6 Features of a Healing Garden

Dealing with Stress

Many of us consider daily stress just a typical part of life. But did you know that 75% of all doctor visits are stress related? Stress weakens the immune system and lowers its ability function properly. Medical research is seeing a direct link between stress and serious issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, peptic ulcers, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety attacks, and chronic pain to name a few.

According to Smith, Jaffe–Gill, and Segal (2009), in Understanding StressThe body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body.

Nature Nurturing Health

Thankfully, there is good news. A growing body of research is showing the importance and benefits of nature and green spaces on health – specifically in this very important area of stress reduction. Being active in a garden promotes both physical and mental well-being, but you don’t need to get your hands dirty to reap the benefits of time spent in a garden! “Passive recreation” is just as beneficial. Roger Ulrich, a professor and director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A & M University, has stated, the term “healing garden” refers to actual features that consistently help us recover from stress and have other positive influences on the body.

Immediate benefits associated with shifting to a calm state are decreases in blood pressure and the lowering of stress hormone levels in the body. These are things that impact our moods and foster a sense of tranquility, serenity and peacefulness. Ulrich found that viewing natural scenes or elements fosters stress recovery by evoking positive feelings, reducing negative emotions, effectively holding attention / interest, and blocking or reducing stressful thoughts. They have a regenerative and energizing effect on the body. According to Eckerling (1996), a healing garden makes people feel safe, less stressed, more comfortable and even invigorated.

Engaging the Senses

A healing garden will engage the senses and the Bloedel Conservatory does just that. The most obvious of these is using our sense of sight, but smell, touch, taste and auditory input can all be present. When you first walk into any garden, stop for a moment, shut your eyes and just listen. What do you hear? Wind rustling the leaves, birds singing, or perhaps running water? Take a deep breath. This in itself will help tension fade away and is why practices like yoga, tai chi and meditation focus on breath awareness. As you start to walk through the Conservatory, don’t be afraid to touch the leaves and bark on trees. What does it feel like? Smooth, rough, textured? Maybe there is a flower nearby to smell? Be present in the moment and let any tension start to unwind.

When we asked Dr. Aimée Taylor, Vancouver Horticultural Therapist, if the Bloedel Conservatory qualified as a healing garden, she responded that evidence based research has shown that we gain positive effects on our emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and social well being from being exposed to nature or horticultural activities. “A healing garden should be accessible to all, have beneficial effects on people using the garden, and provide a place of retreat and respite from daily life. Yes, Bloedel can be considered a healing garden!”

So, What are 6 Features of a Healing Garden?

1. Flowers

In a study at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Dr. Haviland-Jones has found that nature provides us with a simple way to improve emotional health – this would be flowers of course! “The presence of flowers triggers happy emotions, heightens feelings of life satisfaction and affects social behaviour in a positive manner far beyond what is normally believed.” They found that flowers have an immediate impact on happiness and a long-term positive effect on moods.

2. Lush vegetation

Ulrich has found that viewing vegetation as opposed to urban scenes, changes our brain waves from beta waves (13 to 60 pulses/sec.) to a slower alpha wave (7 to 13 pulses/sec) that are associated with being “wakefully relaxed”. Being in “beta” is considered the norm for most people while in their everyday waking state. We emit beta waves when we are consciously alert, or when we feel agitated, tense or afraid. Alpha waves, however, are associated with states of mental and physical relaxation, and our brains drop into “alpha” during the first levels of meditation. Creativity, inspiration and intuition are often heightened by being in an “alpha state”.

3. Spatial openness

One of the first things you notice when you enter the Conservatory is the feeling of space. This in itself is relaxing. Its domed design is based on the geodesic principle that utilizes a structural space-frame to support the roof. This enables the large interior volume to be free of internal supporting columns. The added benefit of Bloedel is that it is an Indoor Nature Facility that can be enjoyed all year, rain or shine!

4. Calm or slowing moving water

The sound of gently moving water has an inherent calming effect on our systems and we feel a natural affinity to it. It adds dimension and harmony to our surroundings. “The sound of running water, apparently, is a genetic memory that sends off resonances deep within our limbic brain stem which also controls such basic actions as our breathing and hunger” (James Kilkelly).  The sound of moving water is very relaxing and it has been found to enhance concentration. Interestingly, running water in Feng Shui is felt to strengthen good fortune.

