Awareness of mental health concerns has never been greater and, fortunately, a lot of the stigma attached to poor mental health seems to be diminishing and more people are actively taking care of their mental wellbeing.

Over the last year as many of us have been forced into a state of isolation, our collective psychological wellbeing has suffered. People living in urban areas are, according to some research, especially affected.

Whilst we don’t claim that being around houseplants is a universal solution to mental health problems, there is a building body of evidence to show that being among plants and, possibly more importantly, caring for them is beneficial for our wellbeing.

The issue with mental health

Levels of poor mental health have apparently increased over the last few years, and especially over the last year as we have experienced the COVID-19 crisis and its associated limits to our activities and ability to lead a normal life.

Recently published data (e.g the UK Government’s COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing surveillance report) shows that mental health in the form of anxiety and depression is higher than it was pre-pandemic, although, according to another study, this is improving (although feeling ground down by stress and loneliness did increase during the winter 2nd wave).

Some data suggest that urban populations and younger people are experiencing greater degrees of poor mental health and this may, in part, be linked to lack of access to nature and greenery.

Biophilia and our connection to nature

A lot of the benefits of being around greenery and in touch with nature is down to biophilia. This is humanity’s innate need to connect to a natural environment. The basis of biophilia is our species’ biological needs and survival instincts. Human beings are unique in that we are the only animal to have not only domesticated other species, but ourselves too. That domestication is very recent and certainly not long enough for evolution and our genes to catch up with our new environment - and that causes a lot of stress for our internal systems.

We have already seen in a previous post about how free-range chickens thrive compared with their caged counterparts. The same is true for humans, but finding ways to enrich our habitats with nature is not as simple as just opening a barn door.

Portrait of Frederick Law OlmstedDuring the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted, an American farmer, visited England and toured some of the parks and gardens in the Midlands and Northwest, including Britain’s first public park (the Derby Arboretum) and the first public park paid for out of public funds (Birkenhead Park). He was struck by two things - the design of the parks with their naturalistic landscaping, and the accessibility and egalitarianism of the spaces, where anyone, no matter their status, could visit and use the parks as they wished. He took these lessons back to America and incorporated both into the parks that he designed there, including Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which he described in his proposal that its “rural, natural, tranquilizing and poetic character” would be adapted “with the greatest care.” Olmsted knew that connecting urban workers with nature was restorative, and this was also understood by the hard-nosed industrialists of the time who funded the creation of many parks and green spaces. They recognised that the restorative effects of nature meant that their workers would arrive back to work after the weekend refreshed and productive. Their philanthropism was for a purpose after all. image credit: James Notman, Boston; engraving of image later published in Century Magazine (source), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

If we are lucky, we live in a house with a garden, which we can call our own - possibly in the country or near the sea (and that is where homebuyers are wanting to buy, according to property analysts). Green and blue spaces can be accessible. However, in more urban settings, and in high density housing, making a connection with nature is a little harder. This is where access to urban parks and gardens is essential, but also where creating an indoor oasis of greenery can pay real dividends.

The role of houseplants for mental health

A very recent research paper explained how an increased frequency of gardening correlated with health benefits:

  • Gardening at least two to three times a week maximised the benefits.
  • Pleasure though, not health, was the prime motivator to garden.
  • People with existing health issues particularly acknowledged the value of gardening.
  • Satisfaction/engagement improved as the amount of green space increased in gardens.

This study focused on traditional outdoor gardening, although many aspects are applicable to indoor gardening too - the nurture and care of plants, for example.
Another study published in the height of the Covid pandemic included indoor greenery as well. This showed that there was a strong relationship between access to indoor and outdoor greenery and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and rates of depression and anxiety.

Houseplants clearly have a beneficial effect on our wellbeing, both as a focus of our attention when caring for them, and also at a deeper level by helping us to reconnect to our natural environment by bringing a sense of nature into our homes.

How to use houseplants for wellbeing

Indoor plants can improve our wellbeing in two main ways. First, by creating a sense of nature indoors and second by acting as a focus for our attention by caring for them. Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Creating a sense of nature indoors

Houseplants come in such a wide variety of shapes, sizes and textures - just as nature does. When you consider the features of a natural environment, you will see vegetation of varied heights and that is irregularly spaced. Nature is scruffy and random and is not regularly spaced. Uniformity mimics only a plantation which, whilst green, is not terribly natural.

In the home, this variety is quite easy to accomplish. At foli8, we have dozens of different species, many of which come in different sizes too. These will provide a variety of textures and shapes which, if combined, will give an attractive look. From living room plants and bedroom plants, to bathroom plants and plants for your home office, foli8 have your perfect houseplant to make your home a healthier, happier place to live.

Some examples of naturalistic combinations might be combining the bold features of plants such as Sansevieria (snake plant), Dracaena (dragon trees, or corn plants) and Zamioculcas (ZZ plant) with more delicate foliage of Nephrolepis exaltata (Boston fern), Polysicas fruticosa ‘Ming’ (Ming Aralia) and maybe Ficus ‘Ginseng’ or variegated Ficus benjamina. Adding some smaller ferns to the collection, such as Doryopteris caudata (Antenna fern) and Phlebodium aureum (Golden Serpent fern). These houseplants are shown below and you can click on each image to find out more about each plant.

snake plantDracaena Golden Coast corn plantzz plant in a foli8 compostable potboston fern in a compostable foli8 pot

Ming Aralia in a sustainable foli8 potficus ginseng bonsai in foli8 potFicus Varigated 'Braided Stem'Antenna Fern houseplant in eco-friendly foli8 potGolden Serpent Fern in foli8 pot
Be creative with the way you arrange the plants, but do take into account the light levels they require as some plants like bright light while other plants like low light. You can create illusions of depth and space by using mirrors behind your plants (effectively doubling your plants for no extra cost), or even use large pictures of nature and vegetation to complement your indoor greenery.
Another tip for recreating a connection with nature is to use houseplants to draw your gaze through a window to an outside feature.  Plants placed near windows, or on windowsills can help frame a view of the outside world that might be worthy of interest.

Creating a natural focus for your attention

By this, I don’t mean making a plant the focal point in your space (although that is, of course, a good idea), but rather a focus for your own attention.
Work in gardens and farms was often prescribed as a curative for mental sickness long before psychiatry was a recognised discipline. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, physicians recommended what is now known as horticultural therapy, and there is some evidence that therapeutic gardens were created in ancient Egypt, some three thousand years ago.
In fact, horticultural therapy is now a widely respected discipline practised all around the world. Its premise is that direct contact with plants guides a person’s focus away from stresses and leads to a better quality of life. This can be guided, or self-directed. In fact, many people tend gardens and nurture plants without even thinking of that as being a therapy at all, but knowing that they feel better as a result.
Looking after plants is a fantastic way of losing yourself in the moment. The attention needed when grooming the foliage to look its best, or a little light pruning. Perhaps re-potting in new plant pots or even rearranging your plant displays. All of these activities are ways to really take your mind off the things that might be causing stress and anxiety.
cleaning a leaf to care for your plant

You may wish to set aside a little time each day to nurture your plants - maybe just one or two at a time. On the other hand, getting stuck in for a couple of hours to create a new look to your plant displays can be a good way of expending some pent-up creative energy. The benefits are real and easy to obtain.

By Kenneth Freeman

Main image credit: photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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