Heal Me With Plants – The New York Times

On a recent chilly Wednesday, Lori Bloomberg, a horticultural therapist with NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation center in Manhattan, pushed a cart filled with bright green foliage down the hospital’s hallways, past a row of wheelchairs and into the room of two patients, who were sitting propped up in their beds.

Today’s activity: arranging bamboo stalks in a vase. “How often do these get watered?” asked Rita Belfiore, one of the patients and a former paralegal from Brooklyn, who was recovering from hip replacement surgery.

“It’s not like watering a plant. It’s a little less intensive,” Ms. Bloomberg said. “These things drink pretty slowly.”

Ms. Belfiore and her roommate, Carol — a food broker from Massapequa, N.Y., who was recovering from spinal surgery, and who declined to give her last name — carefully wrapped rubber bands around their bamboo clusters, grazing the light brown roots that puffed out of each stalk. They filled glass vases with tiny red stones, then added water and the plants.

The activity took on a hypnotic quality. It was, in a word, relaxing.

There’s nothing more happily out of place in a hospital than something green and delicate and alive. And in a setting where patients routinely feel poked and prodded, isolated and immobile, the act of nurturing a plant can be a transportive part of the recovery process.

Horticultural therapy embraces the basics, using nature and gardening-like activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to help patients feel better. It’s often used in hospitals, but horticultural therapists also work in addiction recovery centers, prisons and wilderness therapy programs for teenagers.

At NYU Langone, horticultural therapy can involve propagating plants, arranging flowers, plus lotion making and other vaguely natural activities. The department also retains two very large, placid rabbits, Clovis and Lily, who pay visits to patients not inclined toward potting and pruning.

“People can sometimes be a little resistant when you show up with dirt in a hospital,” said Gwenn Fried, the manager of NYU Langone’s horticultural therapy services department. “And then they’ll participate once, and they’re calling: ‘Can I have it tomorrow?’”

“One patient specifically said to me, ‘The best thing about horticultural therapy is that I’m no longer the subject,’” Ms. Fried said. Often patients are struggling with uncontrollable circumstances, and working with plants is “a gentle way of trying to process that,” said Leigh Anne Starling, president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

“It totally decompresses me,” Carol said quietly, tearing up. “It’s calming, and everything else is stressful.” She believes her horticultural therapy sessions in the hospital have “absolutely” sped up the recovery process — and, as a bonus, working with plants has brought her closer to her husband, whose gardening interests she now shares.

“On the one hand that’s really good,” Ms. Shoemaker said. “But what that means is that it’s a continued struggle for the profession, because a lot of the people who are using the techniques of horticultural therapy are not horticultural therapists.”

Ms. Bloomberg, who left an advertising job several years ago to practice horticulture therapy full-time, still sees it as a separate calling. It’s “a very spiritual practice,” she said. “When you’re in the hospital, we focus on the physical, but there’s all these other parts of us that we need to remember.”

She added: “I try to focus on the parts that may get forgotten.

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