Last summer, Rachel Young moved most of the 150 plants out of her Colorado Springs home for a shower by garden hose. She left them out to dry.
“When I walked back in, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she said. “My house looked bigger, but it didn’t look pretty to me.”
The physical space was wrong, as was her physiological core. She didn’t feel right, like a mother without her baby.
Young, a lifelong foliage aficionado, is well aware of the voluminous research related to greenery’s effects on body, mind and spirit.
And judging by the growth of her customer base during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems to her that others are catching on as well. Young owns the Living Room, the houseplant shop that has gained quick notoriety since opening downtown in 2019.
“I think it’s becoming much more commonplace knowledge,” Young said. “Plants are really good for you.”
The plant business has been one of those unexpected beneficiaries of the pandemic. Though the trend isn’t so surprising to Irene Shonle, the horticulture associate at El Paso County’s Colorado State University Extension office.
“People are spending more time at home, and people are looking for ways to make their homes more of a haven,” she said. “Yes, you can paint your house, yes you can buy new throw cushions and stuff like that. But putting plants in your house is one of the more transformative things people can do.”
Plant therapy is not a tree hugger philosophy as much as it is, indeed, a science-backed one. Plants are not just decorations, but elixirs of sorts for the soul, experts have found. Just as plants brighten your home, they can brighten your mood, data show.
A NASA study in the late 1980s suggested plants could even purify indoor air, leading to theories of bodily benefits such as healthier lungs. Analysts have since reported those findings not applicable outside of a tightly controlled environment.
“The whole ability to clean air unfortunately doesn’t really play out in the real world,” Shonle said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a tremendous amount of psychological benefits.”
Multiple studies have shown plants, much like forests, reduce heart rate, blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found those measures to be complete opposites between participants who repotted a plant and others who completed a computer task.
More than a novelty, plants are proving to be a prescription. For instance, scientists and doctors have noted quicker recoveries from surgeries when patients have plants at their bedside or trees in view from their window.
“In-patient mental health services have a duty to constantly seek to improve patient experience and to assist in the development of new skills that can aid recovery,” read the abstract of a 2017 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry International. “Horticultural therapy can be implemented in an economic, social and environmentally sustainable way to achieve those goals.”
It was reported last year that medical clinics in Manchester, England, for one, were treating depressed and anxious patients with a planting program. And employers are using plants to their advantage, too. Researchers have noted better productivity and attitudes among workers who have nature in sight. That was the case, for example, among 444 Amazon employees surveyed across the United States and India.
Plastic plants don’t quite do the trick, suggested a study published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Among elementary students, real foliage improved concentration more than plastic or photographed stimuli, researchers determined.
Plants are central to meditation for Eli Droege. He talks to the succulents and cacti all around his Colorado Springs home.
Not requiring much maintenance, he calls those species “survivors.” He connects with them in that way.
“I know what it’s like to be at rock bottom,” he said, “and plants can be there for you.”
Last year, to capitalize on the plant craze during the pandemic, Droege started selling. The demand is for a variety of reasons, he’s found — nostalgic for some, eye-pleasing to others, a simple hobby.
“I’ve also had a lot of disabled folks come through,” he said. “It’s like they’re just needing something in their lives that they can care for.”
Maybe that has something to do with the millennial movement toward plants, Shonle said. Plants are more trendy than ever in young people’s apartments.
“They may not be able to have kids, they may not be able to have pets,” Shonle said. “This is something they can take care of and still have that connection.”
So perhaps plants recall something else central to humanity, along with the nature that surrounded our earliest, nomadic ancestors: the need to love and be loved.
“For me personally, I love having something to take care of,” Young said. “It’s something I get a lot of satisfaction from, watching it grow.”