Healing Gardens

Where plants make medicine

Botanical medicine is the oldest form of health care. The healing properties of plants have been known and implemented for centuries, from ancient Egypt to the Monastic Cloisters of Europe. Revered was the person in early societies who had the greatest knowledge of healing plants, the Medicine Man. The pioneer housewife consulted her “herbal” as readily as we consult a medical encyclopedia today, finding instructions to boil the bark of a plant or steep its leaves into soothing teas or tinctures (a mixture with diluted spirits such as vodka or rum). Remedies were concocted by crushing roots or seeds for powders and poultices, or distilling the essential oils into infusions, ointments and salves. Bearberry was even combined with tobacco and smoked as a cure-all for everything from kidney infections to weight gain.

Herbal lore may be quaint and entertaining, but, practically, after much trial-and-error, it also formed the basis of modern pharmacology. Advancements in medical technology in the 20th century initially outmoded the old natural remedies, but in the 1950s extracts using Madagascar periwinkle, for example, successfully treated juvenile leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and other cancers previously considered incurable. Today, trendy health food stores tout the herbal supplement du jour. Almost everyone wards off the common cold with the common coneflower, Echinacea, and organic grocers cater to our every natural need. As often happens, what’s old is new again.

Meanwhile, Eastern health practices such as yoga have entered the American mainstream. Recognizing complementary and alternative therapies, which emphasize healing the whole person—mind, body and spirit—rather than merely alleviating symptoms, has brought about a revival of interest in healing gardens. A tranquil setting is universally recognized as therapeutic to human beings, but scientific proof reinforces that idea: Studies by the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University have found that test subjects viewing scenes from nature (as opposed to an urban setting) exhibited lower alpha rates associated with wakeful relaxation.

A garden, it was found, evokes positive feelings, effectively holding attention and blocking stressful thoughts. Not surprisingly, surgical patients with views of nature had shorter post-operative stays, took less pain medication and reported fewer minor complications after surgery than those with a view of a brick wall.

The Healing Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond pays homage to the history of Green Pharmacy, with nine beds surrounding a restful central lawn, each illustrating botanical parts of a plant with corresponding diagrams of the specific system of the human body purported to benefit from its curative powers. This garden also addresses the need for restoration of the senses and spiritual healing through a cloister-inspired meditation space that fosters images of security and sanctuary. A similar peaceful retreat, but in shady seclusion, is provided at the Annette Kagan Healing Garden (part of the Norfolk Botanical Garden) situated on the edge of a serene woods above a canal.

Medical care facilities all over Virginia embrace the benefits of healing gardens. In Hampton, Sentara Careplex has teamed with the world-renowned Busch Gardens landscape artists to create a courtyard open to the sky in the hospital’s center, with a waterfall and lush plantings in a peaceful environment for patients and visitors. The Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia has a labyrinth in its healing garden, introducing the participatory element where walking the winding path imitates the process of a spiritual pilgrimage and offers opportunity for reflection, prayer and meditation.

Richmond’s Massey Cancer Center’s new Research Building will feature a 3,000-square-foot garden built at street level on the rooftop of an underground parking garage, providing an oasis for the medical community in the middle of the city. Marshall Street ends at what will be the new building’s front door. The glass wall will reveal planted islands with walkways, sculptures by Virginia artists, an arbor with a swing, a reflective pool and two other water features that will be restorative for patients and their families, creating tranquility in the urban setting overlooking Church Hill.

You don’t have to be a New Age disciple to implement banner ideas for healing gardens, herbal aromatherapy, relaxing spas and feng shui elements of wind and water for wellbeing. Incorporating movement (of water or swaying grasses, for example) brings energy into the garden. Arching shapes and cascading forms convey serenity. Engaging all the senses not only with sight and scent, as we normally expect, but also with sound and tactile elements can alternately soothe and stimulate, depending upon individual needs. At Buffalo Springs Herb Farm in Raphine, Gregorian chants are piped into a medieval-style abbey garden where St. Fiacre, the patron saint of healing, and St. Colombo, the guardian of health, anchor stone walls.

Simple wind chimes, however, can be quite pleasing in the home garden. A bird lover may not be content merely with attracting songbirds by plantings, but may also have to construct an entire aviary for a choral paradise. Velvety lamb’s ear invites stroking, especially in children’s gardens, which need to be proportionately scaled. Let comfort, whatever form that takes, be your guide. Seating can be as basic and natural as rounds of felled tree trunks or as elaborate as a row of young willows bent and trained as they grow, woven into a high-backed bench.

A private healing garden should include whatever brings you the most pleasure, nurturing and refreshing your senses. I, for example, must have roses to be thoroughly soothed. My personal technique for enjoying a rose is tri-sensory: Absorb the visual beauty, inhale the sweet fragrance, then pluck one petal and rub it above the top lip where it comforts like the satin binding of a baby blanket. A different rose aficionado might follow that process with tasting the rose petal itself, substituting rosewater for vanilla in a favorite recipe, or dowsing the rose fruits with boiling water to produce a vitamin C-rich rose hip tea.

If a tasting garden is your pleasure, stimulus for tired senses could be a potager of fresh vegetables or a low-lying arbor over a chaise where you lie, Roman-like, and eat succulent red grapes, full of healthful antioxidants. Thankfully, these harmonious environments, by stressing the importance of taking care of ourselves, also remind us of the need for stewardship of our Mother, Earth.

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