets/docs/therapeuticgardencharacteristics_ahtareprintpermission.pdf.
Horticulture Therapy Institute. 2020. Horticultural Therapy Careers. https://www.htinstitute.org/horticultural-therapy-careers/.
PLANTation Services. 2017. Horticulture Therapy: An Ancient Treatment Stands the Test of Time. https://plantationservices.com/horticulture-therapy-an-ancient-treatment-stands-the-test-of-time/.
Predny, M. L., and Diane Relf.2004. Horticulture Therapy Activities for Preschool Children, Elderly Adults, and Intergenerational Groups, Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 28:3, 1-18. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1300/J016v28n03_01?needAccess=true.
ReThink Urban. 2020. Placemaking. http://rethinkurban.com/placemaking/.
Rutgers University. 2020. What is Horticultural Therapy? https://plantbiology.rutgers.edu/hort-therapy/whatis.html.
Town and Country Association. 2020. What is green infrastructure? https://www.tcpa.org.uk/green-infrastructure-definition.
Söderback, I., M. Söderström, and E. 2004. Horticultural therapy: the ‘healing garden and gardening in rehabilitation measures at Danderyd hospital rehabilitation clinic, Sweden, Pediatric Rehabilitation, 7:4, 245-260. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13638490410001711416?needAccess=true.