Paula Diane Relf
Extension Specialist
Virginia Tech
[Originally published in SAF Feb 1991: 31-34]

Being the eternal optimist, I believe life in the United States is better, easier, and longer than it has ever been. However, things are changing for the worse and people are worried. We are faced with global warming, sick-building syndrome, urban blight and crime, high stress, and employee burnout.

As researchers document the benefits to humans of the plants around us, we, in horticulture, may find ourselves as the source of solutions to many modern problems. We have long understood the role of plants for food, clothes, shelter, and the oxygen we breathe. Researchers and politicians are now extolling the importance of trees in controlling pollution and saving the ozone layer to prevent global warming. However, the focus of the global warming issue is stopping the destruction of the rain forest and replanting temperate zone trees on a massive scale.

Only recently have plants been recognized for their health benefits on a more personal level -- both physiologically and psychologically. This trend is predicted to accelerate in the future. The more we understand how plants influence us (from greater comfort in the office to quicker recovery from surgery), the more we can use plants to enhance all aspects of life quality.

At the symposium, "The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development" (Arlington, Virginia, 19-21 April 1990), researchers and practitioners shared their observations on the importance of plants in both individual and community health. By drawing together current information on people/plant interaction, they established a baseline and set in motion a new direction for horticultural research.

From the response of the participants it was clear that even those individuals involved in this area were not aware of the depth or diversity of importance that plants have to people. Future impacts of research in this area on the horticulture industry include:

* Increased pride in being a horticulturist, florist, or other plant professional. Most of us are in this profession because we love plants and enjoy the way we feel when we are around them. But often we fail to recognize the product of our labor is not merely a healthy and beautiful plant, but rather that a consumer's life has been made better because of that plant.

* Horticultural products and services targeted for specific populations. As we understand how and why people benefit from plants, how they perceive plants, and what their expectations are, it will be easier to produce plants and related products to fill those needs.

* Expanded marketing opportunities which will lead to increased sales. As Joseph Howland explain in the August 1990 issue of SAF magazine: sales is getting rid of what you want to sell. Marketing is learning the best answers to the potential customer's questions, then offering whatever it is that the customer is already convinced is the need of the moment. Research to understand people/plant interaction will allow us to better understand the needs and motivations of individual customers -- the people whose emotions and behavior are influenced by plants. This will allow us to better select plants, cultural practices, and supplies or accessories to create customer satisfaction....the ultimate goal of any long-term business.

In addition, it will give us significant information for market development with the intermediate users of plants. Intermediate users are members of tourism (hotels, theme parks), sales (shops, malls), and medical (hospitals, nursing homes) industries who use plants to entice, satisfy, or otherwise influence their customers. For intermediate users, plants are a tool to increase profitability. While their effectiveness may be inferred by daily observation, the expansion of this market segment is strongly influenced by documentation that plants do, in fact, produce the desired results.

Horticulture and Life Quality

Social scientists and horticulturists at the symposium established that the impact of plants on people goes well beyond the traditionally acknowledged roles. Often, their findings challenged us with many new questions. For example, a researcher at the University of Delaware compared patients recovering from gall bladder surgery and found that those with a view of landscapes spent less time in the hospital than those patients looking out on a brick wall (7.96 days vs. 8.70 days). Equally important, they required less-potent and fewer drugs to remain comfortable.

Of course, these questions occur to me: What about the flowers and potted plants the patients receive? Do they also have such positive effects? Or perhaps these gift plants have an even greater influence because they not only have the benefit of the presence of plants, but also have a symbolic message of love and concern.

In a recently completed study at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, women recovering from breast cancer surgery found that walks in the garden helped restore their ability to concentrate and focus their attention, and it reduced their depression. At the start of the study, the scores of measured attention were so low they resembled those for brain-damaged patients. Over the next 90 days, some of the patients participated in specific activities (such as walking in the garden 20 to 30 minutes three times per week) which were selected to help restore them from the anxiety and mental fatigue related to the surgery. Those who participated in activities recovered faster and were able to develop new interests. More of them went back to work during the initial 90 days and more went back to work full-time.

In this age of soaring medical costs, positive results from additional research in this direction could lead to insurance companies supporting increased plant use in and around hospitals. Atriums or quiet rooms with plants and flowers could improve recovery and morale for both patients and staff.

