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.
John Milton, who believed that everything has a spirit, describes Satan in Paradise Lost as someone who can’t see the virtues of “that life-giving Plant,” but can only use it as a perch for his convenience. Under the devil’s sway, Eve views the garden in the same way and begins to exploit it, dooming herself in the process.
In Taiwan, breakneck industrialization has created a society with that same blinkered understanding of plant life. “Take average college students, for example. They do not know how to make a flower grow, and they do not know what a healthy vegetable looks like,” Huang said.
Over the past five years, Huang has been visiting more and more nursing homes, as demand creeps up on an aging society.
She brings plants to seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, who might remember neither their families nor Taiwan’s bygone agrarian lifestyle. Bringing them closer to nature can also bring them closer to their family, said Huang.
One elderly woman told a therapist that she wished her son would visit her. The son said he did not visit because he didn’t know what to say to his mother, whose long-term memory had faded.
“So we taught her about parts of the plant and told different stories about it. She could remember that. Then we had her tell her son, ‘This is what I planted,’” she said.
In the end, the son increased the frequency of his visits. He spent his time asking questions: “What is this plant?” and “How did you plant it?”
“She also tried out more and more new plants, and it was something that calmed her,” Huang said.
“That’s all horticultural therapy is — a dialogue between human life and plant life. Once people learn that, they might open a door to other conversations.”