HUMAN RESPONSE TO PLANTS: A NEW PERSPECTIVE


Kevin Gruber
Diane Relf
Extension Specialist
Horticulture
Virginia Tech
PDRELF@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU

[Originally published in Greenhouse Grower Jan 1990: 86]

People do respond to the plants in their environment. This belief is increasingly well-accepted, and when combined with the aesthetic qualities of plants, is the basis for many of the "green movements" we have seen in recent years, including:

increased interior plantscaping of work, retail, and other spaces

increased use of plants in theme parks and other segments of the tourist industry

extensive landscaping of planned communities

growth of inner-city/urban/community gardening

Although most people do not recognize it, we often think in terms of plants. Our language, history, art, and literature are filled with plants as metaphors, similes, icons, and symbols. There is an increasingly accepted belief that interaction with plants, both passive and active, can change people's attitudes, behaviors, perceptions of space, and physiological responses (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension). But the research to document these responses, to understand them, and to apply them to the use of plants is in its infancy. What little of it there is has been focused mostly on plants in natural settings.

We, as an industry, need to encourage a much wider group of professionals to undertake related research and work with us and with government agencies. In this way, we can utilize the research findings to enhance life quality, and at the same time, develop horticultural markets.

A few of the areas in which current research indicates that additional information and application of that research to the use of plant materials may have long-term impact include:
length of hospital stay
community development
litter control
job satisfaction
selection of home/community/school
selection of tourist accommodations and facilities

Other important questions contribute to the need for this research. Can plants help relieve mental fatigue, the fear of computers, the isolation of sterile office environments, the daily hypnosis of the television, some of the problems of youth-at-risk or drug abusers? There is subjective and anecdotal evidence of plants playing a role in all of these.

But are these examples simply isolated cases? It seems unlikely. Our distance from the natural environment and the reduced opportunities to garden, to participate in nature, have contributed to the problems of modern life. We must come to understand and reapply, in a modern context, what was once part of the natural order of life.

Research in such a diverse area will require interdisciplinary cooperation -- working together across fields of study that have not traditionally been crossed. Horticulturists need to begin working with social scientists and psychologists as well as landscape architects and urban planners on these research issues, which obviously necessitate a new way of thinking and a new cooperation.

To address this need, several faculty members from the Department of Horticulture at VPI&SU have established an interdisciplinary research group and are currently pursuing several projects. Not the least of these projects is a national symposium, "The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development," which will be held in Arlington, Virginia, 19-21 April 1990. It is co-sponsored by VPI&SU's Department of Horticulture, the American Society for Horticultural Science, the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, and the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Most of the major U.S. horticultural trade and professional associations have endorsed this effort.

It could be said that the people/plant response has proven itself in the market place--if commercial firms will put out the money required to install and maintain plantings, then it must be economically worthwhile. Some suggest that research and additional applications are not needed.

But what about the application of information developed through research that is not as obviously market-directed? What about the applications that require a shift in thinking that is not traditional in concept? And what happens when there is a shift in the economics of a firm that requires a re-evaluation of the plantscaping/landscaping program and there is no documentation of the psychological/social or "value-added" role plants play? Objective (and where possible, quantified) research data is needed to reach a balance with the bottom line of cost--the value of investments are constantly being weighed on one scale or another. We need to focus on enumerating and evaluating the benefits that plants provide for human productivity, well-being, and quality-of-life.

The Bottom Line

But what about the bottom line for the greenhouse industry? What can all this interdisciplinary research and a national symposium do for us? There are many answers -- it can improve the image of the industry with the general public, improve the quality of life of our customers, identify new markets, and improve growing and marketing practices. By selling greenhouse products to new customers, better serving the needs of current customers, and improving plant materials and production skills, the bottom line answer becomes "greater production, sales, and profits."

The real clincher here is that by being able to identify the needs and desires of the general public -- and then satisfying those needs and desires -- we increase revenues for the plant producer, wholesaler, and retailer.

Let's take a look at one possible new market and how research might be able to, ultimately, provide all these benefits. When the average American goes out for dinner, what effects do flowers have? We might expect that a flowering plant or a vase filled with fresh flowers sitting on the table would make the customer feel happier about the entire dining experience. Research can identify whether the customer prefers fresh flowers to silk or plastic, whether a happier diner orders more expensive wine, more desserts, tips more, or is more likely to return to that restaurant.

The results are cold, hard facts which can be taken back to restaurant industry: "If you purchase my flowers, your average dinner bill will increase by X percent, the server's tips will increase by Y percent, and you will be more likely to have a repeat customer." Everyone is happy now; the dinner customer feels more satisfied, the restaurant owner has increased sales -- and so has the flower industry.

On an even more limited and directed scale, by identifying what our customers want and need we can tailor crops to satisfy them. What color poinsettias or geraniums does a customer prefer? What motivates the purchase of different colors? Do they really like 6-inch green pots? Would they like to see new crops they've never seen before? How important is the novelty compared to ease of care? What benefits do they want that we can breed into the plants? The answers allow us to produce what the customer wants and needs. When we are in the market for a new car or new greenhouse, we expect to be able to buy something that we want and which satisfies our needs -- not what the manufacturer has arbitrarily decided to produce.

All of the research in the world is inconsequential unless it is "translated" into a form to which the public is receptive and understands. A good industry bottom line -- greater production, sales, and profits -- will be enhanced by the dissemination of research in the form of educational programs and the improvement of public relations through positive media coverage.

Many consumers are very concerned with health and environmental issues. Can we adjust growing practices to produce plants which improve the physical and mental health of our customers? Can we show our customers that we are using environmentally sound production practices? If the public can see that we are breeding and producing plants which can reduce the use of potentially harmful pesticides, reduce runoff and groundwater contamination, improve the air which we all breathe, reduce the stress of daily life, and keep them in a better frame of mind, won't they be more aware of the horticulture industry and more likely to purchase our products?