What Even Is Plant Therapy?

Published on: 28 Dec 2019
plant therapy

Updated on 11/15/2020

Do you feel pleasure staring at a gorgeous potted plant or look forward to coming home to your plants at the end of the day? There is a reason for this. Being around plants is actually good for us. Some studies even show that just by looking at greenery, we can reduce our anxiety and feel calmer. Beyond the mental health benefits of plants, indoor houseplants can also improve air quality and brighten up any room. Perhaps you already take advantage of these many benefits, or maybe you are discovering the mental health benefits of plants for the first time⁠ — in any case, the act of caring for plant life is therapeutic and can improve our mental health. Read on to learn more about all the ways plants and nature directly have a positive influence on our mental health and well-being.

What is Horticultural Therapy?

Horticultural therapy is a technique that relies on plants and gardening to help people overcome health issues such as high blood pressure and memory disorders. It can also greatly help those battling depression, anxiety, addiction, and for survivors of abuse. This form of therapy is connected to the concept of “biophilia,” which is the idea that people are genetically connected to nature and plant life. The goal of horticultural therapy, or “plant therapy,” is to help patients build self-confidence, social connections, increase compassion, and get out into nature more frequently. Plant therapy, when undertaken to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, is generally most effective when leveraged in combination with more traditional therapy approaches, including talk therapy and medication.

Many studies have been conducted to prove that plants have therapeutic effects on people. One clinical study in particular found that people who care for plants tend to be more compassionate and empathetic towards those around them. Additionally, further research reinforces that this form of therapy has a positive impact on anxiety and can improve overall mental health and wellness. Some universities continue to see positive results in research that gardening is a productive way to improve mental and emotional health.

Rest assured, if you don’t want to take up gardening or add any house plants to your home, you might be able to reap some benefits similar to those of horticultural therapy with essential oils. The use of essential oils, which are organic compounds made from biological material such as seeds, leaves, blossoms, and roots, can be used to boost your mood, mental state, and overall health. This type of aromatherapy can also help alleviate some symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Some essential oils recommended for treating symptoms of depression include:

  • Jasmine
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium

Some essential oils recommended for treating symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Rose
  • Vetiver
  • Frankincense
  • Bergamot
  • Lavender

Also, know that you can still practice something similar to horticultural therapy simply by taking yourself on a walk to the park, on a hike, or doing anything that gets you into the natural world. Being stuck inside 24/7 is not how humans were meant to live! Let yourself enjoy some fresh air, feel the sun, and be surrounded by trees. Your body — and your mind — will thank you for the much needed break.

How Plant Therapy Improves Mental Health

Research helps illuminate the positive effects of gardening and maintaining plants, but what exactly makes horticulture so healing? There are some key factors:

  • Gardening encourages relaxation
    Tending to plants and planting a garden can provide an escape from pressure and obligation as well as a connection with nature. The tasks required to maintain healthy plant life are routine and repetitive — such as weeding, trimming, and watering — allowing a person to disconnect and clear their minds. The rhythmic, mindful nature of tending to plant life has been compared to meditation because it allows one to feel more present. Gardening can help foster a greater sense of connection, which is particularly helpful for those battling depression. That the plants require your care and nurturing has also been shown to have mental health benefits.
  • Looking after plants releases feel-good hormones
    Our bodies crave exercise and the outdoors — something that gardening can provide. Whenever we exercise, our levels of serotonin and dopamine rise, helping us feel good, and it can also result in helping promote healthy sleep habits, and ultimately, feel more refreshed.
  • Gardening promotes a sense of responsibility
    When you are on the hook for making sure another living thing can develop and flourish over time, you take on a greater sense of responsibility. Caring for another living thing helps promote a feeling of appreciation and ownership, but also increases compassion.
  • There are opportunities to vent anger and aggression
    Gardening can help release frustrations when weeding, chopping down a bush, and cutting unwieldy plants. Gardening also provides a great analogy to emotions, if you don’t take the time to tend to them, and cut back the unruly ones, a garden can be overtaken, just like your emotional well-being.
  • It is easy to do
    When you gaze at a friend’s beautiful flowers or an impressive indoor orchid, the idea of keeping plants may seem intimidating. The key is to start small with just a few pots or one hanging basket. Opt for plant life that is easy to maintain rather than no plant life. If you have absolutely no desire to garden or keep plants in your house, you can still practice plant therapy by spending more time in nature. The simple act of going for a walk in the park or sitting under a tree can positively impact our mental health.

Even if you don’t have any major mental health concerns, know that plant therapy still has positive benefits for everyone. In the most basic way, plants can help us decompress, unwind, and calm down after a stressful day or when we’re feeling upset. In the long run, plant therapy can also help us foster long term success, recovery, and positive emotional well-being. It’s a natural, practical, and effective way to help us take care of ourselves. If you are looking to incorporate plant therapy in your life to help with symptoms of depression or anxiety, know that this natural treatment is most effective in combination with other treatment methods such as speaking with a therapist.

The hardest part about exploring plant therapy is actually starting, but fortunately, tending to plant life is affordable and easy! You might even find a handful of houseplant options at your local supermarket.

The Future of Horticultural Therapy

The interest in gardening and plants continues to increase with the growing recognition of the health benefits that accompany being in and around nature. This is an impressive leap forward from the origins of plant therapy, which was initially used following the first World War. At first, plant therapy was used as a treatment for veterans experiencing PTSD and later was added as a therapy program at the Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine and has been used ever since.

Today, the American Horticultural Therapy Association carries the torch forward, with the rallying cry that a person’s quality of life and the strength of their mental health is directly related to their relationship with nature and plants. Their work serves as the foundation for many current plant-based therapy programs, and provides simple ways to incorporate plant life in a person’s day-to-day activities.

If you are interested in reaping the benefits of gardening and tending to plants, there are some simple ways to get started right away. Taking the leap with a plant or flower that is easy to take care of can help open the door to being around more shades of green — and just looking at plants can help reduce anxiety and have a calming effect. Buying a plant is a small, affordable act that can have a positive impact on improving overall mental health with the added bonus of brightening up your home. Now get planting!

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

You May Also Like

Talkspace mental health services