How 'plant parenting' can aid in coping amid the pandemic

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When people experience psychological distress, houseplants provide a crucial benefit: mental health support. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Leaves breathe life to the cloistered living situation of Karole Santos Magbanua. In their 67-sqm. condo in quarantined Metro Manila, variegated zz plants bathe in the sunlight on the balcony, a traveler’s palm fans out in the living room, a philodendron stands by the dining table, while a white orchid is perched on a drawer — signs of life in a city on pause.

But juggling her roles as the brand manager of a fast-food giant, co-founder of accessories brand Nine-to-Five Manila, and as a new wife in her fifth month of pregnancy, she soon realized: “Installing plants is easy, but the ‘taking care’ part is hard. Committing to take care of them is a sign of adulthood.”

Before influencers sparked the houseplant obsession by flaunting their breezy, eclectic indoor jungles on Instagram, it was simply called “gardening”: a term that now brings to mind rake-wielding grandmas tending to rose bushes in sprawling yards.

The more up-to-date term is “plant parenting:” a less tedious act compared to raising a child (something that millennials tend to avoid), but a source of pride and joy nonetheless.

“Each type of plant requires a different kind of care,” Magbanua says. She waters them every two to three days, depending on the conditions of the soil, and “sing[s] to them sometimes, too,” in between creating business plans and making sure there’s food on the table for husband and wife.

The benefits outweigh all the effort, especially during the pandemic. “It has been a struggle,” she admitted, but her houseplants have remained a constant. “Let’s just say they’ve accompanied me day in and day out, through it all.”

A traveler’s palm fans out in Karole Santos Magbanua's Ikea-inspired living room. Photo courtesy of KAROLE SANTOS MAGBANUA

Biophilia and horticultural therapy

In 1984, Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia: the idea that humans have an innate tendency to connect with nature.

Charles Montgomery tackles this concept in the book "Happy Cities," where he unravels the intersection of urban design and the science of happiness. He writes: “Extreme intimacy — not just looking at nature, but actually touching or working with plants and dirt — is good for us in ways we never imagined.” He adds, “The act of gardening heightens the biophilic benefits of nature, in part because gardening demands more focus than simply observing nature.”

In the case of Monique Caparros-Florencio, a millennial mother of three, plants put her toddlers at ease.

“Sometimes they would have tantrums, but I'll tell them to check their plants,” she said. The diversion tactic “always works” because “they feel excited about new sprouts and the idea of going outside to water them.”

Caparros-Florencio’s kids use plants as an “anchor” — a place to return the attention to whenever the mind has started to go down a path that is stressful and unhealthy — according Professor Gary Altman, the associate director of the Horticultural Therapy Program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Working at one of the few universities in the world that offers this specialized program, he preaches about the therapeutic relationship between plants and individuals, and the practice of using plants and plant-based activity in a variety of service systems, such as medical hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, and correctional facilities.

“Horticultural therapy promotes positive healing,” he says in an interview with CNN Philippines Life. This is especially true for individuals going through life changes, such as transitioning to the “new normal,” where stress and uncertainty are a given. “These emotional states,” he explained, “can lead to negative, unhealthy thoughts.”

On the contrary, “houseplants promote a sense of calmness and provide an opportunity to tend to psychological and physiological needs,” he said. “By having small vignettes or spaces with groups of plants in the home, we can create a sanctuary where we feel safe and relaxed. By focusing on nurturing ourselves, we aim to coddle the emotions that are needed to promote repair in the mind, body and spirit.”

Monique Caparros-Florencio's son Jacob tends to his tomatoes and blue pea plant. Photo courtesy of MONIQUE CAPARROS-FLORENCIO

Rebirth and renewal

In a post about her houseplants, Icar Castro, an organizational development consultant, writes: “In these days of coronavirus lockdown, there is something comforting about rebirth and renewal when all the news about sickness and death can be overwhelming.”

Castro runs the Instagram account @myediblepottedgarden, where she shares kaleidoscopic flatlays of petals and greens — bursts of living color from her harvest of the day.

“When I need to de-stress, I’ll pinch off a leaf of lavender and sniff it. Chew on a mint leaf. Gather seeds to give away or replant,” she says. Because she has cervical and lumbar spondylosis, she takes comfort in the anti-inflammatory properties of homemade herbal tea.

“I have referred to it as my mindfulness practice,” Castro says about her plant routine. “There’s definitely a shot of dopamine whenever I spot a plant’s first true leaves or first flower. Germinating plants are addictive, as well as passing on the joy of growing things to others.”

The end of the coronavirus pandemic is still a blur, but houseplants continue to thrive. “The miracle of life narrates its story from seed to seedling, from flower to fruit, from mature seed to another seedling again,” says Castro. “There’s something hopeful about that.” The city is on pause, but there’s no stopping growth and rebirth — for houseplants and humanity alike.

A Christmas arrangement by Icar Castro featuring a blue ternate, mint, tarragon, holy basil, dried chili, with the addition of gifted kaffir leaves. Photo courtesy of ICAR CASTRO