Horticultural Therapy

Planting the Healing Garden: Medicinal Herbs

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website, www.oregonlavenderdestinations.com

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website, www.oregonlavenderdestinations.com

One of the most frequently-asked questions at the Therapeutic Landscapes Network is about what grows in a healing garden. Many people assume that a “therapeutic landscape” is a garden filled with herbs grown and harvested for their medicinal properties – in essence, that the healing comes from the plants in the garden. And this is certainly true some of the time (for a more thorough explanation about and definition of healing gardens, therapeutic landscapes, and landscapes for health, see this post and this post). More often, though, a healing garden is simply a garden filled with plants; research has shown that the more heavily planted a garden is, the more restorative it will be. The type of plant seems to be less important, though a variety of flora that stimulates the senses is a good start.

That said, many healing gardens contain at least some medicinal herbs, which are grown for a variety reasons: Their scent, or texture, or aesthetic qualities, or for their symbolism (for example, Topher Delaney designed the Carolyn S. Stolman Healing Garden at the Avon Foundation Breast Center in San Francisco, CA with plants that were traditionally used to treat cancer). Are they always harvested, processed, and used for salutary purposes? Nope. The fact is that especially in a healthcare setting, there often isn’t time or knowledge or the right equipment for, say, distilling Echinacea flowers into the tincture that you would use to boost the immune system. Are they beautiful, native, easy-to-maintain flowers that attract butterflies and symbolize health? Absolutely! Do they get harvested to ward off the common cold? Not usually.

The wonderful thing about herbs is their versatility. Lavender, for example, is easy to grow; drought tolerant; beautiful; attracts honeybees; smells wonderful; and is easy to harvest for a variety of uses, including in tea, cooking, baking, and potpourri. Lavender is known for its calming properties, and, if distilled in a tincture, is an excellent anti-bacterial disinfectant.

Some other reasons to grow herbs:

1. Herbs are great for children’s gardens because they tend to be easy to grow and are a delight to the senses.

2. Many herbs do well in containers and small spaces, as they don’t take up much space and often need less water than other annuals or perennials. For many years, the only gardens I had were herb gardens in pots on steps or front porches.

3. To the delight of gardeners with deer, rabbits, and other ravenous garden invaders, many herbs are not attractive for nibbling. In fact, sometimes they can even act as a deterrent and a “mask” for other more inviting flora.

4. Herbs often do “double duty” as culinary and medicinal herbs. If you have a kitchen garden, you may already be growing medicinal herbs: Rosemary improves memory and circulation and relieves sore throats and gums; peppermint aids digestion and treats sore throats, colds, and toothaches; parsley cures urinary tract infections and also helps to alleviate bad breath; marjoram treats tonsillitis, asthma, and bronchitis; thyme is used to treat gastrointestinal problems as well as sore throats and coughs; lemon balm is calming; basil reduces fever, lowers blood pressure, and is also an analgesic.

Sometimes you don’t even have to grow medicinal herbs – you can simply find them in your backyard or woods; those dandelions and pursane plants that are “ruining” your lawn? Think of them (or better yet, use them!) as medicinal herbs and/or delicious, nutritious greens and maybe your grass will look greener on this side (who needs a full-blown victory garden when you can just graze from your weedy lawn, right?). Worried about the stinging nettle at the edge of the garden? Harvest it – carefully! – to treat a whole slew of ailments, as well as for delicious meals like nettle soup.

With any herb, a little research may be needed to find out what part of the plant to use and how to prepare it for use in an herbal remedy. Sometimes it’s as simple as harvesting the flowers (chamomile, lavender) or leaves (lemon balm, peppermint) and making tea, other times preparation may be a bit more complex.

There are so many good books and websites about medicinal herbs, but here are a few resources that we list on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. If you know of a great book, website, organization, or garden as resource about medicinal herbs, please share it with us! We will gladly add it. We are also looking for more examples of healthcare gardens and horticultural therapy programs that use specific plant material, including medicinal herbs. Use the comments section at the end of this post to submit suggestions, ideas, and information.

To get you started, here’s a nice article from About.com about common medicinal herbs that are easy to grow, harvest, and use.

And here are a few fairly comprehensive websites to bookmark as references:

Herbs to Herbs

Plants for a Future (Includes a 7,000 plant database for US and UK, and they have a book, too. Very impressive!)

Traditional Chinese Medicine Database System

The University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden

And thanks to WMassHerbGarden on twitter for this recommendation: Growing 101 Herbs That Heal.

Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 2009 – Hot Off the Press!

Well, they’ve gone and done it again. The American Horticultural Therapy Association has published another great volume of the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture. I swear, the journal alone makes the annual membership at AHTA worthwhile. Some of the articles are very specific to horticultural therapy (no big surprise there), but many of them are broad enough to pertain to the work that landscape architects and other designers do. I think any self-respecting healthcare-focused landscape designer/architect should also be a member of AHTA.

Here are some of the articles in this year’s issue (Volume XIX):

“Integrating Horticulture into the Vocational Rehabilitation Process of Individuals with Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue, and Burnout: A Theoretical Model.”

“Survey of Hort. Therapy Programs in Tennessee.”

“It’s More Than Seeing Green: Exploring the Senses Through Gardening.”

