Friday, December 21, 2007

Notes from Around Town: Rusk Institute Greenhouse

These days the topic of horticultural therapy has been getting a lot of attention, even though it is a practice that has been around for centuries. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy is defined as “a process utilizing plants and horticultural activities to improve social, educational, psychological and physical adjustment of persons thus improving their body, mind, and spirit.” Hundreds of years ago doctors began to notice patients recovering more quickly when they had the opportunity to spend time and be active in the gardens outside of the hospital walls. After World War I and World War II horticultural therapy was used nationwide with veterans to help them improve the use of injured limbs and increase mental function, not to mention an avenue for them to learn new skills and provide food to their families. As Tia Deanne Jones wrote on her website describing the history of horticultural therapy, “now horticulture therapy is used in hospitals, nursing homes, institutions, rehabilitation facilities, schools, prisons, camps, day care centers, group homes, halfway houses, homeless shelters, community centers...I think you get the idea”. Here at the HSNY Library Katherine Powis has found records from the early 1970’s discussing this aspect horticulture and its ability to improve people’s quality of life here in New York City. On Riker’s Island James Jiler directs the HSNY Greenhouse program teaching inmates horticultural and woodworking skills so that upon release they can graduate to become members of the HSNY GreenTeam. As is our mission, to improve the quality of life in New York through horticulture, John Cannizzo and our GreenTeam have been working for years with many public and private partners performing horticultural therapy throughout the five boroughs. The Horticultural Society has worked with and put together gardens for at-risk youth, men and women living with HIV and AIDS, the mentally or physically disabled, senior citizens, as well as many other populations.

A week ago I had the wonderful opportunity to introduce a tour of HSNY members to Nancy Chambers, a Horticultural Therapist working here the city for over 20 years. Nancy is the director of the greenhouse and horticulture therapy facility at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. The Rusk Institute operates under the auspices of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine of New York University School of Medicine, located on 1st Avenue at 34th Street. Operating out of a greenhouse and facility originally donated by Enid A. Haupt, the Rusk Institute greenhouse is truly an oasis here in Midtown Manhattan.

Filled with different plant collections, a number of chirping birds, and even a well-behaved cat named Bamboo, the greenhouse provides much needed stress relief for both patients and staff. When you enter from the lobby you are greeted by the gentle trickle of water coming from the large water feature in the center of the first greenhouse. When I studied the history and theory of landscape design the sound of water was often discussed for it’s ability to provide calm and tranquility to an environment. Instantly you realize that the space does feed all the senses. There are so many plants to look at, from hanging epiphytes to massive woody trees. Like a botanical garden, collections are labeled and organized in a way that is educational and easy to take in. You can touch and feel the contrast between the thorny euphorbia and the soft African violet without fear of being reprimanded. You can sense the humidity and the smell the fresh “green” oxygen being omitted by the plants as they photosynthesize. The birds, some caged and some not, chirp away and accompany the classical music coming from a small radio hanging in the second house. Perhaps there are not plants to taste, but I did pass by a nurse sitting and eating her lunch and she seemed to be having a perfectly fine time. In the second house there was a great little display of certain plants that people choose to dry and use for teas. The entire green space is easily accessible and the choreography is clear, another aspect of a successfully designed garden. As Nancy enlightened us further, she asked if any of us had ever spent time in a wheelchair. “The best views of the greenhouse and all the plants are enjoyed from a sitting position”, she explained. I don’t think any of us had thought of that until we sat and took a look from a different viewpoint, and sure enough she couldn’t have been any more correct.

Nancy went on to describe how plants and green space bring forth in all people a sense of fascination. Clearly you do not have to be from a certain country or ethnicity to appreciate the beauty and peace in this interactive space. That same fascination has unbelievable restorative and recuperative abilities. Plants can move you because they might have qualities that are reminiscent, whether they possess ethnic, historical, or culinary significance in your life. Either way interacting with those plants elevates your senses. With elevated senses and aided by a restorative environment, we are more alert and alive and able to deal with the stresses life brings. In this day of technology and urbanization we forget that all humans have an affinity towards nature that is biologically fundamental. By feeding that affinity we can be more sensitive, aware, grounded, mentally and physically healthier.

Eventually one of our members asked about patients who had no previous connection to gardens or plants and how they were accepting, or not, this kind of therapy. Towards the end of our tour Nancy had arranged for us to sit through a workshop similar to the ones done with the patients at Rusk. We sat around a large round table and Nancy’s colleague Gwen explained the exercise, repotting a clump of Norfolk Island pine trees so that we each had our own. Gwen described the history and some clever anecdotes about the plant so that each of us could relate to it in our own way. We were asked to handicap ourselves and not use our dominant hand. Right away we realized that an important part of the lesson was how we were forced to talk and communicate with each other to achieve each of our goals. We quickly realized how working together meant that all of us could fill our pots with soil, plant the small evergreen, and water them, even with our respective handicaps. When we finished we each had our little tree and a great understanding of the other people in our company. I heard stories of growing up in Africa, and tales from English country sides, even shared a story or two of my own about where I had been and how I came to this place. Plants brought us together and at the end of this short exercise our senses were elevated and we were better friends than before. In short, Nancy and Gwen taught us more than words ever could. That’s the power of horticulture and horticultural therapy, and it was amazing!

The Rusk Institute greenhouse is open to the public seven days a week and I urge you all to visit. Enter the lobby on 34th Street just east of 1st Avenue and turn right to see the entrance to the greenhouse. During the week it is open from 8:00am to 5:30pm, and on the weekends from 1:00 to 5:30pm. They even have houseplants for sale and obviously the proceeds go towards maintaining a very important and necessary cause. I thank Nancy Chambers and her staff and volunteers for the amazing work that they do.

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