Tag Archives: nature metaphor

The Transformative Experience of Basil Seed

At a time when gardeners are sowing seeds in preparation for the spring garden, let’s talk about seeds…basil seed in particular.

About a year ago, friend and fellow practitioner Charles Plummer of Youth with Faces told me about how basil seed can change before your very eyes, if you just add water. He had learned this from Rebecca Haller, HTM, during one of the Horticultural Therapy Institute’s courses.

Somewhat skeptical, I said, “Well, what happens?”

He encouraged, “Just give it a try and see what happens.”

It took me a couple more months – when I was preparing to lead a seed sowing session with one of my groups – before I was in the same room as basil seed, an eye dropper, and some water. So in taking Charles’ advice, I gave it a try.

And WOW!

Did you know that basil seed can change right before your eyes in just a few seconds?

In a world of instant gratification, clients can sometimes get impatient with the “slow growing” nature of plants in the garden. This is a great opportunity for a meaningful lesson, or actually a series of lessons, on the phrase “Good things come to those who wait.” The act of nurturing a plant – from seed to seedling to full grown plants that can be harvested for eating or collecting seed – can help the gardener experience the cyclical nature of life in real time. Some things just don’t happen overnight…patience is a virtue.

However, at other times, an activity with instantly gratifying results can be equally as powerful and transformative. Here, watching a basil seed from start to finish can help shift a person’s self-focused attention outside of themselves to something that is so tiny. In a sense, it can be incredibly grounding for one’s perspective to watch a seed that’s a centimeter in size transform itself. (Read more on the transformative nature of awe and the healing power of awe, supported by recently published research in the journal Emotion.)

So what exactly does the basil seed do when you add water? As Charles would say, just give it a try yourself. I’ll give you a sneak peek below.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenTo start, gather together the following materials: basil seed (I used the Genovese type because it was handy, though I’m sure pretty much any basil seed would work), cup of water, eye dropper, and your hands.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenOpen your hand out flat so that the palm of your hand is facing up toward the sky. Gently tap some basil seed out of the seed packet into the palm of your hand. Take note of what the basil looks and feels like at this time. The seed is tiny in size and black in color – it kinda looks like the poppy seeds that get stuck in your teeth after eating a poppy seed bagel. Use a finger from your other hand to roll the dry seed around in your hand. Focus your attention on the sensation of the seed rolling around in your hand.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenNext, get some water in your eye dropper and add a few drops of water over the top of the seed. Make sure the seed has contact with the water.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenNotice how the added water feels to your skin – cool and wet. And watch.

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenFocus all of your attention on the seed. Be patient and watch. It doesn’t happen instantly. And, don’t worry, the seeds aren’t jumping beans, so they won’t start popping up into your face. They also don’t grow spikes or turn into orange and blue polka dots.

Just watch…

And watch…

And watch until…

There! Do you see it?!?

What happened? The basil started turning a different color. What color? It’s kind of a gray color, right?

Keep watching…

BasilSeedTransformation_eatbreathegardenAfter a few seconds – at least 30 seconds, probably more – the basil seed will soak up most, if not all, of the water. The seed will have changed from tiny, black seeds to slightly larger, puffier, whitish gray seeds. If you look very closely, you can actually see the layer of seed mucilage over the seed coat.

So what is seed mucilage? It is a thin gelatinous layer that forms over seeds when exposed to moisture. Basil seeds form noticeable amounts of mucilage. You can even do this same experiment with chia seeds and notice the copious amounts of gel that form. Weird. (Read more about mucilage and its purpose here.)

After I first did this activity, I felt exhilarated and inspired to learn more about why these seeds do this – and every time I have done this activity since then, I’ve felt the same way. There is always a point – typically right when the water is added to the seeds – at which I think to myself, “Will the seeds change?” And then it happens.

Aren’t plants amazing?

Warrior Plants

[Note: This article was originally published in the AHTA News Magazine for the American Horticultural Therapy Association. In honor of the women and men who have served and currently serve our country, and Veterans Day, I am posting it here.]

