There is a moment that young adults face when they are at a family reunion and they tell an inquiring aunt, “I am going to graduate school in Latin” or “Yes, I will be an unpaid intern.” It’s not unlike the moment when Huang Sheng-ying (黃盛瑩), a retired public schoolteacher, told her friends that she had become a horticultural therapist.
“They had three stripes (三條線),” Huang said, using a Chinese idiom that describes a sharp fadeout into uncomfortable silence.
“My mother was skeptical, too. She told me, ‘You say you are a horticultural therapist, but I have never seen you bring any vegetables home,’” she added.
Huang, who was certified in South Korea, taught her first workshop 10 years ago with her sister, who was accredited in the US.
Back then, few had heard of their therapeutic discipline. But times have changed. Today, she is one of Taiwan’s most sought-after alternative therapists.
Huang went to Shih Chien University last Monday to teach a gardening workshop. On Tuesday and Wednesday, she visited terminally ill patients at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and blind children in Sanxia, New Taipei City. Last Thursday, she taught Taipei Prison inmates.
Earlier this year, she cofounded the Taiwan Horticultural Therapy Association (臺灣園藝輔助治療協會). The group will certify its own therapists starting next year, so that there are more practitioners to meet growing demand, she said.
“I never thought there would be a horticultural therapy association. Even five years ago, I taught classes only when I felt like it, and it was quite leisurely,” Huang said. “Now, the cases keep coming and coming, and it is hard to keep up with them all.”
How it works
Horticultural therapy is a term for using plants to help a patient reach a treatment goal, said Kuo Fen-ling (郭芬伶), an occupational therapist at Shuang Ho Hospital.
It can be simple: A disabled child who must exercise his legs may become easily bored if asked to march in place. Place him in a garden, though, and he might be willing to move around and explore.
Other applications of horticultural therapy are more complex.
Kuo has just completed a pilot study at Shuang Ho, which has joined hospitals like Chang Gung and Far Eastern Memorial in giving plant therapy a try. For 10 weeks, patients, such as 50-year-old Mrs. Mo (莫), labored in the hospital’s vanilla garden, sowing, tilling, harvesting, drawing and talking about their plants.
According to Kuo’s findings, horticultural therapy can dramatically lift a person’s mood, relieve stress and lower blood pressure.
These results are based mainly on questionnaires from the patients themselves, so are anecdotal at best. But what horticultural therapists practice is not so much a medical science as it is a philosophy.
“We are trying to teach that plants are a living being,” Huang said.
At Taipei Prison, inmates raise their plant from seed to sapling. They are taught about its nature: the soil where it thrives, the bugs it detests. Inmates are even encouraged to speak to their plants. Surprisingly, some do.
“We are trying to rehabilitate their hearts. Through learning to understand the plant as a living creature, they learn that the world is not just about them,” Huang said.
Some might think that’s an unusual approach to prisoner correction. However, the problem it seeks to solve isn’t new.