Around a corner, next to a building, and behind a wall is an oasis of greenery and flowers that has its roots – almost literally – in bygone medicine.
Long ago, the Physic Garden was envisioned as a source of healing plants for physical health. Foxglove for heart medicine. Lamb’s ear for bandaging. Sneezeweed for colds. That’s no longer the case. But, as it turns out, the garden today is considered to be important for healing, nonetheless – the boost to spiritual and mental health that comes from urban green spaces.
The garden at Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751, is bursting with flowers this time of year. At just about any time of day, you’re likely to see physicians, patients, families and even mere passers-by pausing to sit, chat, eat lunch and ponder whatever in their lives needs pondering. The entrance is on the 300 block of Eighth Street, between Spruce and Pine.
To learn more about the garden, and its healing mission, we spoke with Stacey Peeples, the curator and lead archivist at the hospital. She oversees the historic collections.
Then, for a more clinical perspective, we turned to Eugenia South, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her research focuses on how urban environments affect the health of the people who live there.
Stacey, tell us more about the origins of the garden.
The physicians who were here recognized the need to have a medicinal garden onsite. It was 1774, so it made perfect sense. You don’t want to have to keep ordering plants and herbs from across the ocean. We could grow it ourselves and reduce our overhead. Except for the fact that when the physicians petitioned the board, they approved it, but they wanted to check with their friends in London and see if they could find a good gardener. The 1770s, as you know, were a little bit of a tumultuous time. Before they could get a gardener, the war broke out.
The hospital was hit very hard by the American Revolution. It was occupied by the British and, just as in any conflict, when the people moved out after the occupation, they took a lot of stuff with them. Basically, they took everything that wasn’t nailed down. It meant that the hospital was really at a loss. They had to buy things and replenish supplies. They were being forced to accept paper money, which had very little value. Throughout the history of the hospital, it seemed like that blow to them financially was something they always struggled with.
So they were not in a position to have their medicinal garden. It never happened … until 204 years later, during the Bicentennial in 1976.
Why then? Surely they no longer needed medicinal plants from it.
It was that Bicentennial spirit of wanting to honor everything from our colonial past, from our beginnings. This was a project people could get behind because it’s beautification. Who doesn’t love a garden? A lot of people were involved — the Philadelphia Chapter of Garden Clubs of America, Friends of Pennsylvania Hospital, employees, and other local interested parties.
But even though the garden wasn’t used for medicinal purposes, and even though at that point there wasn’t as much discussion as now about the cathartic nature of going out into a garden, there was still the idea that, at a hospital, there was a need to have a quiet space, or to have something that is calming. Inherent in what goes on at a hospital is that it’s so busy.
Do you see evidence of that? Who uses this garden?
I have encountered a variety of groups – from mothers and children to people who are local to the neighborhood who just like to go and sit quietly. Oftentimes, you’ll find employees out there. You’ll find family members of patients who maybe need to make a difficult phone call, or maybe they just need a few minutes. I tell people all the time that if you’re waiting for someone in surgery, you don’t have to sit in a waiting room. You can sit in a garden.
I really think that idea of the therapeutic landscape and somehow communing with nature and being in an environment that is designed to be calming and beautiful has a direct effect on people. The reason gardens continue to flourish is because they meet a need. Often, that need is our emotional need.
Eugenia, you’ve studied the effects of urban greening. Is this a surprise?
My interest in green space and gardens and understanding their health and wellness benefits stems from an interest in violence prevention. As an emergency physician, I see the effects of violent crime. People who have been shot. People who have been stabbed. We do a great job in the hospital fixing their injuries. But then we send them back into the same communities. We do not address the root causes of violence.
One of the ways I began to address that is through the environmental causes of violence. A big part of that is vacant and abandoned spaces. Philadelphia has more than 40,000 vacant lots and abandoned homes. They’re often concentrated in low-resource neighborhoods. People who live in communities that have a lot of vacancies point to these properties as threats to their health. Both from a mental-health standpoint – fear and stress – and from a physical standpoint. They attract rodents and trash, they are magnets of crime.
We have worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to study their vacant lot “clean and green” program. They turn a trashy, overgrown lot into a clean and green space. We’ve studied these spaces in a variety of ways and have found a couple of important health benefits.
One is that they really do reduce violent crime. Also, we found evidence that people feel safer and that they have reduced stress. Heart rate is a good marker of stress. The higher the rate, the more the stress. We monitored people’s heart rates as they walked past these spaces, before and after they were cleaned and greened, and found that their heart rates dropped significantly after. This is in line with a lot of other research that has shown that green space and gardens can reduce mental fatigue, help people have a more positive mood, and even improve behavior in, say, kids with ADHD.
Can you extrapolate the Physic Garden?
Having gardens at hospitals is part of a growing movement recognizing the importance of green space and gardens to health.
There is building evidence now that green space helps people to better deal with whatever is psychologically stressful in their lives. For people at the hospital, it may be the stress of the disease they have. For families of patients who may be feeling the stress of having a loved one who is ill, having access to green space can help them cope with that difficult time.
Volunteer gardeners are needed Mondays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. through the growing season for weeding, deadheading spent blooms and other tasks. Contact lead volunteer Kate McGrann at 215-334-6111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers receive vouchers for lunch in the hospital cafeteria and reduced-price parking.