Documents: Special Interest: Horticultural Therapy:

The Power of Flowers
by Chris Biesheuvel
by Chris Biesheuvel


Chris Biesheuvel a retired Horticulturist from McKenzie Seeds in Brandon Manitoba.

Chris is active in the Lethbridge Horticultural Society. He owns Dutch Touch garden consulting business.

His flower photography is well known. Lately Chris is promoting the health effects from gardening in writing and in speaking engagements.

September 14, 2008

I have mentioned in several presentations that gardeners have a longer lifespan because they always have plans for the future, what doesn’t work this year will be tried differently the next year.

There are several studies that proves that gardeners have less heart problems than non gardeners.

Think about this: Gardening is a way to relax and to restore the soul!

Flowers do help us to celebrate special occasions like a birth of a child, a wedding, an anniversary, personal success and even in difficult times flowers give hope and inspiration to meet the challenges of the day.

The role of plants in healing-especially for stress relief- is ancient because it is known that in 3000 BC the Chinese were using medicinal herbs. The Greeks built a temple for their god of healing and created healing gardens around the temple. Green was a sacred color in ancient Egypt - it represented the hope of spring that brought new life.

Vincent Van Gogh painted his famous “Iris" at the Asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole, in Saint-Remy, France, in the spring of 1889. Allowed to roam the asylum's grounds, Van Gogh began painting almost immediately. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote: “ will see that considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy." That summer, he wrote: “For one's health it is necessary to work in the garden and see the flowers growing."

The healing work from flowers and or plants was already known in 1879 at Philadelphia's Friends Hospital after a physician noticed that psychiatric patients working in the hospitals fields and flower gardens were much calmer. Being in the gardens had a healing effect on them.

My wife was Activity therapist in a nursing home. She started a program with Alzheimer patients, and she brought some garden soil and placed it in several baskets. All the participants in this group received a basket so that they could smell the aroma of the earth and feel the soil. It opened the patients and they started to talk about the time when they were young and had a garden, this program was relaxing for the patients but unfortunately it had to be canceled because it was too much work for house keeping cleaning after the program, a sad example of laziness being victorious over patient’s welfare.

Today the Medical world is rediscovering the healing power of gardens. In many hospitals and other health care facilities we see that they are now incorporating green spaces, flowerbeds and views of gardens into their surroundings. Horticultural therapy programs are an important part of patient’s course of treatment. I was very pleased to learn how active the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association is. I am sure this will be the same south of the border.

Let me be clear I am not telling you that gardening, flowers etc will heal patients but I am telling you that they are great stimulators in the healing process!

The focus is on life rather than illness! For a sick patient, a stressed relative, or a tired nurse, the garden or a container with flowering plants, will be a temporary "place of peace" in the midst of dealing with illness and pain. Perhaps it only will mean the difference between a bad day and a hopeful day, and to me this is already a win win situation.

Doctors at the Jupiter Medical Center in Florida found that cardiology patients in rehab who had a of view over a garden from their room took less pain medication and had a shorter hospital stay than those patients who could not see the garden.

Think about the impact this knowledge will have when well used.

For an individual recovering from a serious illness like cancer, a stroke or what ever disease, gardens can be an important part of healing by providing hope and inspiration.

Hope in Bloom is a non profit organization in America that installs gardens at no cost at the homes of woman and men undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Each garden is developed specifically to the home and lifestyle of each patient in order to give them a place to escape from the world of doctors, hospitals and sickness.

Indeed to have a place that you can escape from the so important but sometimes so depressing medical world will be a blessing.

A couple years ago I was diagnosed with prostate and skin cancer and needed surgery. The surgery was unsuccessful and the next step was radiation. Side effects made the radiation a miserable experience. Understandably I was down. But then I started to help a couple hours a day in a garden centre, taking care of plants and advising people about gardening. This was the best thing I ever did, I loved being out there, it has given me new energy and today I am still a cancer patient but the cancer is in remission. Indeed nature is another name for health.

Mrs. Clare Cooper professor at the well known Berkeley University in California found that her garden had a strong impact on her coping and healing during several bouts with cancer. A gardener since childhood, she always found the garden to be a comforting retreat – a place where her anxieties dissipated into the ground.

Throughout her illness and treatments she wrote in a journal and discovered that working in the garden had symbolic parallels to her illness.

The results of this are that Cooper now focuses on the therapeutic aspects of gardens and their design through her consulting business.

A couple weeks ago we were invited to see a garden from an enthusiastic gardening couple. He has major health problems with his back and joints due to arthritis while she also suffers from back problems. We loved to see the oasis they created in the middle of the prairie. They work daily in their garden, and it gives them power to overcome their health problems.

