It’s on a Thursday mid-morning when Irene Kui jubilantly welcomes Healthy Nation into her home in Riara, Kiambu County. Her house sits comfortably on a beautifully landscaped compound dotted with flowers.
Radiating warmth and joy on a rather cold day, she leads the way to her plant studio, tucked away safely behind her house. Here, with a tent to protect the plants from the hot sun, their partitions separate the plants depending on stages of growth as some hang from used yogurt bottles. “Others are in ‘Intensive Care Unit,” she explains as she points to struggling plants, some of which are post-rescue.
As if on cue, Irene picks three plants with yellow and red flowers in pots and places them on a pallet, then excitedly points at her favourite one. “This one is called bush-slipperwort, its leaves look like mint, but they are only related,” she chimes as she touches the flower.
Like a mother checking on her children, she pokes her index finger into the pot to feel the soil texture, then moves on to the others. She makes a mental note to water some after the interview as she pokes into another that has developed some mold.
A few years ago, she was not as entwined to nature as now. She didn’t question why some plants were yellowing and others’ growth stunted. She just lived her life, planned events, and hosted her friends for home camping. Until her husband fell sick in 2019, and she had to reconnect with nature. She ran to plants to find therapy. Now she no longer falls asleep wondering how the plant she has watered so lovingly and given just the right amount of sun has died.
She recalls her husband’s right leg dragging just after he passed a 15-kilometre mark while running a half marathon in March, 2019. She remembers Martin Njuguna complaining that his big toe was sore and numb.
It didn’t raise any alarm, and Irene felt sure the pain would go away. It eventually disappeared only to recur a month later accompanied by a more noticeable limp that urgently forced the couple to see a doctor. The first, an orthopedist, said Martin’s spinal disc had slipped, and that tissue had grown to occupy the space vacated by the disc. He recommended a laser treatment to remove the bone tissue. Bidding time, they sought a second opinion and were told that the disc was intact, but there appeared to be swelling on the spine.
With two conflicting opinions, they sought another opinion from a third doctor, who said he could see an abnormality along the spine after conducting a Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. He said a swelling was compressing the spinal cord and referred the couple to a neurologist. By then, the limp had deteriorated so much that Martin could no longer walk unaided.
“I quickly learned to go ahead of him to look out for closest parking spaces, stairs, lifts or ramps, presence or absence of guard rails, distance between us and an office, ablution facilities and even the height of steps on the staircase. By the end of month two, walking with crutches proved difficult. His legs would drag a lot and he could only take a few short steps at a time,” says Irene.
The neurologist, recalls Irene, suspected that the swelling had been caused by either trauma, infection or a tumour. Suspecting that the swelling could be a sign of spinal tuberculosis (TB), he put Martin on a TB regimen to see if the symptoms would improve.
“Two months later, his condition had deteriorated and the doctor recommended a biopsy to rule out the possibility of a tumour. This required an open back surgery and removal of three vertebrae to get to the spinal cord. There was a risk that they could nick part of the spinal cord, which could even result in paralysis, depending on where the damage occurred, and so we sought another opinion,” she explains.
Having found a doctor in India, and while waiting for visas to be processed, Irene woke up one day and noticed that her husband’s left eye was smaller than the right and that the left side of his mouth was drooping. He asked him to smile and confirmed the same. Her husband then disclosed that his speech was beginning to slur. He had noticed the symptoms a few days earlier but did not want to scare her.
In India, the initial prognosis confirmed that the swelling had progressed significantly from covering three vertebrae to seven in one month. Tests ruled out a tumour but confirmed an abnormal connection between an artery and a vein, medically referred to as Spinal Dural Arteriovenous Fistula.
The swelling in the affected vein was compressing the nerves in the spinal cord, and, as it grew, the compressed nerves were losing their function, immobilising his organs. Two days later, Irene’s husband underwent microscopic surgery and the journey to recovery began.
“After the surgery, my husband needed help to sit up or stand, and to turn. I became his everything. Seeing him change from a very active and healthy person to another who was near 100 per cent paralysis weighed me down. It was not easy because I had never handled a patient and now I had to be a caregiver. It is physically and emotionally draining,” she explains.
To let her steam off, she took to active gardening and nurturing plants, a practice she says helped calm her nerves.
“My love for flowers has been there for as long as I can remember. I always had a plant somewhere and even when I couldn’t find a live one, I would get a plastic one. However, my serious engagement with plants started a year ago because of all the tension and pressure. It needed focus and felt like nurturing a baby. Each time I feel things going south, I go there because I find it therapeutic,” she explains.
“I feel happy and excited when I walk into my plant studio. It is my safe space and I can sit there for hours and even the whole day that I forget to eat. Plants do not judge you or talk back to you. They do not cheat or lie. Nature will allow you to feel and work through your emotions. Plants also send subtle messages that will inform you whether they are happy and sad,” says Irene.
When Covid-19 hit the country, bringing with it the curse of avoiding contact that forced the nuclear family to stick at home, Irene bonded more with her plants. And when one day she found herself feeling frustrated while helping her husband with physiotherapy exercises, she knew her solution sat outside her door.
“I would try and pump his foot and he would say I was not doing it right as instructed by his physiotherapist. I was trying my best just as he was, but we were emotionally disconnected, yet I needed to be emotionally present to understand his needs. Mid exercise, he asked me to pause and recommended that I go to my plant studio to get some air,” she recalls.
