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.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.