Do Plants Have Feelings?

Words by: Erik Keller

When I tell people I am a horticultural therapist I often get a puzzled look, and I can only imagine what people must think: 

“Is he a plant whisperer?” 

“Do plants have feelings?”

“Can’t he get a normal job?”

While all of those responses are fair, many are surprised when I tell them that horticultural therapy (HT) is a discipline that is over 200 years old that uses plants and nature-based therapies to help people get better.  At Ann’s Place we have designed the gardens with this in mind so that we can stimulate and help heal the cognitive, social, emotional and physical challenges our clients face.

The gardens range from a shade grotto, heavily planted with sweet woodruff as a ground cover, ferns and astilbes, to a therapeutic labyrinth fronting over 6000 planted daffodil bulbs. Nature trails lead clients around and through the property so they can experience and see a wide diversity of plants. One of the most favorite gardens is our herb garden and accompanying mint walk. The mint walk contains over a dozen different mint types and the herb garden is split into three sections: kitchen, tea, and medicinal. 

Our gardens are an essential part of our horticultural therapy program, which runs once a month. In the program we run a wide variety of activities ranging from flower pounding to vinegar making to sachet creation. Flower pounding is one of the most popular with first-timers a bit incredulous that the task at hand is to take a hammer and pound a flower with it. (Yes, that is why it is called flower pounding.) But rather than get a mere mush of vegetation, with a little care and practice, clients are able to extract artwork from a collage of flowers whose images are realistically transferred to the paper they are using.

It has also been known to expel a frustration or two in the process.

Key to our HT program is surprising clients with unusual plants or crafts that they have never experienced before.  One of the more fun activities in late spring is the creation of a wild salad from greens that are growing at Ann’s Place, my yard, or nearby woods. Everyone is surprised how succulent and sweet “weeds” can be. 

Though I have been practicing HT for well over a decade it was only when my father had contracted lung cancer that its healing powers demonstrated themselves to me dramatically. He was undergoing chemotherapy and my mother needed a break from being with him so we took a small side trip to a local nursery. Once we entered a greenhouse at the nursery, my mother’s stress and unhappiness evaporated. She was hit with a waft of highly oxygenated, humid air. She came across a group of scented geraniums and I had her “scratch and sniff” each one. “This smells like mint. . .this one chocolate.” And so for about 20 minutes or so, she was able to immerse herself into a beautiful, peaceful environment forgetting her troubles for a time.

This is what we attempt to do in our HT classes: Bring our clients to a better place showing them the beauty and majesty of nature in ways they may have never experienced before.

This coming month we will be creating sundials that will be designed and calibrated for the Danbury area. Most people don’t realize this, but the geometry of a sundial is highly dependent upon location, which is why most sundials you buy never are even close to telling time properly.

This is one of many different nature based experiences that we share with our clients at Ann’s Place. I hope to see some of you join me in the coming months.