“I went straight there. When it was time for the next physiotherapy session, I realised that my brain was not clogged, which allowed me to listen to him better. I was not judgemental or emotional and in fact, I felt very optimistic. There was so much positivity and that is when I realised the plants and flowers can be very therapeutic. Since then, I visit the studio when I feel tense, and I come back feeling better,” she adds. She also recalls how simply being present at her plant studio helped her cope with the isolation resulting from getting infected with Covid-19.
“I was staying at the guest room; whose door opens to the compound. In the afternoon, when I was sure everyone was napping or in the house, I would walk to the plant studio and sit on my stool to observe my plants. I’d sit for hours before going back in and it helped me to get better sooner,” she says.
“I have conversations with my flowers. Plant therapy is important especially for caregivers because feeling begins with the mind. If as a patient you have a caregiver who is stressed out, you are more likely to be stressed too, which means you won’t be in the right state of mind to think things through. It’s important to have a caregiver who is happy and is well aware of their mental wellness because it has a direct impact on the patient,” advises Irene.
She has since launched a YouTube channel called plantasticwithkui, where she intends to encourage her viewers to engage in gardening activities that distract them from stressful situations. “I want people to learn from my story, just as I intend to impact them positively,” she explains.
Mental health experts refer to her therapeutic refuge in plants as horticultural therapy. It is formally defined as using horticultural activities for human healing and rehabilitation. The practice has held healing power since the ancient Egyptian era.
According to Annelle Wambui, a freelance counsellor volunteering at Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya, a horticultural therapy session can be formal or informal, take place in various settings and utilise all plant material. She explains that while some people might join a gardening group that meets regularly in a public garden, others may need one-on-one therapy sessions for their specific goals.
Annelle further explains that humans generally feel happier and more optimistic in surroundings with plenty of plants and nature and flowers also evoke positive emotions.
“The physical aspect of gardening releases feel-good chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. Working with soil makes us happier. A 2007 study found a bacterium in soil that triggers the release of serotonin, which lifts mood and reduces anxiety,” she states.
“Looking at plants and flowers, whether indoors or outdoors, is a peaceful activity free of worries or conflict, and which encourages living in the present moment and engages the senses. For example, she adds that when you take time to smell the sweet perfume of a magnolia tree, your cortisol levels drop.”
According to the Rutgers School of environmental and biological sciences, the roots of horticultural therapy were established by Dr Benjamin Rush, a physician who is considered to be the first psychiatrist in the 19th century.
In his book: Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon Diseases of the Mind, Dr Rush documented the benefits of working with plants, eventually leading to the adoption of horticultural therapy as a treatment option for mentally ill patients.
In 1817, for example, the Asylum for Persons Deprived of Their Reason established a garden park to help their patients recover, and in 1879 they built the first greenhouse specifically for therapeutic purposes. Years later, Dr John La Puma, a clinical director who co-founded ChefMD, a Freddie award-winning health media brand promoting culinary medicine, defines therapeutic horticulture as using garden environments as a therapeutic intervention. This can include growth, care and maintenance of the environment and the simple act of spending time in gardens.
The practice, he says, can be used as a form of rehabilitation, a vocational tool, or as a way to foster community.
“Therapeutic horticulture can help participants learn new skills or regain those they’ve lost. It improves memory, language skills, cognitive ability and socialisation. It also strengthens muscles, improves balance, endurance and coordination, and teaches people to work independently, problem-solve, and follow directions,” he states in his blog.
He explains that in 500BC, ancient Persians created beautiful good-smelling gardens and combined them with running water to calm them. At the same time, Egyptians recommended people with mental disturbance to take garden walks. Hospitals also cultivated therapy gardens to brighten the spirits of patients.
St Benard was an early proponent of what would later become therapeutic horticulture, describing it thusly: “The sick man sits upon the green lawn… for the comfort of his pain, all kinds of grass are fragrant in his nostrils. The lovely green herb and tree nourish his eyes… The choir of painted birds caresses his ears… the earth breathes with fruitfulness and the invalid, with eyes, ears, and nostrils, drinks in the delights of colours, songs, and perfumes.”
A 2011 National Library of Medicine study stated that gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. In the exercise, 30 gardeners were put through a stressful Stroop task and randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their allotment plot.
Salivary cortisol levels and self-reported mood were repeatedly measured. The results showed that even though gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, the decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. A positive mood was fully restored after gardening but further deteriorated during reading.
Besides horticulture therapy, people have been known to seek therapy through watching cute animal videos and having pets, which have been proven to decrease stress, improve heart health and even help children with their emotional and social skills.
Others find therapy in exercising, listening to music and dancing, journalling thoughts, enough sleep, meditation, and yoga to lessen their anxiety.
Some people have also been known to reduce stress by inflating balloons, supported by the fact that deflating a balloon forces one to breathe deeply. Others prefer grabbing a bag of oatmeal to help them feel relaxed. Studies show that regular oatmeal consumption can boost your serotonin levels, a hormone that contributes to your overall happiness.
Others seek refuge in chewing gum, which, besides freshening a person’s breath and reducing snacking reduces anxiety and depression. A study conducted in 2008 by Dr Andrew Scholey showed that participants who regularly chewed gum demonstrated lower levels of anxiety, increased alertness, reduced stress and improvement with multi-tasking.