Other health benefits of plants are more preventative in nature; related to the workplace rather than a medical facility. Most of us are familiar with the message of the Plants for Clean Air Council regarding improvement of indoor air quality by plants. However, researchers have found the symptoms of sick building syndrome seen in some employees cannot be accounted for by actual pollutants. Instead they appear to be related to anxiety, stress, or mental fatigue. Can the positive effects of plants in medical settings be translated to the workplace and worker health, morale, and productivity by strategic use of flowers and plants? Researchers, including Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan and a team from the psychology and horticulture departments at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, are beginning to explore the role of plants in the workplace.

Virginia Lohr, at Washington State University, conducted an informal test to see if plants could be used to reduce the itchiness of skin caused by low levels of relative humidity. Offices may have humidity below 20 percent in winter, but 30 to 60 percent is recommended for individual comfort. In her informal study, 7 plants (1/4 cubic meter of green matter) raised the humidity of a 35-cubic-meter space (about the size of my office) from a slightly dry 25 percent to a just-acceptable 30 percent. Perhaps another hanging basket or two in an office would take care of dry skin and worker stress simultaneously.

Although anecdotal rather than research-based, participants related cases in which trees, flowers, and vegetables have made important contributions to urban life by reducing crime and developing community spirit. Charles Lewis from the Morton Arboretum related his years of experience in working with high- rise public housing garden projects in both Chicago and New York. The crime rate in high-rise towers is high because people have little opportunity to get to know each other, to know who belongs in a building, or to develop a sense of belonging themselves. Tenant gardens around the building become focal points where residents can meet each other, work together, and create a cooperative attitude. In one high-rise complex, vandalism was controlled because residents joined together to patrol the garden -- mothers would sit with their babies near the plots, children would take turns watching, and residents in higher apartments were assigned times to keep surveillance on the garden. A particularly effective way to cut down on vandalism was to get the trouble-makers involved in the garden.

In other communities that have established garden programs, side effects have been noted, such as improved maintenance of the neighborhood by residents, less litter, and fewer broken windows. Vacant lots are turned into neighborhood mini-parks where weddings and picnics are held. An Extension-sponsored program in Newark, New York found that the community garden became the foundation for community development and proved to be a major factor contributing to community pride.

On a daily basis, plants contribute to our life quality through their influence in our culture. Plants are major symbols in art from the work of Georgia O'Keefe and Salvador Dali to young artists such as Rhonda Roland Shearer. They are integral to our rituals: birth, marriage, death. Researcher Candice Shoemaker at VPI&SU reported on studies on the role of flowers in bereavement. Her interviews and surveys of funeral directors, grief therapists, consumers, and recently bereaved indicate that flowers are a critical component of the funeral ritual. Her research determined that flowers serve two roles in the funeral ritual - an emotional role and an utilitarian role. Flowers symbolize the love, care, and concern people have for the survivors and provide a tangible way for people to show their concern for the bereaved. At the same time, flowers physically brighten up a somber environment and serve as a diversion - something to talk about - during the visitation. The meaning of gardens to children, the role of nature and landscape in the promotion of well-being of the elderly, and the role of flowers in the home gardens of Honduras are among the research topics from other disciplines that clearly indicated the need to target different groups of people in order to understand their perceptions and use of plants, and to address those needs.

I have long believed our next generation of horticultural consumers is sadly neglected. There are few books, games, or toys relevant to horticulture to appeal to children. Where is the "tree-moving" Micro-machine TM to go with the bulldozer, fire engine, and missile launcher? However, some members of the horticulture industry have begun to target youth with products designed to create excitement for plants. The new line of Kidseed TM from Northrup-King is outstanding, with package directions geared to children and a collection of stickers to go with highly personalized flowers and vegetables. The time to hook a person on horticulture is between the ages of four and eight. Florists should consider that free flowers in first-grade classrooms could pay off in tremendous sales 10 to 15 years later.

With the aging of America, we have a large group of people who can afford a continuous supply of fresh flowers. Better understanding of older people's response to the colors, odors, and styles of arrangements is needed.

The interaction between people and plants has long been recognized; but only in recent years have researchers begun to understand some of the psychological, physiological, and social implications of this interaction. As horticulturists become more involved in this research, we are (in the words of Charles Hess) "broadening the entire vision of what horticulture can and should be."