Changing Planet

Gardens: The World’s Oldest Therapists

(C) Chicago Botanic Garden

Co-authored by:
Patsy Benveniste, Vice President, Community Education Programs
Barb Kreski, Director of Horticultural Therapy Services

Chicago Botanic Garden

If you grew up prior to the invention of tablets and smart phones, it’s likely that you have nostalgic memories of playing in the backyard with friends or feeling the sun on your back as you helped your parents in the garden. Gardens can be a tranquil hobby or an essential refuge for people with all kinds of needs. Their meditative powers have been used formally and informally for thousands of years, and they can contribute to healing in subtle and enduring ways. But have you ever stopped to ask why and how we measure that healing?

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we work with scientists and therapeutic experts who have observed first-hand the powerful positive effects nature can have on people from all walks of life. In an era of electronic media and manufactured living environments, we believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people, and that people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for and enjoy gardens.

(C) Chicago Botanic Garden
(C) Chicago Botanic Garden

For instance, a Japanese practice called forest bathing has found actual physiological differences in the immune systems of people after they’ve spent time in nature for extended periods of time – including reductions in blood pressure and boosts of cancer-fighting white blood cells. Caring for plants through horticulture therapy has also been shown to help veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome regain confidence and peace to more successfully re-enter the civilian world. The Chicago Botanic Garden partners with psychiatric rehabilitation center Thresholds to give veterans who have returned from combat a chance to reap the calming benefits of working in the gardens while readjusting to civilian life.

Although most would agree that nature’s healing powers can transform lives, the majority of the evidence supporting the benefits of horticultural therapy is largely anecdotal. Horticultural therapy is described as engaging in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. As these therapies rise in popularity, the scientific community must be able to measure their success to continue to secure program funding and to influence policy to scale up effective practices, reaching more people in need.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we’ve been connecting people with nature for over a hundred years. To demonstrate just how important horticulture therapy is, we are preparing to work with a cadre of academic researchers to measure the positive effects nature has had on our cognitive and physiological well-being. We look forward to sharing our findings with you as we get closer to uncovering the measurable difference horticultural therapy can make in people’s lives.

The Chicago Botanic Garden, one of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, is a 385-acre living plant museum featuring 26 distinct gardens and four natural areas. Opened to the public in 1972, the Garden is managed by the Chicago Horticultural Society, accredited by the American Association of Museums and a member of the American Public Gardens Association (APGA). The Chicago Botanic Garden is the 12th largest tourist attraction in Chicago and is the areas sixth largest cultural institution.
  • Steve Dunnington

    Just looking at the picture feels therapeutic. The Chicago Botanic Garden is a wonderful place on so many different levels. Even if you aren’t involved in any of their wonderful programs, you should treat yourself to a visit whenever you find yourself in the area.

  • Nerissa Henry

    I love this and I would so love the chance to come over and experience this and bring it back to all the community gardens and families here. This is so amazing and garden therapy is the best thing! Keep up the great job you guys do getting people aware and into gardening. xx

  • Paisajismo entreverde

    We work with Horticultural therapy for dementia illness and we try to design therapeutic gardens as part of our garden design activity here in Spain. The quid is how to mesure this positive effects and develope the scientific parameters. Thank you for your great job.

  • Devinder Kumar UPPAL

    I am a professional Horticulturist having spent over thirty five years working intimately with horticultural crops including Fruits,Flowering plants,vegetables as well as forest species as a researcher,development worker or even as a commercial grower. I strongly support and believe that horticulture environments create a positive effect on the human brain functioning,thereby emitting positive vibrations in the body. Such vibrations influence physiology of various body systems especially the circulatory and digestive systems and also imparting strength to immune system. The added advantage is the pure air for breathing.Further the nutritional value of such crops are well known and many medicinal systems of the world are picking up many horticultural crops for preventing/curing of certain serious diseases like Cancer,,diabetes,obesity, Skin disease etc. However, specific and quantified association/ intake of these needs to be explored further.
    In my horticultural classes I used to tell the students that plants listen and speak so do not talk about their and your diseases and bad words while in their company. Such a thing to many was like a myth but I strongly feel that it is worth exploring in depth.
    I am sure your work on the subject is quite novel and will soon unfold new approaches to human health.
    Wishing all concerned success in these efforts and desiring to interact more with your group

  • Mary

    Patsy and Barb, your research into therapy on gardening is commended. There is over a thousand years of Philosophy that speaks of gardening. It is a relative new phenomenon that “Man is so unconnected to Nature”. Thank you for showing people how to connect and garden for health and self satisfaction.

  • Helen MacLean

    There are possible collaborations with Human Health and Performance departments at universities. At Dalhousie University the department of Physical Education and Community Recreation have combined. There is leisure study work being measured that is becoming more and more cognizant of the community well being in relationship to public gardens and plant communities.
    I feel as the 35 year Horticulturist. We are all part of the same vibration, formed from the soil. Whoever knows this knows peace.

    Helen MacLean
    Gardener, Halifax Public Gardens
    Canadian Garden Coalition

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media