As spring returns and greenery unfurls, our profound relationship with plants becomes apparent. On the most basic level, without plants we’d be hard pressed to find any food. In fact, we just wouldn’t be here.
But on a deeper level, being near plants makes us feel good. Think about it—what single component makes the difference between a wasteland and a lush paradise? Between a place you’d like to get away from and a place you’d love to get away to? More often than not, it’s the presence of green plants.
Take two plants, call in the morning
Our relationship with plants goes well beyond survival. For thousands of years, people have used plant-based medicines to heal a number of ailments, and spending time in the garden has long been honored as a means to healing. During the last century, horticultural therapy has worked wonders in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and mental institutions; people who’ve lost their sense of joy often feel a renewed sense of possibility as they plant and nurture something.
In the last 25 years, many researchers have found that just being near plants—even seeing them through a closed window—can make us healthier, happier, kinder people.
In 1984, Texas A&M researcher Roger Ulrich studied greenery’s effects on patients recovering from surgery. Patients in hospital rooms with a view of trees stayed in the hospital for fewer days, used fewer strong painkillers and generally had a more positive recovery process than those whose window looked out on a brick wall.
Subsequent research indicates that viewing plants and other natural scenery helps lower blood pressure, reduce muscle tension and aid recovery from stress. One study even showed that the presence of plants exerts a beneficial influence on the perception of pain.
Plants can even help with specific ailments: Walking in a garden has been proven to aid in women’s recovery from breast cancer, and ADD symptoms in children have been lessened by spending time with plants in natural settings.
Working in the garden offers even more positive benefits. Studies show that gardeners feel calmer, more relaxed and more in control of their environments. Gardeners also have more self-esteem, feel a greater sense of personal stability and are more satisfied with the quality of their lives than nongardeners.
Really green jobs
At work, just a few potted plants can make a world of difference in your outlook. One study found that people who worked in a windowless room with plants worked more efficiently, had lower blood pressure and felt more attentive than those in the same room without plants. If you get an office with a real window and a view of greenery, it gets even better. Studies show those in offices with a view of trees and plants experienced less negative impacts of job stress, less job pressure, felt more job satisfaction, reported fewer ailments and headaches, and were less likely to quit than those with no outside views or views of only buildings.
Greenery can even bring people together. Community gardens promote neighborhood cohesion and trust while reducing racial discrimination. In a study of public housing, trees and green landscapes encouraged people to gather, which led to lowered aggression and violence. Green outdoor urban spaces have also been correlated with reduced vandalism, litter, graffiti and crime—90 percent less crime in one Philadelphia neighborhood.
Specific population groups who garden together, from schoolchildren to Alzheimer’s patients, have also been found to cooperate better and have more satisfying social relationships than their gardenless counterparts. Plants might even reduce road rage; roadside landscaping reduces heart rate and other indicators of driver stress while increasing tolerance to frustration.
I love all these studies that support what we know intuitively: Hanging out with our vegetative buddies is good for us. But none of them really explains how plants exert such a powerful effect on our bodies and minds. Why is it that just being near plants makes us better at whatever we’re doing, and nicer people to boot?
Perhaps our genetic memory stirs profound peace in us when we see green plants. For eons, plants have provided food, shelter, medicine, twine, cloth, dyes and much more. They signal the presence of a life-supporting environment—enough moisture, sunshine and shade for growth. It’s just possible that when we see plants, our onboard biocomputers pull up those millennia of happy relations, then sum it all up with one feeling: Ahhhhh.
Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). She teaches in the Sustainable Communities program at Dominican University of California . Chat with her at firstname.lastname@example.org