Healing Gardens; man and the power of plants

By Andy McIndoe

Man’s wonder at the magical power of plants is nothing new. Since the earliest times man has been in awe of growing things. Evergreens fascinated him with their ability to defy the severities of winter. These plants not only retained their leaves but some flowered or even produced fruit, the very essence of life itself. Trees wondrously survived and grew stronger through generations, their ultimate size almost infinite compared to their modest beginnings. Seeds gathered from a plant often produced progeny with different characteristics; miracles of the natural world to be held in awe and wonder.

Man learnt that some plants could not only satisfy his hunger but also could help and heal him in times of injury and sickness. As he became more sophisticated he learnt to cultivate plants that were valuable to him rather than foraging for them in the wild. It is not surprising that these early healing gardens were attached to monasteries, places of spiritual culture where the soul was the primary concern not the body.

As the world became a smaller place and wealth and possessions drove obsession, man’s desire to explore, to collect, to possess and cultivate drove his interest in the plant kingdom. Tulips, orchids and choice hardy plants became objects of desire. Few corners of the earth were left unexplored in man’s quest for plants, not for food or medicine but to satisfy man the collector, the aesthete and the gardener.

England has remained at the forefront of the gardening world through centuries. Our temperate maritime climate, mild winters and high rainfall enable a wide variety of plants to be cultivated, especially those choice hardy subjects from the orient and even those more tender ones from Mediterranean regions. The Romans, the Crusaders, the Explorers have all swelled our garden flora contributing to England, the greatest garden on earth.

Deep red rose - Gresgarth

Healing Gardens have received a lot of attention in recent years. We like our herbs recognising their importance in cooking, traditional and alternative medicine and for the aromatic qualities of their foliage. Natural oils are the basis of aromatherapy, the popular employment of scent to sooth and heal; a science that has been readily embraced in today’s stressful world.

The calming effect of plants, especially trees in an urban environment is recognised. Research shows that the presence of green reduces aggression and that flowers and water have a profound effect on our mood. Those of us that have a genuine connection with plants and recognise their power, sometimes despair that so little value is put upon them. It often seems that the budget for greening the environment is infinitesimally small, considering its impact; a tiny fraction of the budget for bricks and mortar and internal decor.

Giverny2 (1)

As we live longer and life gets faster and more challenging alternatives in all aspects of lifestyle become more appealing. Pressures of population and our consumer society have encouraged compromise in food production leading to increasing unnatural methods and the use of chemicals. We now seek natural alternatives and shun the artificial where possible. Our own gardens again come to the fore where we are in control of our own destiny.

The therapeutic role of gardening is widely accepted in the treatment of illness, particularly stress related and in recovery and rehabilitation. Gardening demands care of living things, requires us to nurture and cherish and look after individuals amongst the throng of subjects therein. Gardening is an active pastime that requires effort and is associated with daylight and fresh air, both vital to the basic function of life.

A garden should be calming but it should also be pleasantly distracting engaging senses at a higher level. The garden needs variety, it needs movement and it needs to change with the seasons. All gardens need input, they need work but this should not be all consuming for those that lack the time and the energy.

Rosa gallica 'Officinalis' The apothecary's rose

The most essential quality of gardening is its place in the future, the planning, planting for the coming seasons; the need to think ahead rather than the dwelling on the present. Gardening gives us the determination to be there to reap the fruits of our labours, to see those bulbs flower next spring, to see that newly planted rose bloom next summer, to pick the first bunch of those recently sown sweet peas.

Sanhill farm 2

Gardening has its disappointments, plants fail, pests and diseases spoil and weeds compete. Our desire to cultivate and nurture accentuates our desire to succeed. Despite setbacks we try again, even if it means waiting patiently for a whole year for the next crop of flowers or fruit. Gardening teaches us patience, the current trend towards instant results in the garden, planting ready – grown, already in flower, cannot deliver the satisfaction of admiring the results of one’s own efforts.

Gardening is a humbling thing. The magical power of plants still amazes us today; the wonder of colour, the impact of perfume, the taste of produce grown by ones own hand and the powers of survival of the plant. The most amazing quality of all is the way that we feel that a garden carries on, even without us, but there is always the satisfaction of knowing that the garden needs us to be there to care for it: a symbiotic relationship where each partner helps the other.

Andy McIndoe

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