The Healing Power of Flowers

Torture victims turn to gardens for hope

| March / April 2006

It's spring again, and in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis, tiny green tulip spikes are about to push their way up through the barren brown earth of a freshly watered garden. In the coming months, they will be replaced by coneflowers, broad-leafed hostas, and milkweed. The space will fill with birds, butterflies, rabbits, and visitors from around the globe, who may choose to take just a few minutes to stroll through or linger for several hours. Though their origins are diverse, a majority of these guests share a common history: They have been victimized by both physical and psychological abuse.

The garden is a project of the Center for Victims of Torture, a world-renowned organization founded in 1985 to aid those who have suffered political violence. The center, headquartered in a Victorian house, has affiliates in 14 countries and serves survivors throughout the United States. Its clients experience feelings of isolation, trauma, and anxiety; many are haunted by flashbacks and nightmares. To treat this range of symptoms, commonly attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the center provides a three-tier treatment regimen: safety and stabilization; grief and mourning; and reconnection with family and community.

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD has been a subject of study since the end of the Vietnam War, and researchers are still compiling information. It is known that PTSD affects the way the brain retains memory, and while drugs can mitigate symptoms, a purely pharmaceutical cure seems unlikely. Many psychologists, among them Joe Ruzek, recommend that patients, in order to cope over the long term, spend time in nature engaged in creative activities, which explains a growing interest in gardening as a healing tool.

Betty Ann Addison designed the center's garden. During summer months, people wait for appointments either on the cozy garden bench or on a large, canvas-covered swing. Along with serving as a waiting and meditation space, the garden is a conversation starter for many clients who, when they see the beauty growing around them, begin to open up to staff and talk about their own gardens, especially the plants they miss from back home.

The garden is also a salve for employees who need a place to process painful stories and horrific images. Many staff members are now gardeners themselves, since it helps them stay connected with a calming influence amid the constant stress of work.

Because a sense of isolation often accompanies PTSD, gardening is also used to help people connect with one another and reestablish a sense of trust. Every year on June 26, the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the center holds a tree-planting ceremony. Several flowering trees are added to a growing grove at the front of the house, and, according to the center's C.C. Strom, volunteers 'plant messages of hope and healing in anticipation that the hopes will grow and flourish.'