Horticultural Therapy: Finding Ground in Nature

Here in New York City, the chill of winter has already introduced itself. But inside where we are, its warm and humid. Leaves press gently on foggy glass. Tree trunks tower towards the roof, their branches sighing in a graceful arch. Light leaks through the windowed leaves of papaya and breadfruit trees, casting dappled shadows onto a curved pathway. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hangs down from the branches above, teasing – it lies just beyond the hands reach. Im trying to take in the beauty of the space I’m in, but there are other things knocking at the door of my mind – those upcoming deadlines, the next doctors appointment, what happened last Wednesday. But then, just as my daily worries start grabbing hold of my attention, I am reminded: Dont forget to breathe. In through your nose, and out through your mouth.

Balisier (Heliconia bihai) flowering in the New York Botanic Gardens

The gentle reminder is coming from Erin Backus, who has been leading five students through a mindfulness nature walk inside the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) Lowland Tropical Rain Forest gallery in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Backus teaches Horticultural Therapy in Behavioral Health Settings, just one of the many courses included in NYBGHorticultural Therapy Certificate Program in which students can begin or further their careers in this growing field of work. Often when I tell people that I am studying to be a horticultural therapist, the term can (understandably) get lost in translation. Oh, so you talk to the plants and give therapy to them?Ive had someone ask me.

Horticultural therapy is technically defined as the use of nature, plants, and the growing environment to help individuals achieve specific and documented treatment goals. Gardening, growing herbs from seed, or participating in a guided outdoor excursion are just a few activities that horticultural therapists might use to help someone learn new vocational skills, build mindfulness, or gain independence after a traumatic injury. The focus is more on the process as opposed to the end product. The specific goals can be physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual.

Horticultural therapy is, in some ways, a living illustration of the reciprocal relationship between people and plants.”

Back inside the rain forest of the botanical garden, its easy to forget that we are still in the midst of the concrete jungle of the city. The only auditory reminders are the occasional muffled roar of a plane overhead, and the horn of an arriving train at the station across the street. Make sure you look up,Backus says as we slowly make our way along the curving paths, ducking under the occasional low-hanging branch. She gasps, and points to a plant that is hovering just above us. On a thin branch sits a hot-pink spherical flower with a fluffy plume of stamens radiating from its center – a natural pom-pom. We find out that its actually a Calliandra haematocephala, aptly named powder puff tree’. A few minutes later, she points out an inchworm eating away at the new leaves of a gustavia peoppigiana. I would have missed it.

Image by Kathryn Tam
Image by Kathryn Tam

The guidance and auditory cues that Backus provides are not purely instructional. They serve the purpose of training us to be present, in the moment – to really be here, physically and mentally. Even though the rain forest is overwhelmingly visual, she has us utilising all our senses – listening, smelling, touching. Smelling can be really grounding for peopleBackus says, speaking from experience. In addition to teaching, she spends her days at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, where she runs therapeutic horticulture groups for clients working through mental health and substance use disorders. Utilizing sense of smell has been integral in her work, particularly for individuals with psychosis who may experience olfactory hallucinations. Backusguidance on these mindfulness nature walks can help them ground themselves back into reality.

Backus finishes our session with a few minutes to process our individual experiences. By this time, I do feel like my brain has had a bit of a break. Im more alert – as if the slate of my mind has been cleared, creating some more space for discovery. Its easy to be mindful when youre in this kind of atmosphere, when youre around plants,Backus explains. But practicing it when youre not in nature can be beneficial too.I want to pack up this experience and put it in my back pocket, to be pulled out like a handwritten note when my minds worries begin to resurface.

Take deep breaths. Walk slowly. Look up. Stay focused on whats around you and not whats up in your head. Go through your senses.”

For the eight years that I have lived here in New York City, Ive been constantly seeking refuge from an often unforgiving environment – an escape from the chaos and the go go go,without having to actually go away into the mountains of Upstate New York. This may partially be why Ive found myself drawn to the field of horticultural therapy. But Im now learning to see how the chaos of the city can actually be a contrasting yet complementary,frame for the natural landscapes I do end up finding – austere vs. lush, fast vs. slow, results vs. process. This contrast, perhaps, is what allows me to really appreciate spaces like the botanical garden, or the park that hugs the Hudson River at sunset, or even the shelf of plants Ive amassed in my apartment in Brooklyn. So often in an urban environment, we are trained to walk fast, look down, and block everything out. But Im trying to remember what Ive learned – to take a moment and pause, look around, be present. Its a worthy self-reminder.

Image by Kathryn Tam
Mindfulness nature walking inside the New York Botanical Garden’s Lowland Tropical Rain Forest gallery in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Image by Kathryn Tam