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.
In my last post, I talked about the amazing effects of forest bathing. Today, I want to talk about another study that Japanese researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki conducted. It shows some interesting results on whether flowers make people relax.
A Small but Key Study
Miyazaki’s team wanted to see if there were any changes in the body when subjects looked at flowers. So he had 127 people gaze at pink roses while the team measured their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity. These two states happen when you’re stressed or relaxed. From the baseline, they found that subjects who looked at pink roses had lower sympathetic nervous activity (stress) by 25 percent. They also found those subjects’ parasympathetic nervous activity (relaxation) rose by 29 percent. So bottom line? Yes, seeing flowers makes the human body relax.
A Small Flower Has Big Worth
Though this study doesn’t get into why flowers relax people, we can guess it has to do with how we’re biologically wired. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how our eyes align with fractal patterns in nature and I suspect that relationship has something to do with it too. Regardless, if you’re feeling stressed, you might lift your mood by buying a bouquet from the supermarket. Maybe by looking at a lovely photo on the web. Maybe by growing perennials in your backyard. Whatever the method, getting flowers into your life will be worth the cost and trouble. And the best part for gardening nuts like me? We can now justify all those impulse buys from the nursery. Science shows we need them for our mental health!
By now, you may have heard of forest bathing. Though it has a dreamy Western name, it’s really just the act of mindfully walking among trees. Researchers started investigating its health benefits in 2004. Dr. Qing Li, a professor and immunologist at Nippon Medical School and vice president of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, along with Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher at Chiba University, were the first to scientifically explore this phenomenon. Until that time, the country’s forestry department had started the program as a healthy lifestyle choice. Now, thanks to their and others’ studies, we’re learning the amazing effects of forest bathing. Here are three biggies.
It creates NK cells
The most impressive effect is how well the human body creates NK cells. NK is a shorthand term for a type of white blood cell that protects us from disease. Dr. Li found that after Tokyo businessmen spent two hours hiking every morning for three days, their NK count shot up by 40 percent. When he investigated further, he discovered that inhaling the trees’ essential oils had boosted the subjects’ immune systems. Conversely, the subjects who walked for the same duration over the same three days in the city did not increase their NK count.
It lowers stress hormones
Professor Miyazaki found that people who walked in the forest for 15 minutes lowered their stress hormone (or cortisol) concentration by 12.7 percent. Also parasympathetic activity (relaxed state) increased by over 100 percent. To him, this makes perfect sense since our bodies evolved in nature over thousands of years and inherently yearn to be at one with it.
It boosts creativity
Have you ever noticed you solve problems after taking a walk? Well, David Strayer from the University of Utah found that creativity shot up 50 percent in subjects who spent three days in nature. The prefontal cortex is less active in nature. That rest allows your brain to wander and make random connections, leading to problem-solving and creativity.
These are the most well known effects of forest bathing but the science continues to grow and support the practice. And just to clarify, this doesn’t mean you have to backpack into the Alaskan wilderness. As Dr. Li says, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”
I hope you can get into the woods this weekend and immerse yourself in all nature has to offer. It just might improve your mood.
Photo by Daniel Sessler