Gardener, heal thyself
WHEN WE TALK about the healing power of plants, what first comes to mind are those herbs and plants which help cure our aches, pains and ills.
"I think a lot of people assume that it’s going to be just another book about herbs," says Minter. "But from the very beginning I was concerned that, as well as looking at how I came into horticulture - which was by enjoying the therapeutic effect of being in a garden - it should explore the healing power of landscapes." To illustrate the idea that plants can "heal" landscapes, Minter uses the Eden Project itself as a prime example. Once a flooded china clay pit, this quarry - which was devoid of soil and vegetation - is now home to more than 100,000 plants. While not every former industrial site can be transformed in such a spectacular fashion, Minter says it is now good practice in mining to restore landscapes following the exploitation of natural resources.
A big part of Minter’s philosophy, which she shares with the Eden Project, is to "re-connect" people with plants. In urban areas, the natural world - source of many of our foods and medicines - is becoming further removed from everyday life. To counteract this, Minter is a big fan of schemes within cities to create gardens from derelict land. She points to the Green Up campaign in New York’s Bronx, which has transformed run-down parts of the city into productive gardens. This has had a positive effect on the community. "The allotment movement and roof gardens are part of the whole concept of urban gardening, which is hugely important, especially as more and more people in the world become urbanised," says Minter.
When it comes to the more direct link between plants and health, Minter says the division between herbal remedies and pharmaceutical drugs is not as clear-cut as many of us might think. As curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, she established a pharmaceutical garden, featuring plants commonly used in modern medicine. Next to the plants, medicine packaging obtained from hospital pharmacies illustrated the link. "One of the most interesting responses we had from the public was that they would often recognise the packaging more than the plant," says Minter. "Also, some people were actually very moved to see the plant, particularly if it had been involved in curing them of something." After all, how many of us realise that codeine is derived from the opium poppy, aspirin from meadowsweet and atropine from deadly nightshade?
While both complementary and pharmaceutical medicines are common in the West, about 85 per cent of the global population relies on herbalism for its basic health care. Managing these plant resources isn’t always straightforward. "One of the issues is the fad nature in herbal medicine, when one particular plant becomes the latest elixir of life and there’s a mad dash to collect it and promote it without thinking about the issues to do with sustainability," says Minter. She would like to see a scheme, such as the Forest Stewardship Council’s rating system for tropical timber, which would allow anyone buying herbal medicines to be certain they are coming from a sustainable source.
If Minter is passionate about these global issues, she is equally dedicated to the hands-on benefits of gardening. The Healing Garden is packed with details of how you can grow and then utilise plants for a wide variety of purposes. There’s aloe vera, a succulent which will grow up to 60cm on a sunny windowsill. The gel from the leaves can be applied directly as a useful treatment for mild sunburn or minor burns. If you happen to have pot marigolds in the border, the flowers can be infused in boiling water for 20 minutes to produce a soothing treatment for dry skin, or drunk to soothe the digestive tract. From witch hazel to lemon balm, Minter reveals the secrets which should give the reader confidence to actually use these plants rather than just enjoy their appearance.
Although many of the plants in question are valued for their medicinal properties, Minter says species such as opium poppy, chilli pepper and artemisia all have ornamental value. Even a vegetable plot, once seen as a purely functional part of the garden, is increasingly admired for its visual impact. "A long time ago people used to think that a vegetable garden was very utilitarian, but now we’ve begun to learn how ornamental they can be," says Minter. "With colourful varieties of plants and the way you design a garden, they can be beautiful in themselves." Minter reckons the trend to grow your own food comes from people’s desire to avoid pesticide residues and to source food locally, as well as the urge to reconnect with where our food comes from.
It’s less tangible, but Minter says the function of gardens as sanctuaries with the ability to stimulate the senses is more important than ever. "Originally, therapeutic horticulture was orientated very much at people who had either mental or physical disabilities," she says. "But people are increasingly realising that we all have traumas and difficulties and that everybody needs this." After a stressful day at the office, a potter around the garden is an inexpensive therapy. Minter says that if we’re aware of the power of scent to invoke memories, colour to affect our mood and sounds such as those from water features to relax us, we can begin to design gardens in a different way. Whether on this small scale or as part of the bigger picture, Minter sees gardens as a real source of "refreshment, growth, change and peace". sm
• The Healing Garden: A Practical Guide for Physical and Emotional Well-being by Sue Minter is published by Eden Project Books, priced 16.99.
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