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Exploring how people react to their plants


Exchanging pleasantries with the dining-room philodendron won't help the plant grow, Charles Lewis says, but it will make you feel better.

Mr. Lewis, a research fellow at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, spent his career studying how people react to plants, becoming a national authority on the subject. He has worked as a catalyst to bring together scholars in several disciplines to study our fascination with flora, culminating in a People-Plant Symposium held in late April.

"What we are doing is to begin to understand how plants fit into our lives," said the wiry, 68-year-old Mr. Lewis, who grew up in Baltimore.

"Because people get into a car and drive out to the Morton Arboretum, that is not just an incidental thing," he explained. It "satisfies a very deep need in people. Our association with plants fulfills and gives us a quality in our lives of peace and tranquillity, a satisfaction that is very important to us.

"Flowers are not just decorative, trees are not just decorative, they are affecting us deep inside in a profound way."

Diane Relf, an extension specialist in consumer horticulture at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., and coordinator of the People-Plant Council, said that while most people have an image of a forest as a restful place, we can't visit it daily. We can get much of the benefit of the woods with house plants, she said, "probably not on the same scale, but it does make a difference on a day-to-day basis. It's an ongoing lifestyle that helps keep you in a more calm mood."

The People-Plant Council was formed in 1990 after the first symposium to act as a clearinghouse for the burgeoning volume of related work.

Ms. Relf came to people-plant relationships "from the horticultural therapy perspective originally, working with disabled individuals," she said.

"Charles has persistently been persuading people to open their eyes, his leadership has been important in making this happen."

This therapeutic connection between people and plants goes back at least to the early 1800s, Mr. Lewis said, when mental institutions noticed their patients responded positively when they went out to raise vegetables. Horticultural therapy is now a science all its own and an integral part of treatment at hospitals and nursing homes.

Growing plants, said Mr. Lewis, "has a whole long time attached to it. We have a sense of where we were when we planted it and when it started to grow and it had buds and they opened into flowers and the flowers become pollinated and we have tomatoes and the tomatoes are green and then they turn whitish and then red. And when we get the research done, we're going to see it works more deeply on the person."

Mr. Lewis sees urban gardening as the foundation for getting people to "gain a new view of themselves. They take charge of their community, become a democratic force for the people to get those things started. This is terribly difficult because people feel that they can't make a difference in their neighborhood or the world, that they're stuck.

"The first step is to get them gardening."

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