Ever notice just how good it feels to be surrounded by plants? I sure do and as we can see on Instagram - or observe in our homes, offices, public spaces and even some institutional settings - many people relate to the positivity that comes from being in proximity to greenery. When you think about this, even in the context of the massive renaissance houseplants are experiencing at the moment, humans hooking up with plants is nothing new; think about all of the ancient public gardens, Victorian hot houses, healing asylums in the countryside and other centuries-old examples of humans going out of our way to cozy up to cultivated botanicals.
By now most of us have heard about some clear ways modern houseplants plants are good for us: certain plants are very efficient at removing toxins such as VOC’s from indoor air, indoor plants may reinforce our evolutionary connection to natural settings, plants growing in real dirt may provide exposure to serotonin promoting microbes that literally make us feel happier (that’s a cool benefit!), plants can help fulfill - in a low risk way - the human need to be nurturing, and plants in association with full spectrum grow lights can counteract the impact of seasonal affective disorder. These are all really positive, impactful reasons to include plants in our lives, especially indoors through the fall/winter.
As a grower and a plant lover who gets the opportunity to talk with so many people about these things, I have noticed a few more interesting ways that people and plants seem to be good together.
Growing plants is transporting
As a cold climate gardener who is mostly stuck in my cold climate through the winter, I really appreciate the experience of encountering my indoor jungle, whether at home or in the greenhouse. Most of the plants we grow in pots come from far and away, and represent warmer climates, outdoor spaces and little bit of an exotic break from our climate realities. Settling into a chair with a vining pothos draping me from a window ledge shelf, or taking a mental journey to an arid landscape as I contemplate the architectural lines of an African Milk plant definitely gives me a little break from where I am, and occasional wish I was not.
Growing plants is deeply sensory
People are blessed with a variety of senses with which to encounter the world. Our sensory systems are our primary contact with everything outside of us, and guide us through our day. Senses really matter to humans. Plants are a potent source for sensory experiences, and without question sensory experiences can stimulate our emotional world. When it comes to plants, this is typically a positive situation. One of my favourite examples is with aromatic plants such as allspice, which for most people in western culture instantly evokes the comforting feelings associated with holiday dinners. Other examples include the sight of certain plants we grew up with triggering memories of people who have been important in our lives - and when it comes to gardening this can often lead to feelings of gratitude as we finally appreciate (better late than never) the gardening wisdom a parent or grandparent once shared with us.
A cool thing about plants is that they are so multi-sensory that just about anyone can relate in meaningful ways. While we do not typically pay close attention to the sounds of plants indoors, I have recently met several people “tuning-in” to the auditory vibes generated by houseplants (using electronic devices to measure then articulate this energy using a synthesizer). Another less obvious but booming example of houseplants bringing joy to gardeners is through the explosion of time-lapse videos hitting Instagram. It is magical and mind-blowing to see just how much plants move around! What ever your dominant sensory style, plants offer endless stimulating experiences.
Plants engage our love of learning
Life long learning keeps us growing, developing new insights, skills and a sense of accomplishment. The fundamental needs of plants are fairly basic (light, water, nutrients, correct temperature), but the nuances of these foundations are allow for endless exploration. Where ever you happen to be in terms of “knowing” about plants, discovery will always be a part of the process of growing things.
Plants engage our need for “flow”
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified an important component of human well-being which he called “flow”. This is the wonderfully productive sweet spot in the human mind where one’s abilities and endeavors are well matched in such a ways as to purposefully challenge ourselves. Flow is a mental resource that can help alleviate boredom (a classic example is someone working at a mundane task but creating a novel way to re-frame the experience so as to be more interesting... let’s say when transplanting thousands of seedling and creating mini speed challenges for one’s self), and also unlock creativity (setting up a montage of air plants) or high performance (growing a champion giant pumpkin, or pruning a masterful indoor bonsai). Working with plants presents endless opportunities to develop flow.
A nuanced variation on the concept of flow is that of obsession; when it comes to plant people I would say a certain number of us are quite obsessed! I know that I can be doggedly committed to finding unusual varieties or collecting particular species of plants just for the sake of collecting (and being curious). This can be quite healthy, and so satisfying each time a hard-to-come-by selection is found. Obsession can drive us, keep us engaged, encourage creativity and keep us committed to learning new things and sharing cool things with others. If you feel like a “crazy plant person”, please consider this may be a strength!
Plants can promote mindfulness
Mindfulness is a meditative process that involves bring attention to the present moment and letting go of judgement. Mindfulness, like many wellness benefits associated with plants, is useful for both deeper troubling situations of stress and anxiety but also highly valuable as a habit that everyone can benefit from. I can quickly think of many ways that mindfulness and plants are obviously linked, but one important one is to help gardeners be more comfortable with the natural ebb and flow of nature. It is a very good, confidence building feeling when we start to realize that vibrant, healthy plants will occasionally have leaves that turn yellow and fall off, or that sometimes we forget to water plants and they experience a set back. These are normal experiences when growing. To become aware of these happenings, and not judging them, definitely builds calm and greater satisfaction.
Plants encourage connection
Connecting, sharing, being social - these are all good for us. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, or you are growing plants for your own personal pleasure or to be the next Instagram star, at some point including plants in our lives gets noticed by others. For me this has often had to do with growing herbs that are fragrant and hard to ignore, or just the copious number of plants in my life, but I’ve seen the attraction people have to plants play out again and again. I love it when someone new to Canada gushes about a special plant from back home, or when someone spots a houseplant like Pilea and excitedly tells me about how they got their first Pilea back in the 70’s... who would have known what a rockstar that plant would become! Plants big and small bring people together, and that feels good.
These are some of my observations on people, plants and the ways these can make us feel good. What do you have to say? How have you experienced plants as positive, especially thinking about indoors? Please share!
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