The Healing Power of Plants: Horticultural Therapy

Renita Jablonski- A quiet river house on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Holden Arboretum... the soothing sound of a waterfall in the background. This is the setting for the arboretum's horticultural therapy program. Inside, a group gathers for its last class in a six-week session called "Healing with Support Through Horticulture." The participants are presented with salad gardens that they haven't seen since they planted them during one of the session's first meetings. Karen Haas Kennedy leads the meeting -- she's a horticultural therapist.

Karen Haas Kennedy- My job here at the arboretum is to help people use plants and the process of growing plants to improve their health. So it might be something with, people with traumatic brain injury coping with adjusting to and all of the things that you have to do when you have a serious injury to rehab, go through rehab process, or it might be a support group.

RJ- This session is made of six women dealing with how a chronic illness is affecting their lives, either as a sufferer or care giver. Elizabeth Boncella is one of them.

Elizabeth Boncella- I have a lot of chronic conditions like arterial sclerosis, and diabetes, and arthritis, and a lot of times you just get down from the sheer medical problems that all those conditions cause, and the fatigue and you get depressed because of all the fatigue that those illnesses cause, and you have a fear of what's coming next so you're always fearful and you're kind of stressed out because other people who are pretty healthy don't always understand what you're going through.

RJ- In this last meeting, the group is learning how to transform their salad gardens into edible feasts. Haas Kennedy says it's simple activities like this that can help give individuals a new outlook.

KHK- And then they take these things home and they become symbols so when they look at those seeds they remember, "oh yeah, I was going to start something new. I have the confidence to do that.

RJ- Boncella says working with plants has changed her life.

EB- Coming away with seven great new friends, number one; coming away with a more relaxed attitude toward life that it doesn't matter what other people think about you, you know that you're okay and you're going to be okay and you know whatever happens you deal with it when it comes.

RJ- Sarah Sieradzki is an occupational therapist with University Hospitals in Cleveland. She works at Holden as a volunteer, helping run the therapy program.

Sarah Sieradzki- Plants give back, and plants really make you feel good when they respond to your care. I think that's the connection that people really feel with them, and there's a lot of healing qualities about using plants, like herbs, the fragrance of plants, the colors of plants, there's just so many different things you can do with them that are fun activities and very positive and promote that sense of health and healing that people would really like to have in their lives.

RJ- In the hospital setting, Sieradzki works with patients that are suffering from more severe mental disorders like depression or schizophrenia. Sieradzki herself has attended various support groups but says this one is different.

SS- I've done a couple of other support-type groups in my life, grief support groups and also MS support groups, having MS myself, and in those groups people tended to focus on their ailments, focus on their illness, focus on their problems and everybody comes to kind of talk about that but it ends up kind of being a downer because everybody just focuses on the negative.

RJ- And Elizabeth Boncella says that's exactly why she chooses to come to the arboretum instead.

EB- You're just spending two hours of pure joy gardening or playing with plants and with people who understand you and so you can relax and be less defensive and just enjoy yourself.

RJ- Haas Kennedy says it's reactions like this that will be important in implementing similar classes in the future.

KHK- If we can help them use plants and gardening as a tool to help improve their own mental health, in addition to their physical health then I think we're doing something good.

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