Working and playing with plants helps cope with illness, disabilities

ST. LOUIS — Half-reclined and wrapped in a shawl, Lauren Underhill spins a sprig of red-blossomed pineapple sage with her left thumb and index finger.

Under the shawl, a catheter tube connects to a vein infusing her bloodstream with a cocktail of anti-cancer drugs. Underhill, who has stage 4 colon cancer, spends up to five hours at the Siteman Cancer Center south of St. Louis during such appointments, waiting in repose.

Underhill turns her attention to her right, where Missouri Botanical Garden therapeutic horticulture instructor Jeanne Carbone holds a piece of rue — an herb, Carbone says, that likes a lot of sunshine and little attention.

“Oh, that’s like me,” Underhill says, reaching for it. “That’s my kind of plant.”

The Botanical Garden’s therapeutic horticulture program has grown in popularity in recent years, offering connections with nature to those enduring serious illness, developmental disabilities, or physical or mental trauma. It includes sessions at the garden, in a part known as the Sensory Garden, as well as outreach at area treatment centers such as Siteman.

“We believe that connection to nature provides healing,” Carbone said. “I can bring this to people who are probably in the worst situation they’re ever going to be in.”

Thomas Brouk, 68, has received regular anti-cancer drug infusions since January to treat his lymphoma. Brouk, who grew up on a farm in Arnold, said he didn’t have electricity until 1978 and had always had a special connection with plant life, roses in particular.

Brouk had Carbone make a little flower display of mums ringed by green herbs. He’ll be in the treatment pod for a few more hours, but in that moment he’s focused on where he’ll put the flowers, on a wood bench in his living room that gets sun in the morning.

“It brings a little joy to a place like this,” Brouk said. “It’s so nice to see the different flowers, what God has given us.”

Some other locations where the Botanical Garden offers therapeutic horticulture include Ranken Jordan Pediatric Hospital, Hope Lodge and Crisis Nursery. At the Sensory Garden, visitors are treated to scented flowers, spicy herbs, the sounds of a bell tree and fountain, and plants with unique textures including annuals and perennials.

Susan Bussen, a liver cancer patient, said such activities helped her pass the time during treatments, which “last long enough to have doughnuts and gossip” with friends who have joined her. Bussen said she had always grown herbs at home, and Carbone’s rue plant reminded her of one she used to have outside her front door.

“I read that rue keeps evil spirits away,” Bussen said. “I used to joke I put it there to keep my sisters out.”

The American Horticultural Therapy Association website says the benefits “have been documented since ancient times,” and in modern times the practice has gained acceptance among medical professionals. In the 1940s and 1950s, medical care providers increasingly used garden environments for therapy with returning U.S. war veterans, and the practice continued growing from there.

Botanical Garden representatives say therapeutic horticulture is for everyone, not just those with specific needs. For cancer patients such as Bussen, it’s an opportunity to think about better things.

“You’re not dreading being in treatment,” Bussen said. “It’s more like I’ve done something fun today, rather than something I had to do.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

4 Central Texas spots that are magical in winter
4 Central Texas spots that are magical in winter

Sure, it can get chilly in Central Texas in winter. But while we may have seen a snow flurry or two this season, most days are relatively mild, making it an ideal time to head outdoors before the scorching temperatures — and mosquitoes — of summer return. In fact, many Central Texas spots are stunningly beautiful, and amazingly uncrowded...
Lack of sunlight may cause winter weight gain, research suggests
Lack of sunlight may cause winter weight gain, research suggests

We often blame our added winter pounds on the holidays. All the gatherings of family and friends combined with good food, often take the toll on our waistlines. But if you're one of the many who laments adding a few pounds in December, it may not actually be entirely due to changes in your diet. In fact, new research suggests that a lack of sunlight...
Would you name your baby after a “Game of Thrones” character?
Would you name your baby after a “Game of Thrones” character?

“Game of Thrones” fans, would you name your baby after your favorite character?   Maisie Williams plays Arya Stark. Last season she had a scene with Ed Sheeran, left. Helen Sloan/HBO Apparently people are., which tracks baby name trends, found that 1,890 babies were named Arya in 2016. Her sister Sansa only inspired...
More black Americans can’t swim, and Olympian wants to change that
More black Americans can’t swim, and Olympian wants to change that

Members of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority listen to Olympic medalist Cullen Jones during a learn-to-swim clinic at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy on Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman I grew up swimming. My parents knew how to swim, and passed their love of the water to me and my sisters. They enrolled us in swim lessons at ...
No school? What will you do on this snow day? We have ideas
No school? What will you do on this snow day? We have ideas

OK, parents, what’s your plan? With many school districts canceling school on Tuesday because of the threat of a winter storm happening from midnight to 6 p.m. Tuesday what will you do with the kids? First, there’s the EEK my kids have no school! We get to sleep in! Then there’s the EEK my kids have no school and now...
More Stories