They built their garden without any help of a garden consultant and the results are amazing, a professional garden architect could not have done a better job!

Again flower power.

I think the message is clear, whether tending to a house plant, growing some flowers or turning an outdoor garden into a relaxing retreat, plants have the power to heal our body and our soul.

It is said several times and research has proven that working in the garden can benefit everyone. The physical efforts of gardening like digging, planting, bending and walking are excellent forms of exercise. It also burns calories, it helps to build bones. It can lower blood pressure and cholesterol; it reduces stress, anxiety and depression.

Researchers at the Cleveland Botanical gardens found that the blood pressure of many visitors dropped the longer they stay in the gardens.

A garden specially developed as a healing garden can be made in several forms but it should always provides interaction with nature, harmony in colors, the relaxing sound of water and the aroma of fresh earth.

Start simple by planting a container or window sill with colorful flowers and start building slowly from here.

Always grow plants that are pleasing, some people like bright colors and they should work with annuals, other people look for peace and find it by working with different colors in green like Hosta`s, ferns shrubs and trees.

The development of a healing garden is exactly like a healing and recovery process - it takes place over time. It is that journey and the time spent with nature that can help heal our body and soul.

A healing garden brings to patients the sight, sound and smells of nature in their lives.

Roberta Dehman Hershorn from Hope in Bloom wrote me the following: Recently a study was undertaken at Harvard where some women who were severely depressed, anxious or having trouble coping were given flowers every day. Those who received the flowers reported that they were happier and much more positive than those who did not.

Translated: flowers and plants will help to put people in a better frame of mind allowing them to deal with tough situations.

Hope in Blooms findings are that flowers and plants make the recipients of their gardens much more responsive to medical intervention.

Lady Bird Johnson said; where flowers bloom, so does hope!

The focus of Hope in Bloom is on Breast cancer patients-this is great and it proves again how strong breast cancer support world wide is, unfortunately this can not be said from other cancer groups. But knowing that at the moment - every minute somebody dies from Cancer here in North America made me pray that we open our eyes and start to work on tools that make patients more responsive to medical intervention and create hope by working with flowers.

Think about this: Cancer is a disease of hope.

There are more groups working on health gardens like healing landscapes l or the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association
Both are doing a tremendous job.

I found the volunteer effort in Hope and Bloom more appealing. Hope in Bloom is a charity. The Hope and Bloom volunteers began planting in the summer of 2007 and installed twenty gardens by early fall. Currently, Hope and Bloom gardens are only available in Massachusetts. They plan to expand to other states as soon as possible.

Expanding will take on lots of hurdles, Roberta Dehman Hershorn writes: “To try to branch into another area takes a minimum of $225K to kick it off correctly with just a small infrastructure. Major funders do not look favorably on organizations that exist solely to improve the quality of life for patients. They are too wrapped up in research and education, which are certainly necessary but they do nothing to provide something positive and tangible for someone going through a very difficult time”

In this case I think the mighty dollar is victorious over improving the quality of life of a patient by ways other than medicines.

Hope in Bloom gardens offer people a beautiful, peaceful place to sit, reflect and escape from the world of doctors, hospitals and sickness. They create life-affirming indoor or outdoor gardens for any breast cancer patient who requests one. All gardens have symbols of life including color, texture, fragrance and sound incorporated into their design. Each garden is tailored to the patient residential situation and lifestyle.

Communities in Bloom here in Canada and even local CIB groups are always looking for special projects that will have an impact for the community. I think with Hope in Bloom there is an awesome opportunity for a meaningful community project for any service club but specially for Communities in Bloom.

I am sure that the Horticultural society members, garden clubs etc will provide a helping hand to any club that will go the extra mile to improve the suffering of sick people and to give them hope!

Last summer I was in the Netherlands where I visited a special house for Cancer patients, called “in loop huis” which means “welcome to walk in house”. In every room in this house were bouquets of fresh flowers. Patients can go there, talk to other patients, participate in all kinds of groups from poetry to cooking to painting; they have children’s programs, meditation rooms, possibilities to talk with cancer survivors etc.

They also give painting lessons; I saw some of those paintings and they all had a message. I was special taken by one painting; the bottom part of this painting was totally black, brought on in a rather raw way and out of the black towards the top of the painting came some red flowers. You could feel the struggle of the maker of this painting and how he came to peace. Flower power indeed!

There is a saying: The earth laughs in flowers, and I say that this is Flower power!

Christiaan Biesheuvel.
Lethbridge- Alberta-September 2008.

Info: the National Garden Bureau.
Hope in Bloom.
Growing with Gardening.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row