I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so…heroic.

– George Carlin, in Brain Droppings, p. 100

Resilient, strong, tough, hardy, adaptable, vigorous – these are all adjectives used to describe someone who is a warrior…as well as to describe plants as botanical warriors in their own right. Some plants grow fully submerged in water or germinate from a minuscule seed, while others grow perched atop the tree canopy of a tropical rain forest or have thick leaves that help them retain moisture in the most arid growing conditions. Plant characteristics, such as their growth habits and forms, growing requirements, methods of reproduction, and other biological functions, play a major factor in determining how they thrive or fail in an environment.

Due to their adaptations over time and resilience enduring nature’s elements, plants are often used as symbols of strength, hope, and inspiration. For example, trees are often referred to as symbolic representations of strength and power with their sturdy woody stems, extensive root systems that hold them upright and steadfast, lengthy life spans, ability to provide shelter and food, and other qualities.

When horticultural therapy clients learn about how plants endure tough growing conditions to flourish, these observations can help clients find perspective about situations they are dealing with or give them something to view as a symbol of inspiration. Consider incorporating these plants with strong characteristics or names or that have historical use by mighty people into an inspirational lesson on building personal strength and overcoming obstacles.

GinkgoGinkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

A living fossil with unique fan-shaped leaves, ginkgo is a long lived tree with prehistoric ties. Its length of time on Earth and long life span has made it a symbol of resilience and endurance. In fact, several trees, including at least four ginkgos, survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima, Japan, and are still growing today. Note: Has toxicity if eaten in large quantities. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8.

GladiolusGladiolus (Gladiolus)

In the language of flowers, gladiolus symbolizes strength of character, and legend even has it that gladiolus was the representative flower of the Roman gladiators. With its sword shaped leaves and colorful flower spikes, gladiolus’ name is derived from the Latin word for “sword.” Other plants known to symbolize strength include fennel, thyme, garlic, oak, and bamboo. Note: Has toxicity. Commonly used as a cut flower; hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.

Tillandsia xerographica air plantAir Plant (Tillandsia xerographica and others)

Epiphytes, or air plants, are resilient plants that grow on something else, such as on a tree or a rocky ledge, yet are not parasitic. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, they have special adaptations on their leaves and roots that help obtain their water and nutrients from the air, rainfall, leaf litter, and other nearby sources. Epiphytes include several orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and other air plants, such as Tillandsia xerographica. Spanish moss (shown in feature image), which is often seen growing in live oaks in the deep South, is not an actual moss but, rather, is a Tillandsia. Some grown as houseplants; Spanish moss (T. usneoides) is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.

ZZ plantZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamifolia)

The phrase “ZZ plants are E-Z” is true and makes ZZ plant a candidate for the top of any list of low maintenance houseplants. Though they are slow and steady growers, this tough houseplant has a high tolerance level for neglect. It does well with infrequent watering and in low light conditions when a light stand or sunny window is not available. Note: this plant has toxicity. Grown as a houseplant.

Osage orange Bois d'arcOsage Orange (Maclura pomifera)

Ethnobotanical researchers have described how Native Americans historically used the dense, tough wood of the Osage orange, otherwise called bois d’arc, to fashion bows. (Watch out for the female trees that wield softball-sized green fruit that plummet to the earth.) Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) and various species of serviceberry (Amelanchier), juniper (Juniperus), and cedar (Thuja) were also used for making bows, arrows, or totem poles by various Native American tribes. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9.

LotusLotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

The lotus is an aquatic plant that grows in the muddy margins of ponds and marshes. Its flower is considered sacred in Buddhism and Hinduism and is commonly used in imagery of rebirth and enlightenment in Asian art. Leaves and flowers grow from the rhizomes buried underwater in the mud and rise up tall above the water surface. In addition, its leaves are hydrophobic, meaning that water droplets bead up on leaves like drops of mercury and fall off easily. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 10.

