Have you made a resolution to get healthier this year? If so, plants have a role to play.
For centuries, gardeners and nature lovers have known intuitively that plants do a body good, and now research agrees. Whether you grow a few houseplants, live near a green space, or simply have a green view out your window, plants can add to your good health.
The relationship between plants and people has been studied by and incorporated into many fields, including environmental psychology, landscape architecture, geography, urban forestry, urban planning, horticulture and horticultural therapy. What researchers and practitioners across these disparate disciplines have found is that whether living in cities or in the country, at home or at work, humans have a basic need to keep nature close.
One of the best-known studies on the benefits of nature was conducted in the 1980s by Roger Ulrich, professor and director of the Center for Health Systems & Design at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture. Ulrich compared hospital recovery rates of surgery patients who had either a view of a brick wall or of a natural scene. Those with the view of nature had shorter hospital stays and took fewer painkillers than those without. These findings and others like them have helped to make the case for courtyards, garden areas and green spaces on hospital grounds.
Living in close proximity to green space has been associated with decreased anxiety, depression and other health conditions, as a recent study out of the Netherlands concludes. Investigators found that the closer people live to green space, the lower the prevalence of many health problems, especially mental health conditions.
Plants have been shown to reduce stress, whether it’s the stress of sick patients, employees in work environments, or prison inmates. In his research studies, Ulrich has found that viewing natural scenes after a stressful situation causes marked decreases in muscle tension and pulse in just five minutes. The Davey Resource Group has quantified many benefits of plants and natural environments, including reduced negative emotions, increased positive feelings, increased sociability and reduced need for health care.
In the workplace, plants deserve a spot in almost every environment, whether that means houseplants on a desk or simply green views through windows. Rachel Kaplan, professor at the University of Michigan, has found that desk workers who can see nature from their desks take 23 percent less sick time than those who cannot see any nature. Other studies have found that workers rate job satisfaction higher when they can see nature.
Even brief encounters with nature have been shown to improve concentration and aid in recovery from mental fatigue. Research by the Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois has shown that natural experiences can even reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.
Plants help to build positive social ecosystems outdoors by creating pleasing environments where people tend to gather and visit, as opposed to deserted environments without trees or landscaping. Studies have shown that plants and landscaping in urban environments can reduce aggression, domestic violence and crime.
How can we make practical use of these research findings? One general theme is that surrounding ourselves with plants, gardens, trees and natural scenes can improve our health and well-being. Sending sick friends flowers and plants makes even more sense knowing how plants reduce stress and stimulate healing. For an ailing family member, select a hospital or nursing home room with a natural view, or create a pleasing view with potted plants of varying sizes and textures.
In the home, locate a beautiful plant where it can be seen often — near the bedside table, or close to the kitchen sink. Create a view through the kitchen or dining room window to establish a calming natural focal point. Design welcoming outdoor areas that include trees for shade and places to sit. Even small changes to increase green views can have big payoffs in terms of reduced stress, improved outlook and overall improvement in health.
For a steady dose of nature in 2013, consider enrolling in the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist program, co-sponsored by Ohio State University Extension and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The program consists of 40 hours of hands-on nature education on topics including tree identification, insect appreciation, nature interpretation and more. Participants then give back 40 volunteer hours teaching others about nature.
OCVN classes begin in early April and run through mid-May. Learn more at an open house from 7 to 8 p.m. Jan. 24 at Hines Hill Conference Center, 1403 W. Hines Hill Road, Peninsula. Contact Stacey Heffernan (SHeffernan@forcvnp.org) or Danae Wolfe (Wolfe.email@example.com) for more information.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.