Researcher at UMass Amherst Hopes to Prove Why We Should Take Time to Smell the Roses

AMHERST, Mass. - Can plants affect our moods? John Tristan, director of the Durfee Conservatory at the University of Massachusetts and a certified horticultural therapist, believes they can. With the help of the UMass School of Nursing, the UMass Statistical Consulting Center (SCC), and several honors students enrolled in the horticulture program, Tristan has launched an extensive research project he hopes will establish, once and for all, the role living plants might play in helping people reduce their stress levels.

"We live in very stressful times. Technology has brought us many benefits, as well as ''technostress,''" explained Tristan. "Students, as a group, worry a great deal about taking tests and getting good grades, making decisions for the future, money problems, relationships, parking and housing problems, and other stresses that go along with being away from home for the first time. Many are reluctant to ask for help, but instead turn to alcohol or aggressive behavior to reduce tension."

Tristan completed the first level of his study of horticultural intervention as a stress management technique last year, and presented his findings at an international symposium on the interaction between people and plants held at the Chicago Botanic Garden in July. This semester, Tristan is readying the second phase of the research study, which will begin in the spring with the help of honor student Brian Santos from the UMass nursing program, and Michael Sutherland, director of the SCC.

To determine whether college students can reduce their stress levels by interacting with plants, Tristan recruited 137 students from a pool of hundreds of applicants under the age of 30, and divided the students into groups of 8-10. Tristan, a certified horticultural therapist, then took each group on a carefully orchestrated, interactive tour of the Durfee Conservatory on the campus of the University.

He asked the students to leave their "baggage and worries" at the door. Once inside the greenhouse, the Conservatory director explained garden history, the life cycles and special uses of medicinal plants and herbs, as well as the physiological effects of botanical aromas. He asked participants to close their eyes, and breathe in the damp, fragrant greenhouse air. Employing aromatherapy, guided imagery, and other therapeutic techniques, Tristan led each group through the extensive plant collection modeled on London''s Kew Gardens, encouraging participants to smell, touch, and even taste the flora in the greenhouse or on the surrounding grounds.

"People gain from being around beauty, and from interacting with nature. Plants teach us patience, and the importance of the circle of life," he explained. At the conclusion of the structured tour, participants completed an evaluation of their stress levels. The survey, developed by the SCC and the School of Nursing, included 22 questions that were balanced for bias.

Overwhelmingly, participants reported a sharp decrease in stress after spending an hour exploring the botanical collection in the greenhouses and the adjoining arboretum, using their five senses and their intellect. About 97 percent said they felt less stressed after the tour than they did before, according to data collected and analyzed by the SCC. "As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has quantified stress reduction in college students who have had a carefully constructed, interactive experience with living plants," said Tristan. "Our next step is to gather more clinical information through physiological tests. We will conduct the same tour, but begin and end the process with tests determining each participant''s heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Nursing students will be trained to collect this data from a similar group of participants who agree to be tested."

Tristan added, "If we can show that enriched horticultural experiences can reduce stress levels in our student population, imagine what we can do to help other members of the community - stressed-out parents, overwhelmed employees, people facing life crises - through inexpensive and non-invasive means."

John Tristan can be reached at 413/545-5234.