Professional touts healing power of horticulture therapy

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, March 24, 2014

JANESVILLE--Cindy Berlovitz believes in the power of green healing.

A lot of people don't know about her work with plants at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

So she enjoys telling them about horticulture therapy and how it makes positive differences in the lives of her clients, who have severe and persistent mental illnesses.

On Saturday in Janesville, Berlovitz talked about how plants fit into her programming at the hospital and at a memory-care center for people with dementia. She spoke at a gardening symposium sponsored by Rotary Gardens.

“Horticulture therapy works,” Berlovitz said, in an interview before the event. “We have evidence to show that it works. It's not a quick fix, but interactions with plants can stimulate healing in our bodies.”

A certified recreational therapist, Berlovitz is making a career out of what many gardeners already know: Time among the peonies can change the way a person thinks and feels in a matter of minutes.

Berlovitz cites research done by Robert Ulrich, Stephen Kaplan, Richard Louv and others showing that being among plants reduces stress, calms anxiety and stops the kind of circular thinking that often keeps people stuck in bad places.

“When I'm feeling stressed, I'm looking forward and looking backward,” Berlovitz said. “Gardening brings me into the moment. It's calming. It's energizing. It's creative and involves all my senses.”

She maintains a special room with plants at the hospital, “which has become an oasis in the stark, sterile environment,” Berlovitz said. “The space captures the interest of my patients and invites them to take care of something. It stimulates their caregiving behavior and opens up a space for us to talk about how they take care of themselves.”

She cites research showing that people who care for plants and pets secrete the hormone oxytocin, which can improve social bonding and contribute to a longer lifespan.

Berlovitz recalls one hospitalized woman, who for all practical purposes had given up on life.

“Her will to live had shut down,” Berlovitz said. “She did not speak to anyone. She did not take care of herself.”

Hospital staff began wheeling the woman up and down the hallway. At the end of one hallway, she noticed a tray of plants.

“The woman gestured to be taken to the plants,” Berlovitz said. “She began rearranging the plants. She started deadheading them. It was part of her reawakening to life.”

Today, Berlovitz proudly reports the woman volunteers at a day program for people with mental illnesses.

The idea that working with or being with plants brings about health and well-being is not new. The early Egyptians built gardens as healing places for the pharaohs. In 1792, a doctor named Benjamin Rush said that “digging in the soil has a curative effect” in treating mental conditions.

After World War II, doctor Karl Menninger said that veterans healed from “shell shock,” amputations and other psychological and physical injuries and illnesses when taking part in or viewing nature.

“Horticulture therapy is a small niche,” Berlovitz said. “It is one aspect of holistic healing and is growing worldwide. When I see people taking care of a garden, I can see changes in them. I see how my clients benefit from nature.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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