In the best of times flowers help us celebrate the joyous occasions in our lives. In more difficult times plants give us hope and inspiration to meet life’s challenges.
The role of plants and gardens in healing is ancient. As early as 3000 B.C. the Chinese were using medicinal herbs. The Greeks built a temple for Aesclepius, their god of healing, set among mineral springs, bathing pools, and healing gardens. In colonial America, the Quakers felt a deep attachment to nature and believed gardens were a place of creativity. One of the first programs to use plants in a therapeutic setting was established in 1879 at Philadelphia’s Friends Hospital after a physician noticed that psychiatric patients working in the hospital’s fields and flower gardens were calmer and that the gardens had a “curative” effect on them.
Within the past few decades, the medical community is rediscovering the healing power of gardens. Many hospitals and health care facilities are incorporating green spaces and gardens into their surroundings; horticultural therapy programs are often an important part of a patient’s treatment.
Healing gardens can be found in a variety of institutions including substance abuse treatment centers, outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, hospices and retirement homes, as well as in botanic gardens and arboreta around the world. Positive results can be less pain medication and had shorter hospital stays.
For an individual recovering from a serious illness such as cancer or stroke, gardens can be an important part of healing by providing hope and inspiration. They can give patients a tranquil place to escape from the world of doctors, hospitals and sickness.
The physical efforts of gardening—digging, planting, bending and walking—are great forms of exercise to keep the body healthy. Strenuous yard work such as digging or weeding not only burns calories, it is similar to weight training in building bones and preventing osteoporosis. Gardens and gardening activity can also improve mental outlook and our emotional mood by reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have found that gardening can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease.
A healing garden can take many forms but always provides interaction with nature. Visually plants provide inspirational colors or peaceful tones. We can hear the relaxing sound of water or the stimulating activity of visiting wildlife. The rich aroma of fresh earth and the delightful scent of perfumed herbs fill the air we breathe, while the fresh flavor of a crispy pea pod or sweet berry tempts our taste buds. We can touch the velvety smoothness of a flower petal or be touched by the movement of leaves in the wind.
Begin to create your own garden of healing today simply by planting a container filled with colorful flowers, a nutritious vegetable, or a herb such as lavender, sage, basil or thyme. In addition to being attractive and aromatic, these and many other herbs have been used medicinally for centuries.
Incorporating a few simple design elements turns any garden into a place of healing and inspiration.
- Grow plants that you find pleasing. Are you energized by bright colors? Then include annuals such as zinnias, petunias, sunflowers or cosmos. If you enjoy cooking, incorporate herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers into your garden. Plants such as sage or lavender can be harvested and used for aromatherapy.
- Include a place to sit and observe the beauty of nature or a path for walking through the garden. Enclose it with shrubs or fencing to create a secluded retreat.
- Add a focal point for meditation and reflection such as a piece of sculpture, a special plant, interesting rocks, wind chimes or a water fountain.
- Encourage butterflies, birds, insects and other wildlife to the garden for their healing energy. Birdfeeders and birdhouses quickly and easily begin attracting garden visitors. Choose plants that supply nectar and food including coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), butterfly flower (Aesclepias tuberosa) salvias (Salvia spp.), dill, parsley, and sunflowers.
The design and development of a healing garden, just like the process of healing and recovery, takes place over time. It is that journey and the time spent with nature that heals our body and soul.