When I was a professional gardener, I made a lot of people happy by helping them with their gardens. Usually, I either created and installed a new garden or maintained the one they already had. Regardless, after my work was finished, my clients often told me their garden was their happy place. It relieved them from stress. Reset their energy. I understood this since my own garden made me happy too, even when there was a lot of work to do. So I started to wonder: why exactly did plants make us happier?
I knew the reasons that applied to me: they were beautiful, soothing, diverse, silent, expected, honest. But I wanted a deeper answer.
Why did they make me feel so good and restored? What is it about the human body and its reaction to plants? Now, after more than a year of research, I’ve figured out five reasons.
1. Plants were our first evolutionary home.
For thousands of years, people were immersed in nature. We relied on plants for shelter, food, clothing, furniture, boats, medicine, weapons, and so much else. It’s only natural that we feel a deep, innate connection to them. That connection was termed biophilia by biologist E.O. Wilson. He proposed that humans are innately drawn to natural environments and other living systems. Many studies have proven him right.
2. Plants grow in patterns pleasing to our visual system.
Have you ever looked at a leaf close up? There’s always a few thicker main veins from where smaller veins branch out, then smaller ones, and so on. This pattern that repeats and is often equally sub-dividable is called a fractal. They occur in leaves, tree branch structure, overlapping greenery, and even how flowers spiral. Our eyes are anatomically built to explore visual material in this way. So when we look at plants, we lock in to our natural way of seeing the world. In turn, this correlative experience makes us feel at ease.
3. Green colors soothe our nerves.
Studies show muted green colors negate arousal in our bodies. It has shorter wavelengths so our eyes don’t need to adjust to it. Also, because green evokes the natural world, we feel centered and relaxed when immersed in it. That in turn lowers anxiety. It also makes us feel optimistic and refreshed. All this is why actors and celebrities always prepare their performances in a “green room” before they go onstage.
4. Plants release physiologically restorative scents.
Of course, we all love to smell roses or lilies or any other sweet flower. That inhalation brings us a sense of joy and hope. But some plants, mostly coniferous trees, release their natural oils, which not only evoke positive feelings, but literally heal our bodies. Several studies out of Japan show that inhaling the scents of trees lowers blood pressure and heart rate while boosting our cancer-fighting cells. Wow! So a walk in the woods isn’t just a nice outing, it’s actually supercharging your immune system.
5. Plants change and surprise us.
We often think of plants as the static background to life, but they’re hard at work growing, healing their wounds, and trying to reproduce. They also grow new tissue, change colors, fight off disease, and most noticeably, bloom. These changes add a serene complexity to our lives. When we see a new leaf unfurl on a houseplant, we can’t help but feel hopeful. When we see leaves change color on trees, we feel a simultaneous joy at the bold colors and melancholy at the approaching winter. When a plant we’ve struggled to keep alive suddenly blooms, it sparks surprise and wonder. Plants quietly progress and that slow but noticeable activity provides us with a richer daily life.
The natural takeaway
So, if plants do literally make us happier, then what should we do? Well, even a city dweller who works in a skyscraper can access nature with a few easy changes.
Next week, I’ll offer some of those easy changes. In the meantime, here’s one simple thing you can do: find a nature-related wallpaper for the device you’re reading this on and set it for your home page. Every day, when check your phone, tablet, or laptop, you’ll be greeted by the reassuring color of green and lovely patterns of your most ancient but familiar friends. And that will, if even for a minute, make you happier.
You may have noticed that last year I got interested in the mental health benefits of plants. I spent a bunch of time reading up on the latest science to see if a theory I’ve had for a while held any water. Mainly, that plants can help us be happier even if you don’t have a garden.
What I found impressed me. The short answer is yes but how you go about engaging with plants makes all the difference. It’s not like you can say “good morning” to your gardenia and all will be well (though wouldn’t it be great if you could?). It requires a bit of effort and patience, some organization, strategy, and most importantly, time. Exactly where and how and in what doses is what I’ve been researching this past year (see messy desk above).
Leafing Your Troubles Behind
But I’m delighted to now share that I’ve melded all of the science out there with a bunch of research on happiness and I’ve come up with a system to help people grow happier through plants! There are fun activities too. I even figured out a title I think captures the spirit of the book. It’s called Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants. It’s so darn exciting! I can’t wait to share with you all that I’ve learned and created.
That unfortunately means waiting until June of 2022 (wah, *sniff*). But that’s because the good folks at Prometheus Books and I are putting the finishing touches on the cover, text, layout, AND artist Kara Fellows’s totally cool, totally fun illustrations! To check out Kara’s work, visit her website: karafellows.com. She’s so talented. I’ll tell you more about working with Kara and a few previews of her work in future posts.
Lowering Stress and Growing Happiness
So if you’re interested in the natural world and being happier in life, then Leaf Your Troubles Behind is for you. You can pro-order it and be among the first to receive it. And in the meantime if you’d like a sneak peek at the ideas behind this topic, check out my Stress ReLeaf series on this blog. In fact, in future posts, I’ll be exploring even more about the connection between happiness and plants. You can check back this Thursday for the first one. You can also get happiness tips when you sign up for my newsletter below!
Have a natural, happy week!
In this last post about stress relief and plants, I’d like to spotlight a couple plants that are easy care yet powerful. They’re kinda the only two herbs you really need to lower stress. Many gardeners across America, at least living down to zone 5, can grow them. Both will thrive in full sun and light soil, like sand mixed with potting soil. Think Mediterranean conditions. And speaking of sun, they’re both drought tolerant. You can grow them in a container or the ground and snip off a few stems when needed.