“A New Model for Hort. Therapy Documentation in a Clinical Setting.”

“A Theoretical Perspective for Using Hort. Therapy with Children.”

And then there are the 23 AHTA Annual Conference Abstracts from 2008, many of them compelling enough to make me want to contact the authors. And building on the last blog post about the importance of PLAY, many of these articles and abstracts have to do with connecting children and teenagers with nature. Good stuff!

Forcing spring

Image from House Beautiful, 2008

It’s the third warm, sunny day here in the Hudson Valley, and it really feels like spring. Today I celebrated by cutting some stems from our giant forsythia hedge to force indoors. Even though forsythia and magnolia are three of the earliest spring-blooming shrubs (but later than witch hazel – see this post), we’ve still got a few weeks before they really burst into full glory. By taking cuttings and bringing them inside, you can trick trees and shrubs into thinking spring is further along, hence the term “forcing.” I actually could have done this weeks ago, but I always forget! You can force lots of other shrubs and trees, too, including azalea, flowering quince, pussywillow, witch hazel, serviceberry, redbud, rhododendron, beautybush, crabapple, and other fruit trees such as cherry, apricot, pear, and apple. To see some really gorgeous examples, check out this blog post from Habitually Chic: “Forcing Spring.” 

Forcing trees and shrubs is also a nice idea in the healthcare setting, particularly in long-term care facilities like nursing homes and hospices. Think how nice it would be in a place where residents have been cooped up indoors all winter, if the horticultural therapist or another health care worker or a family member took some cuttings and brought them indoors for a little spring preview. Or better yet, went with the residents on a “field trip” to prune a few branches on the grounds. Most long-term care facilities have flowering trees and shrubs, and as long as they are pruned carefully and not too overzealously, no one will miss a few branches here and there. If you are letting residents help, make sure to oversee the use of sharp tools, and of course no matter who’s doing the cutting, make sure to prune so that the actual tree or shrub isn’t harmed. Here’s a good article from About.com, that tells you when and how: “Forcing Spring Flowering Trees and Shrubs.” A bouquet of twigs, then buds, then flowering branches becomes a great conversation piece and provides that joyful anticipation of spring’s arrival. 
Of course, people force bulbs, too. Paperwhites and hyacinths are the most popular two, but other spring bulbs work as well. Here’s a good article about that from About.com: “Forcing Flowering Bulbs for Winter Color.” 

Royal Society of Medicine Conference: Therapeutic Environments

Spotted parsley image courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

Thanks to the folks at the Royal Society of Medicine for letting us know about their upcoming 
“Therapeutic Environments” conference, on Thursday, May 7 in Birmingham, U.K.

Here’s the scoop:

The aim of the conference is to introduce health professionals to the history, practice, range and clinical effectiveness of therapeutic communities. These are environments in which people of all ages are helped to work through emotional, and sometimes physical, trauma that has affected their ability to live productive and creative lives. Many repeatedly engage in self-defeating and damaging behaviour, and this approach enables them to find new and more successful ways of engaging in social relationships with others. It has application in a wide variety of problem areas, from emotional and behavioural disturbance in children and young people, to addiction and adult mental illness. 

The Darzi Report, advocating high quality services for people requiring care in the National Health Service, argues that patients should have “a greater degree of control and influence” over their care, “making services fit for everyone’s needs”, and “care that is personal to them”. Therapeutic Communities do exactly this, in a variety of settings.

Gardening is Good Therapy

Image courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

Check out this article from the Chronicle Herald Nova Scotia, “Gardening is good therapy,” by Beverley Ware, about women at a women’s center in Lunenberg. Click HERE or on the title above to link to the article. 

According to Nancy Chambers, Director at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine’s Enid A. Haupt Glass Gardens in New York City, “horticultural therapy is the modern professional discipline that uses planting and gardening activities to help patients improve their physical and psychological condition.”*

To learn more about horticultural therapy, go to the American Horticultural Therapy Association’s and the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association’s websites.

*Chambers, Nancy (2003). “Horticultural Therapy and Infection Control in the Healthcare Environment.” Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, Vol. XIV, pp. 56-61.

Gardening Leave – one great answer to PTSD

Image courtesy Gardening Leave
It’s Christmas Eve, and no matter what your political views are, you have to admit: It’s awful for servicemen and women stuck overseas and separated from their families, especially during the holidays. That old WWII song “I’ll be home for Christmas” still carries a lot of weight. And unfortunately, the trauma doesn’t stop once people are discharged. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In the U.S., our VA system is not at all well equipped to deal with the problem. Horticultural and animal-assisted therapy have both been found to be very helpful for people with PTSD, and in Scotland, one charity is addressing the issue in a very thoughtful and pragmatic way.

Gardening Leave oversees “horticultural therapy projects for ex-Servicemen and women growing fruit and vegetables in walled gardens which will provide a peaceful, unpressurised environment where veterans can participate as much or as little as they choose in the life cycle of the kitchen garden.”

Pretty cool, huh? Check out their website for more information, images, and videos: www.gardeningleave.org. If anyone knows of something similar in the U.S. or elsewhere, please leave a comment and let me know!

Happy, peaceful, safe, and joyous holidays!