Aspidistra Cast Iron PlantCast Iron Plant (Aspidistra)

As its name suggests, cast iron plant is the houseplant that is tough as nails – cast iron nails, at that – as its name suggests. It thrives in low light and with minimal watering. Commonly grown as a houseplant; also hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 11.

 

Over the course of three and a half billion years of environmental fluctuations and catastrophes, organisms of all types have developed tremendous powers of regeneration. Some species, typically referred to by humans as weeds, seem especially adept at not merely surviving severe disturbance, but of actually flourishing in the face of it.

– Peter Del Tredici, Hibaku Trees of Hiroshima

 

References

Del Tredici, P. Hibaku Trees of Hiroshima. Retrieved on 29 October 2013 from http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/892.pdf.

Laufer, G.A. (1993). Tussie-Mussies: The Language of Flowers. Workman Publishing Company, Inc.: Hong Kong.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. (2013). What are epiphytes? Retrieved from http://www.selby.org/about/what-are-epiphytes.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2013). Biology of Plants: Plant Adaptations. Retrieved from http://www.mbgnet.net/bioplants/adapt.html.

University of Michigan – Dearborn. (2013). Native American Ethnobotany Database. Retrieved from http://herb.umd.umich.edu/.

A Tale of Tree Rings: Relating a Tree’s Story to One’s Personal Experiences

I recently did a therapeutic horticulture program with a group of women who are from Afghanistan and clients of a local social services organization serving resettled refugees. On this rainy day, we gathered in the one-bedroom apartment of one of the women. Some of us sat on the floor, while others sat on couches. Our hostess passed around cups of hot tea and cookies. A couple of children played around us while we visited with each other. We communicated via a translator, gestures, and lots of smiles.

To start the session, I passed around some of my favorite sensory plants – lavender, pineapple sage, basil, lemon balm, lamb’s ear, mint, among other – and explained about what I do in my job. I talked about how plants and nature benefit us in many different ways – from lowering stress and anxiety to improving our mood and encouraging physical movement. The group made lavender sachets to keep.

The conversation transitioned to hobbies because gardening is a favorite American pastime, and I asked the group about their hobbies.

Then, to deepen the conversation, I talked about one of the reasons that I like to tend to my garden. I explained that I look to nature to provide perspective on my life. One example is the changing of the seasons and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth – as seen through the lush foliage of summer, followed by the falling of autumn leaves, to the dormancy of winter, then to the first buds of cherry trees and other spring flowers, and back again. How can you relate to the cycle of life to your personal experience?

Then I started talking about trees.

TreeRingsTreeCookieTherapeuticHorticultureHave you ever taken a look at the cross section of a tree? There are a bunch of rings, and if you count them, you can determine the age of the tree. And if you look closer, each ring is slightly different. Sometimes the rings are really close together. Other times the rings are further apart. Sometimes there are blemishes in the rings, and other times they are misshapen.

Why are the rings different from year to year? Well, some years the plant receives all the water, nutrients, sunlight, and other things that it needs in order to thrive – those are indicated by the “healthy-looking” or further spaced rings.

Other years, the rings are close together. That may indicate that the tree didn’t receive all the “goodies” it needed to grow vigorously.

Still other years, the rings may have blemishes or are oddly shaped. That may be due to diseases or insect pests that attacked the plant and affected it. Or, maybe there was a fire that scorched one side of the tree. Or, perhaps someone used a string trimmer around the tree and accidentally nicked the bark of the tree.

HanddrawnTreeRingsTreeCookieTherapeuticHorticulture
Don’t have a “tree cookie” (or cross section of a tree) to look at? Draw it yourself. This is my hand-drawn illustration used during this program. Note: larger and smaller tree rings are shown.

Each ring tells a different story for each year of the tree’s life. Some years were great, and the tree grew and flourished. Some years weren’t so good, when it appears that the tree struggled. Sometimes that indicates that the tree may have succumbed. Or sometimes it shows how the tree, resilient as it is, made it through the challenges and came out on the other end, still bigger than it was the year before.

I have to admit that when I started this last part of the conversation, I could feel a shift in the mood of the room…to a quieter, more reflective mood.

