Northeast 2

BY TOVAH MARTIN / Roxbury Connecticut, USDA Zone 4

Plants with a Purpose

Most often, horticultural therapists work with plants that lend themselves to activities. Easily divided teddy bear vine (Cyanotis kewensis) and pup-producing spider plants quickly make patients into caregivers. Fragrant plants, like scented-leaf pelargoniums, jasmine, and herbs, and touchy-feely chenille plant (Acalypha hispida; right) and lamb’s ears (Stachys spp.) are particularly good at promoting interaction, especially with blind clients. That said, aside from poisonous or thorny ones, almost any plant willing to grow can help

The Care of Trees

Some hospitals have comfort dogs and tropical fish tanks to soothe and encourage staff members and patients during healings most difficult moments. At Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living, a behavorial health care center in Hartford, Connecticut, a team of stately trees performs that role.

On hot summer days here, an immense Zelkova serrata gives shady respite to staff members bustling across the 35-acre campus. Patients seek its spreading limbs, too, or those of the nearby pecan and honey locust. Founded in 1822, the Institue of Living received a landscape redesign by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s. These three trees, along with a bur oak, sweet gum, and ginkgo installed through Olmsted’s design, have since attained champion status for their height and girth. But what they–and the two dozen other notable trees on the campus–really deserve is praise for the number of patients they’ve helped to heal.

While these trees are the bulkiest associates in the hospital’s rehabilitation program, they aren’t the only photosynthesizing staff. The Institute of Living has a greenhouse full of begonias, spider plants, pathos, and anthuriums. Each one provides a service to patients. Krista Pich, a horticultural supervisor at the hospital’s Department of Rehabilitation Services, spends her days teaching patients how to repot and propagate plants, arrange flowers, and make leaf collages. As Pich says, “The plants help people learn how to rehabilitate themselves.” Need a lesson in self-em powerment? Simply watch a lightning-struck northern red oak struggle to live. Even the process of caring for a newly potted spider plant can be enough to give a fragile spirit confidence.

Although it’s only now slipping back into vogue, there’s nothing novel about integrating gardening and medicine (nowadays, it’s called horticultural therapy). At one time hospitals were routinely located in the country and landscaped in a manner that fostered interactions of the horticultural kind. Fresh air, light exercise, and green surroundings ranked right alongside pills and nostrums. But when hospitals moved to metropolitan areas, the healing power of nature no longer figured into the health care system, save for bedside bouquets sent to cheer the ill. That tradition traces back to 1868, and a Boston teacher who handed out flowers to the poor and sick on her way to school each day. She found it so beneficial that she garnered the indorsement of Florence Nightingale and rallied volunteers to


Botanical gardens across the country are responding to increasing interest in horticultural therapy by offering courses on the subject. For instance, at the New York Botanical Garden, you can enroll in single courses, or tackle the horticultural therapy certificate program, which entails 183 hours of courses and site visits, plus 100 hours of field experience. For more information, go to or call 718-817-8747. To find learning opportunities in other cities and states, visit, the Web site of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

participate in a Flower Mission, distributing 300,000 bouquets to various hospitals.

Somehow, these “happy bouquets” survived as a remedy, while other plant-based healing notions slipped into obscurity–until the recent revival. More and more, patient-plant interaction is being incorporated into the programs at all kinds of health care facilities. At the Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York, patients learn to work with disabilities by propagating begonias, dividing spathiphyllums, mixing soil for transplanting, or watering thirsty ferns. The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, uses fragrant and textural plants to help clients become acclimated to life without sight. And the strongest, oldest trees at Hartford Hospital persist in their quiet caregiving–again with the respect they deserve. H

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