Plants to the Rescue

The objective of Plants to the Rescue, a conference organised by the SCI Horticulture Group on 30 September 2009, was to demonstrate and discuss the enormous value of plants in supporting human 'well-being'.

The benefits of plants as food are obvious, and their use as a source of medicinal products has been part of human society since the Stone Age. However, to date, the psychological impact of plants has been much less appreciated.

To help set the scene, Indoor Garden Design had turned the balcony of the SCI Auditorium into a mini, tropical jungle through which delegates had to walk to gain their seats. A number of large planters had also been used to very effectively decorate the Garden Room and provide an additional focus for discussion.

In his opening address Ross Cameron of Reading University reminded the audience that humans evolved in a prairie landscape of grassland interspersed with scrub and flat-topped trees. Even today, people are happiest in this combination of open space interspersed with shrubs and trees perhaps best epitomised by typical parkland landscape. Mark Johnston, Myerscough College, reflected on this as he decried the use of 'lollipop' trees in urban planting to replace the larger trees of the natural landscape.

Flowers, as James Hitchmough of Sheffield University later reminded us, are equally important – 'colour is all'. They evoke what psychologists recognise as an involuntary smile. Furthermore, this positive feeling can still be detected as much as three days later. Flowers have long been used as gifts, presumably for this reason, and other work has shown that people talk longer after such a gift. Elsewhere data shows that prisoners working in horticulture during their sentences are less likely to reoffend.

This effect extends to plants around the house and office. Jonathan Read of Plants for People explained that they have been shown to improve concentration, reduce the frequency of headaches, lower pulse rates and speed recovery after operations. In the office, this leads to fewer days lost through absence and higher productivity from staff when they are at their desks – a significant economic benefit to any organisation.

Jo Barton from Essex University described experiments where subjects were asked to exercise on a treadmill while looking at a range of views including pleasant and unsightly rural and urban landscapes. The subjects’ self-esteem and mood improved with exercise alone but the impact was far greater if they had a pleasant landscape to view at the same time. Jo explained how this same effect had been used successfully to control anger, tension, depression and confusion.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a number of projects aimed at exploiting the benefits of plants, said Head of Education, Ruth Taylor. These include Britain in Bloom and its Schools Project. Ruth based her talk around NEF’s (New Economics Foundation) Five ways to well-being; Connect (with others); Be Active; Take Notice (of what is around you): Keep Learning: Give (eg through barter schemes or volunteering).

‘How sad we need a conference like this,’ said Tony Kendle of the UK's Eden Project picking up the theme of connecting. 'We have lost the links within communities and people no longer recognise the landscapes that feed us. We must find ways to re-establish those links, we need to discover the world about us – not Bermuda!'

Mark Long of Plant Publicity Holland described studies in a large group of similar apartment blocks where the external environment ranged from blank walls and concrete to more park-like surroundings with trees. The latter resulted in a much improved social atmosphere and well-being amongst an otherwise deprived group of tenants.

The conference concluded with a talk from William Bird, Natural Health Adviser to Natural England. He picked up Mark Long’s point noting that people’s alpha waves declined amongst concrete and the poorest in society live longer in a green environment. Green space, he said, controlled temperature extremes, provided shelter from UV, noise and wind and improved air quality.

Thanks to our sponsors: Enterprise; Eric Gardener Memorial Fund; Indoor Garden Design; Lantra; Perennial and Plants for People.

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