If you’re anything like me, you get stressed out because of work — or your kids or parents or even an unexpected traffic jam or small injury. Stress is an ongoing issue in our modern world.
Sometimes when we’re stressed getting outside and taking a walk can help. Our mind takes a break from whatever is causing our angst and our bodies take in outside air, which helps us relax. But did you know there’s an added benefit to taking a walk specifically in the woods?
It’s not that it’s a more serene, prettier experience, though there’s that too.
The added benefit of walking in the woods is the scent that trees make. And I’m not talking about the generally refreshing smell of the leaves or wind or soil, though that’s a part of it. I’m talking about phytoncides.
Phytoncides are the essential oils trees create to ward off pests and harmful bacteria. They are limonenes, turpines, carene, pinene, and others. If you’ve ever walked through a grove of cedars, you’ve smelled them. It’s oftentimes a spicy cool scent but not always. For instance, garlic gives off phytoncides as well, that strong familiar fragrance that wafts up when you smash a clove. Whatever the phytoncide, researchers have discovered that when humans inhale them, they boost the immune system.
Two Ground Breaking Studies
Dr. Qing Li, who I mentioned in my post about the most reputable researchers in plants and mental health, has led the research on walking in the woods or “forest bathing.” He conducted experiments where Japanese businessmen between the ages of 37 and 55 walked for two hours in the mornings and afternoons on forest paths.
Dr. Li and his team sampled their blood and found that their T cells, which are the Natural Killer cells our bodies make to fight off cancer, jumped in activity. In fact, they increased about 50 percent compared to their baseline measurements. Wow!
Another fun fact: the effects lasted a full seven days after the trip to the forest.
Because he wanted to learn whether a person had to physically be present in the forest, Dr. Li and his team conducted another experiment where they asked twelve men between the ages of 37 and 60 to sleep in a hotel for three nights.
With a vaporizer, the team released the scent of Hinoki Cypress tree oil (Chamaecyparis obtusa) during the night. After taking the subjects’ blood, they found a 20 percent increase in NK cells! Subjects also reported feeling more rested and less fatigued.
Dr. Li has gone on to study other aspects of this phenomenon. He’s found walking in the forest not only increased NK cells but also reduced blood pressure and heart rate.
His and other researchers’ studies have shown an increased activity of the parasympathetic nerve system, the part of the nervous system that helps us relax.
Related to that, studies show forest bathing reduces cortisol, our stress hormone. And finally, forest bathing reduces anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion.
So if you’re feeling stressed this week, consider visiting a large public park or wooded preserve on the weekend. Walking for an hour or two among trees will physically as well as psychologically remove you from your daily problems.
Plus, it will heal more than just your mood, it’ll increase your body’s ability to fight off one of our most dangerous diseases. Think of it as free medicine only nature can prescribe.
Last week, in my post about the origins of my novel about a flower (The Forgetting Flower), I talked about the idea of plant scents, memory, and why I thought working in a plant shop would be a fun experience. Of course, I put forth the question of what life would be like if you had a plant whose flower was dangerous to inhale. And who would care for that plant? How would the person have obtained it in the first place?
The Flower in Question
I’m really into African Violets (or Saintpaulia). They are a favorite of mine. I’ve always loved how their bluish green leaves contrast with their magenta, pink, or violet blooms. They have delicate flower and leaf stems but are tough and hardy. Native to Africa, they deal well with drought, hence, why they’re so successful as houseplants. But they are a basal foliage plant, meaning they don’t really branch. They kind of grow a trunk but those are twisty and low to the soil. So I wondered what it would be like if the African Violet did branch? What would the plant look like? They’d probably be zig-zaggy things, almost like a yucca looks once it’s mature. I liked the idea of a strange, maybe even ugly plant, being at the center of desirability among people. Not for its strange look but for what it could do. And in my scenario, that was make a person forget a memory rather than vividly remember it.
The Plant Caretaker
So who would take care of this dangerous plant? It could be anyone but because of its rare qualities, it would more likely be someone who had plant knowledge like a botanist or grower. But for plot reasons, I didn’t want a character with too much knowledge because then there would be no mystery behind it, so I created a woman who worked in a plant shop. The protagonist would be someone who had a basic knowledge of horticulture but wasn’t a full-on scientist. The next question I had was how would she have obtained it?
Where Did it Come From?
The choices were 1) she created it herself, 2) she “discovered” it, or 3) someone gave it to her. I thought the third was the most interesting since it might offer situations for conflict. Maybe the giver would want it back. And maybe the giver wasn’t the creator. That intrigued me even more. I decided she had to take care of it out of obligation and had to choose whether to use it or allow others to. I created a protagonist who didn’t want the plant but felt obligated to take care of it.
How would that work? Why would one do that? Maybe you’d do it for it for someone you loved or deeply cared about. So I gave her a sister.
A Twins Relationship
Twins have always interested me. I have a friend who’s a twin and she says there’s a special connection she has with her sister, moreso than other sisterly relationships. So I imagined two sisters, one in Paris, one in Poland. And though my twin sister friends in real life get along well, I decided it would be more interesting if my fictional twins didn’t. I wondered what things would be like if a beloved twin hated you.
Renia, the sister in Paris, is estranged from Estera, the sister in Poland. But why? And why are they in separate countries? The answer is the entire story of The Forgetting Flower.
Next week, I’ll post the first chapter of The Forgetting Flower for your enjoyment.
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Most people love fragrant flowers. Who doesn’t want to take in the sweet smell of a lily or antique perfume of a rose? Scents are one of the gifts plants give us. They add to our sensory world. They, more than taste or sight or sound or touch, take us to a time in our lives of memory. Vivid memory. So what if there were a flower whose scent was dangerous? What if there were a scent whose inhalation caused one to lose a memory? Two summer ago, I kept thinking about these questions. I couldn’t get them from my mind. I was obsessed with the idea of a flower whose scent you can’t inhale. Thus, I started forming my novel The Forgetting Flower in my mind.
Where Did It Come From?
While I detailed the qualities of this forbidden flower in my head (more on that in a future post), I also wondered where that flower might show up: in a garden, in a commercial grower’s nursery? A garden might be unlikely as anyone who grew the flower outdoors would be subject to its scent. Would they experience memory loss randomly and constantly? That was a messy idea. If the flower showed up in a nursery that meant a grower would have had to breed it and that was also a complex issue. Perhaps, even a scientific one I wasn’t ready to explain in a novel. Also, I wasn’t sure why a breeder would breed such a flower unless its dangerous scent was an accidental outcome.
The Dream of a Plant Shop
Meanwhile, plant shops were on my mind. I’ve always admired entrepreneurs who own their own gardening shops. They are the kings and queens of their little fiefdoms. They surround themselves with these green growing sculptures, they choose what to spotlight, they take care of their alive pets, they make customers happy, and most of all, unlike me, they don’t do that much physical gardening work. I had this idea that plant shops were a heavenly place to work. As an owner, you’re in control, you’re not a slave to the hard labor of gardening, and you get to have fun in creating a lush sanctuary for customers.
So I decided to place my amnesiac flower plant in a plant shop. But who would sell that plant and how would the person have obtained it in the first place? And what if the shop wasn’t a heavenly place to work but a dark burden? These were the questions I needed answers to. I’ll cover what I decided next week in Part 2 on the origins of The Forgetting Flower.
If you’re interested in my other novels, please check out my posts on Why I Wrote a Novel About a Weird Apple.