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Giving Plants as Gifts

By Carl Wilson, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Agent, horticulture, Denver County

Is there any scientific basis for saying that plant gifts help people feel better?

New research from Washington State University confirms previous studies that show stress-reducing benefits from viewing plants. And who doesn't need some stress relief during the busy, end-of-year holidays?

Specifically, the WSU study looked at whether plants could help people tolerate experimentally-induced discomfort longer than adults in settings without plants. The discomfort time was measured by how long people were willing to keep a hand submerged in ice water.

To eliminate any distraction effect from colorful objects, researchers tested adults in a windowless room that was bare, that contained colorful objects, and that contained green foliage plants.

Fewer than a third of the 200 people tested were willing to keep their hand immersed for 5 minutes in the bare room. Only one-third reached the 5 minute mark in the room with colorful objects. When green plants were added, nearly half of test subjects attained the 5 minute immersion mark.

We have all seen stories of Zen masters achieving feats of mind over matter. The research shows we may all be capable of some measure of this with a little help from indoor plants.

While researchers can't explain how plants help humans handle the discomfort, they believe it's clearly more than visual distraction. They speculate that it is rooted in humans evolving with nature and having an innate reaction to plants that is not a conscious one.

Giving the gift of a plant to those who are sick as well as friends going through a stressful time in their lives certainly makes scientific sense.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010