Lavender (lavandula) lowers stress through its oils. One study, in Phytomedicine, showed it was as effective as the drug lorazepam in treating anxiety. What’s more, breathing in the oil vapor through a diffuser has shown to decrease postnatal depression. And it’s helped those with dementia. It’s really worth growing, if for nothing else, rubbing your hands on it and inhaling the scent everyday. It’s like a shot of destresser.
The Rosemary plant (rosmarinus) is also impressive. In addition to improving memory, digestion, hair health, and other amazing stuff, rosemary’s scent reduces stress. Studies have shown that a daily dose of its oil can lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is what our brains make when we’re stressed. So again, if you have a diffuser, you can put some essential oil in that or grow rosemary in a pot outside your front door. Breathing in the scent for a moment might help you relax after a bad day at work.
One More Herb to Lower Stress: Chamomile
I wanted to give a brief shout out for chamomile (chamaemelum). If you grow it, you can make tea from it. Drinking the tea lowers stress. But it doesn’t grow in the same conditions as lavender and rosemary though it’s very easy to grow and sometimes sprouts on its own in gardens. It likes cooler air and some shade. Check out this article for more on the benefits of chamomile.
And if you’d like more information on herbs for your health overall, check out the book, Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung. It covers the basics of growing and harvesting herbs along with their medicinal applications.
Photos by Gemma Evans and Fiona Bossle
Like a lot of moms, when I had small children, I was super stressed out. Anyone with multiple kids knows how difficult life can be when the kids are young and active. Plus, in my case, my youngest child was cognitively delayed so when she went through the “terrible twos,” it lasted for about four years. There was a lot of crying and stomping and time outs. I smile when I think of it now because my daughter’s 14 and just graduated out of her special education classes. She’s become an impressive young lady, full of compassion and dedicated to hard work. But back then times were tough. I rarely had time to think or relax or even finish a sentence without interruption. Life was chaotic and packed with commitments. But one thing saved my sanity back then: plants.
Here are a few things I did when things got crazy.
-I went outside and raked leaves. Just the act of clearing away detritus in the fresh air got my blood flowing and made me feel like I could at least simply and directly improve one part of my garden. No complications.
-After the kids were in bed, I’d pick a gardening book off my shelf and peruse it. Occasionally I’d visit gardening sites on the web. Seeing images of tidy colorful spaces allowed me to forget that my own home and garden were less than perfect. I loved slipping into the dream of a quiet green sanctuary.
-During the summer, I’d weed, and weed, and weed some more. The rote action of pulling chickweed or dandelions or whatever brought me into a meditative state. I didn’t think, I didn’t worry, I just did the small task at hand, which calmed my mind and expanded my spirit.
-On a day when my husband could care for the kids, I’d take off for a brisk walk on a nearby trail. Seeing the trees elegantly touch the sky always soothed my spirit. Something about their silent majesty reminded me how temporary and small my problems really were.
-Inside, I tended my houseplants. I’d trim away brown leaves and spent flowers, then water while being in no rush. I’d lose my sense of time while working. In caring for the plants, I felt like I was successful in caring for at least a few living souls in my life.
-Sometimes I’d step outside and watch the wind blow through the bushes. I know that sounds weird. But the images of the leaves fluttering was beautiful and poetic. And the smell of the outdoors, even in the cold, gave me a new perspective. On days when it wasn’t windy, I’d step outside and watch the birds swoop through the yard, or bees buzz by. Nothing in the garden yearned for anything and therefore, neither did I.
If you’re in the throes of raising little kids, remember to retreat into a plant activity you like. It doesn’t have to involve gardening or houseplants. The point is to change your scenery and let the greenery relax you. In the meantime, I wish you peace.
Photo by Biel Morro
I realized in my post about small trees to remember a lost loved one by, I only included conifers. So today, let me correct that oversight and highlight three wonderful but small deciduous trees.
Coral Bark Maple
This little maple tree (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’) sports coral colored stems in winter, lovely green-yellow leaves in summer, and nice yellow color in fall. It’s an elegant vase-shaped tree that grows to about 15 feet tall and maybe 6 feet wide. I have one at the back of my yard and it absolutely glows in winter when the sun hits it. Plus, you can under plant it with red or yellow twig dogwoods for an echoing pattern or dark green viburnums for bold contrasts. Either way, this tree is a sweet choice to memorialize a beloved person. Hardy to zone 5.
Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) mainly put on a show in spring. They bloom in fantastic strong magenta flowers on bare branches. This creates a cheery effect in spring when all else is barely leafing out. Though there’s no fragrance, the flowers will bloom for up to three weeks. Redbuds top out at about 20 feet and are good if you’d like to plant daffodils or other bulbs below as the branches aren’t that dense. Hardy to zone 4.
A dogwood tree is great if you have a partly shady space. They like protection from afternoon sun. If given that, they’ll bloom in pretty pink or white flowers. I’ve highlighted Cornus kousa here just because it’s the more disease-free cultivar. In late spring, it blooms in pretty white flower bracts, oftentimes covering the entire tree. It’s really a spectacular sight. This near perfect tree adds vibrance to the garden and nicely pays tribute to those you’ve loved. It grows to about 20 feet. Hardy to zone 5.
If you’ve lost a loved one during covid, I wish you peace.