Sept. 26, 2022 – Miriam Geiger, a 30-year-old Massachusetts-based legal editor, feels she has a relationship with plants, whether they are houseplants she tends in her living room or outdoor plants and herbs in her garden.
“I’ve always tried to keep plants wherever I’ve been living, and my parents did too,” she says. “My mother was a gardener and landscaper, and my father took us on hikes, so I grew up with a real relationship with nature. We grew herbs and other plants and, in fact, some of the plants I keep now are those that I propagated from cuttings from my grandmother’s collection when she passed away.”
Growing plants became even more important to Geiger during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It was particularly comforting and helpful to have plants around, especially during the early days of the pandemic,” she says. Geiger was also fortunate to have access to an outdoor space and be able to garden in her little backyard as well, “so I stayed very connected with nature.”
Geiger is not alone. Research has shown that house plant sales boomed during the pandemic and that having plants around or access to outdoor greenery improved people's mental health.
A recent study of 353 students, done during two semesters in 2020, found that most students reported severe COVID-19-related mental health issues, with high levels of depression and anxiety. But interactions with plants and nature, both indoors and outdoors, provided some benefits, which were shown by reduced depression, anxiety, and stress scores in the surveys completed by the students.
Why Are Plants Beneficial?
Catherine Simpson, PhD, an assistant professor of sustainable and urban horticulture at Texas Tech University and co-author of the study of students’ mental health and relationship with nature during the pandemic, says there is “a lot of research out there that is trying to determine the mechanism behind the mental health benefits of plants.”
Simpson believes “that both active and passive interactions have benefits,” and she points to a theory of what's known as biophilia, which says humans have an inherent need to be near nature. "Nature appeals to us on a fundamental level,” she says.
In fact, “active interactions with plants tend to be therapeutic, and horticultural therapy is a growing field” and has been shown to improve healing times and yield other mental health benefits, she says.
The physical act of working with plants can also “help with dexterity and physical health,” but just being out in nature is “beneficial as well.”
One study found that actively repotting an indoor plant reduced blood pressure and tamped down the activity of the sympathetic nervous system – which is the part of the nervous system that gets activated during times of stress. Other studies have found that even being in the presence of plants can be soothing, with one theory suggesting that the positive effects produced by the presence of plants may be due to the aesthetic improvements that plants bring to the home or the beauty of nature, which could help release tension.
How Do People Relate to Plants?
A recent survey of 1,250 U.S. adults by Trees.com found that close to half of respondents reported talking to their trees and/or plants; and of those who do, one-fifth said they talk to their plants every day. Close to a quarter said they have even kissed their plants, and many regarded their plants as their “pets.”
During the lockdown, Geiger spent more time with her plants. “I found that I would sit with them more often, watering them or tending to them not only once a week as I used to, but every other day or even every day.”
She also talked to her plants. “I didn’t talk to my plants as if they were my ‘therapists’ or something like that, but rather I would talk to them a little bit – for example, ‘Oh, you look thirsty,’ if they needed some water, or ‘you look sad, let’s take care of this’ if they needed trimming.”
She says that in general, this is how she interacts with the world. She likes getting to know plants better. “When I go on walks, if I see a plant or flower that looks interesting, I might touch it gently just to get a sense of it. There are interesting textures and sensations in the world that a lot of people don’t notice.”
When asked why they talk to plants and trees, 65% of the survey respondents said they believe it helps the plants to grow, and 62% said they believe it helps their own mental health.
Geiger has found that her relationship with plants definitely has mental health benefits, not only during the pandemic, but in general. It also gives her a sense of connection with her family through certain plants, such as those that came from her grandmother’s collection, and helps her to get more familiar with the world.
She encourages others to get involved with plants.
“Many people are afraid of growing plants,” she observes. “They think, ‘Oh no, I’m going to kill them. I’m not good at growing things.’ But the real trick to having plants is having many of them and practicing until you know how to take care of them. If a plant dies, that’s simply part of nature.”
So don’t deprive yourself of the benefits of having plants out of fear, she advises. And there are classes you can take online or in person to learn more about plant care. Geiger herself took an herb and gardener class through a local foundation.
Resources to find out more about how to grow indoor and outdoor plants are below.
American Horticultural Society
Royal Horticultural Society
University of Georgia Extension
Growing Indoor Plants with Success