The Healing Power of Flowers

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.’

A few basic principles lie at the heart of every healing garden,
Addison says. Ideally it should be planted in a place that has
shade, sun, and silence, so people can meditate undisturbed. The
plot should be tended year round, no matter the weather, so those
who use it have both a sense of permanence and a feeling that the
environment can be trusted as a life-giving force; to that end, it
should include evergreens as well as flowers. Finally, the garden
needs a focal point for meditation. At the Center for Victims of
Torture it’s a small rock garden with delicate wildflowers emerging
between large rocks, symbolizing both a struggle for life and
triumph over adversity. Ultimately, Addison says, gardens are all
about transition — whether it be from illness to healing or from
life to death. They change by the hour, week, month, and year. They
require us to relinquish control: A deep appreciation of life
emerges with each sprouting plant, even the weeds. And simply by
embracing natural rhythms, people from all walks of life, no matter
the nature of their past experiences, can learn to accept the
inevitability of loss and find hope in the promise of new life.

Spiritual Gardening at Home

Here are a few ideas from Oregon-based herbalist and gardening
expert Richo Cech to help you start your own spiritual garden.

Set an intention. State your need or purpose
for the garden and the nature of the relationship you’d like to
have with it.

Create a design that reflects your intention.
Choose a mix of plants that nourish body, mind, and spirit, such as
herbs that are flavorful or medicinal or that have spiritual
importance. For example:

White sage is an herb with antioxidant and
antibacterial properties that can be made into tinctures, teas, and
incense.

Tulsi or holy basil is used in Thai recipes. Hindus
also grow it outside the doors of their homes and temples to purify
the space.

Don’t wage war on weeds. They are not your
enemy! Here are some things to do instead:

If they can’t be eaten, chances are they can be turned
into medicine. Certain weeds, such as dandelion, burdock,
chickweed, and nettle, are full of vitamins and medicinal
properties.

Practice patience. Use weed pulling as a chance to
remove blockages to kindness. Don’t think of them as ‘bad,’ just
remove them to refocus energy and conserve soil nutrients for
preferred plants.

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