Consider how each of us handle challenging situations. One person may be easily angered when encountering a tough situation and react loudly or in an outward fashion, where people nearby may notice immediately. In the same type of situation, another person may be quiet and prefer to handle her emotions internally, with or without others noticing. I relate that to walking through a forest.

If you look at a forest, there is a wide variety of trees and other plants. Some trees grow up big and tall, reaching for the sun. Some trees are smaller and prefer to be in the understory, shaded by the other trees. No one tree is “better” than the other. They just grow that way and have unique individual responses to their environment. Each tree has a different story to tell. And shouldn’t we celebrate their differences?

 

Under the stillness of winter’s heavy blanket…

Even under the stillness of winter’s heavy blanket, there are signs of life all around us. When ice gives way to early spring, we witness a magnificent time of rebirth, inspiration, and possibility.

– Oprah Winfrey
snow_camellia3

Looking ahead…

Keep your face always toward the sunshine
– and shadows will fall behind you.

– Walt Whitman

There’s something about January…

Last week, I was saddened to hear that a client, who was an avid consumer of my therapeutic horticulture program – and not to mention a wonderful human being – had passed away. This passing was the culmination of several clients who passed away last month, many of whom were among my programs’ original participants. Though many of my clients are elders, they are individual clients and people – each have their own personalities, interests, and unique responses specifically to my programs and shine their own light in the world. And when they are gone, they are missed.

I found out the news just before doing a program at that facility and was just “off my game” during the entire session.  We talked about new year’s resolutions and our hopes for 2015. We planted amaryllis bulbs in chalkboard-message flower pots (how-to post to come soon!). I missed my client’s enthusiasm and could sense the other long-time clients’ somber mood, off and on throughout the session.

With this passing, as well as the several others lost in January 2015, I reflected on having lost other elder family members in Januarys past. And I thought, “What is it about January?”

I even asked this question to friends later in the week, when processing this loss over lunch. To paraphrase, my friend said, “You know, in some way, I think that some of us have control over when we leave.” Another friend, in response, shared an account of an elder family member, whose birthday was in early December, wanted to live to age 105. He was able to celebrate this milestone and then quietly passed away a couple of weeks later on Christmas Eve. And somehow, this made sense to me and helped me to find some perspective, as I reflected on my last experiences of all of these individuals in my December programs.

And then…Groundhog Day 2015. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter. And despite the grayness of January, I think about how appropriate last week’s inspirational quote was. Though we’re in the doldrums of winter – the part of the season that we just can’t wait to be over – we still have something to look forward to, whether it’s the inevitable change to the spring season, the next holiday on the horizon, or, more simply, the beautiful pansies in bloom, with interplanted daffodil foliage sprouting, just outside my window. And suddenly, I was inspired.

Jan2015 115I recalled how a staffperson attending the session that day wrote a message on the flower pot – the Walt Whitman quote above. We had planted an extra amaryllis bulb in a pot for another client who was grieving the loss of our friend and couldn’t make it to our program that day. Though the session was about resolutions and things to look forward to at the start of 2015, it was a last minute decision to add chalkboard paint to the rims of the flower pots. I thought it would be cool to have clients write a message about their hopes and dreams for the new year, and then plant an amaryllis bulb. As they watch their amaryllis grow and flourish, they can be inspired. How appropriate! And what a surprising “hort therapy” moment, not just for my clients, but for me too!

Though I mourn the loss of my clients and loved ones, I am remembering the various ways, subtle and “in my face,” that they inspired me to be better and do better work. And I know that there will be random ways in which they still positively pop up in my life.

I now recall another client at another facility saying to me in January, “When you are as old as I am, I hope that someone like you comes to do what you do with you.” Amen.

Reflections on Winter

Snow angel created by Isabella, December 2012
Snow angel created by Isabella, December 2012

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant:
if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

– Anne Bradstreet, 1612-1672
British American and Puritan poet
Meditations Divine and Moral (1664)

Primary photo: Spring Snowflake (Leucojum)