5. Large trees

Have you ever felt refreshed after walking through a forest? This is called ‘forest bathing’ and physiological tests in Japan confirm positive therapeutic effects of this activity on stress hormones, brain wave activity, pulse and blood pressure. Studies in Tokyo have shown increased immune function after 2 hour walks in the forest. There is no shortage of large trees at Bloedel. In fact, a number of these were the first to be planted in the dome in 1969 and now reach over 60 feet in height. The Benjamin and India Figs, the Dragon trees, and Brazilian Jelly Palm are just a few of the stunning trees you will see and walk among.

6. Unthreatening wildlife

With over 100 free-flying birds and the antics of exotic parrots and macaws (not to mention the colourful Japanese Koi lazily swimming in the pond), one of them will surely bring a smile to your face! Wildlife distracts us from stress and negative thoughts about issues in our lives, even if only temporarily. It is impossible to think of two things simultaneously! Find a quiet spot at the conservatory and sit for a few minutes. Notice what’s around you. Take a deep breath. You won’t wait long before you start to notice the free flying birds busy with their day: building a nest, looking for food, chasing each other around the vast space. The secretive and exotic Touraco may even make an appearance and capture your interest!

Visiting the Bloedel Conservatory will give you a boost regardless of the weather outside. Bring a book, a sketchpad, your camera, or simply come and sit on a bench. It will soothe your senses and re-energize your day!



Smith, Jaffe–Gill, and Segal (2009), Understanding Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects. http://helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm

Haviland-Jones, Jeanette (2005). Emotional Impact of Flowers Study. Rutgers: Flowers Improve Emotional Health http://www.aboutflowers.com/health-benefits-a-research/emotional-impact-of-flowers-study.html

University of Minnesota, Sustainable Urban Land Information Series (2006). Healing Gardens. http://www.sustland.umn.edu/design/healinggardens.html

Brain Waves http://www.doctorhugo.org/brainwaves/brainwaves.html

Kilkelly, James (2006), Water Works … the Benefits of Water Features. Irishgardeners.com http://www.gardenplansireland.com/forum/about729.html

Japan for Sustainability. (2010) Physiological Tests Confirm Therapeutic Effects of ‘Forest Bathing’. http://www.japanfs.org/en/pages/025839.html

Q and Morimoto, et al. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. Apr-Jun;20(2 Suppl 2):3-8. Department of Hygiene and Public Health, Nippon Medical School, Tokyo. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17903349

Nurturing Children’s Health Through Nature

Join us for a Public Forum!

photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Friends of Bloedel member Dr. Aimée Taylor, Horticultural Therapist, has been invited to speak about the health aspects of the Bloedel Conservatory as an Indoor Nature Facility. The Stanley Park Ecology Society and Commissioner Loretta Woodcock are co-hosting this public discussion forum on Nature & Children’s Health August 29, 2 – 4pm at the Roundhouse Community Centre. Speakers on the panel also include Dr. Randall White, M.D.; Becs Hoskins, Executive Director of the Child Nature Alliance; Kristine Webber, Executive Director of the Young Naturalists Club; Roger Keyes, Public Programs Manager, Stanley Park Ecology Society; and Alana Bliss, Quest University.

As you know, the City of Vancouver has created an Action Plan for becoming the world’s Greenest city by 2020, recognizing that green spaces play crucial roles in supporting people’s health by providing wildlife habitat and critical connections with nature, especially for children. With the park board embarking upon a new strategic planning process later this fall, Commissioner Woodcock sees value in putting these concepts into the next Park Board strategic plan. If successful, this could generate future capital and operating dollars to support horticultural initiatives and create programs/resources throughout all parks and gardens in Vancouver (including the Bloedel Conservatory!).

This is a terrific opportunity to learn about current programs in and around our city and inspire the sharing of knowledge on this important but often overlooked topic. Join in this public forum and engage the speakers during the Q & A period after the presentations. Refreshments will be provided.  This looks to be an important stepping stone for future programs and initiatives!  See you there! (Click Here for Map).

See also the article in Vancouver Sun regarding the event: Nature as Therapy: It’s as Old as the Hills