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Past Issues Of Wildflower Magazine

Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.

Healing Earth - Fall 2005

Horticultural therapy relies on plants and gardening to heal body, mind, and spirit
By Lisa Selin Davis

The man suffers from schizophrenia. He hears voices that tell him he must continually do good deeds; he's never off the hook, and he always feels guilty. His therapists at Skyland Trail, a treatment facility in Atlanta, had little luck treating him until they tried what's called horticultural therapy, or HT. Now once a week he joins an unlikely group of gardeners - a woman with bipolar disorder, a drug addict with severe depression - to weed out invasive species and repopulate indigenous flowers and shrubs in Skyland's native wildlife area. "We got him engaged in horticultural therapy because that feels [to him] like he's doing those good deeds," says Lisa Schactman, a horticultural therapist at Skyland. Propagating life, creating beauty, and greening the earth were all therapeutic for the man in a way that sitting in an office and discussing his illness was not. "By working in the gardens and with plants, we're really taking steps where we'd been stalled with him. And on top of all that, we've taught him job skills."

Horticultural therapy is not about giving psychoanalysis to plants - a joke many horticultural therapists have endured. It's about using plants - and the act of gardening itself - to promote healing, whether physical, vocational, emotional, or spiritual. It may be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, like occupational or physical therapy or psychoanalysis, or it can be used as an alternative to those more traditional treatments.

Defining garden therapy

HT encompasses healing and enabling gardens (which provide access to the physically disabled), restorative landscapes (soothing gardens that aid in physical and mental health), community gardening, and school and education programs. It serves the mentally and physically disabled, the elderly, and youth and can be found in nursing homes and hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and senior centers, farms and gardens, schools, and even prisons.

"It really breaks down into active and passive horticultural activities," says Joy Harrison, administrative director of the Denver-based American Horticultural Therapy Association. "Active" involves people working with plants, engaged in physical activity, and developing workplace or cognitive skills. "Passive" might simply mean experiencing a garden using all the senses, or being in the quiet, restful environment provided by a garden.

An age-old art that some say started in ancient Egypt (doctors there would prescribe garden walks for the mentally disturbed, according to the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association), HT has gained popularity in England, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand, with more and more countries catching on. In the United States, HT blossomed after World War II, when so many soldiers were in need of restorative therapy. Besides the corporeal and vocational benefits, advocates say HT can assist with memory and retention and improve social skills and problem solving.

"We were originally in nature, we were part of nature, and there's kind of an imprint still in us that makes us have a comfort level, and [there are] innate restorative benefits that come from being with plants," says Schactman. "I believe we tap into that no matter what kind of group we're working with."

Bodil Drescher Anaya, a horticultural therapist for more than 30 years in upstate New York, agrees. "There's not one person, no matter what the disability, who can't benefit from horticultural therapy," says Anaya, who can recount a number of success stories. There was a woman whose physical therapists couldn't get her to straighten her arms. "Then they sent her to me," says Anaya, "and I had her reaching out to replant seedlings. She didn't even realize that she'd straightened her arm until I told her to look down, and she said, 'You tricked me!'"

There also was the man who'd lost both his forearms in a farm accident and refused to learn to use his new hooks until Anaya fashioned custom garden tools for him. She says, "I taught him grafting and pruning and layerings - all kinds of propagations - and he learned fine motor movement that he would have had in his fingers. It also gave him skills so that he could find work."

Some therapeutic settings use horticultural therapy to impart job and life skills to adults with developmental disabilities. South of downtown Austin, Marbridge offers individualized residential care, education, and training to adults with various cognitive challenges, like Down's Syndrome or mental retardation. Established in 1953 on more than 300 acres, Marbridge includes 40,000 square feet of covered growing areas in the Marbridge Garden Center.

Marbridge's Cathy Cabrera says that the garden center also provides employment and training opportunities to residents, with 65 percent of the plants grown sold to customers like the Wildflower Center, which purchases native plants for sale at its biannual plant sales. Residents who do not work at the garden center enjoy visiting and learning about horticulture through a horticultural therapy program that educates them about enjoyment and respect for plant life.

Complete article is published within the Fall 2005 issue of Native Plants.

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