A big Mylar balloon with a happy face might perk up a hospital room, but if you really want your loved ones to get well quicker, give them plants.

Fascinating research shows that plants in hospital rooms not only look nice, but also help patients heal more rapidly.

During recent training for the state’s Master Gardeners, North Dakota State University Extension Horticulturist Esther McGinnis shared research published in 2009 by the American Society for Horticultural Science in their journal, HortScience. The carefully controlled research study was conducted by S.H. Park and R.H. Mattson to see if plants had an effect on hospital patients.

During the study, surgery patients were evaluated to determine the influence of plants and flowers within their hospital rooms. Eighty female patients recovering from thyroid surgery were randomly assigned to hospital rooms, with half of the rooms containing plants, and half without. Data was collected for each patient, including length of hospitalization, use of pain relievers, vital signs and ratings of pain intensity, pain distress, anxiety, fatigue and satisfaction level.

Patients in the hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly shorter hospital stays, required less pain medication, had lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and had more positive feelings and higher satisfaction about their hospital rooms when compared with patients in the control group, who had no plants in their rooms.

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The hospital rooms with plants contained a combination of 12 plants, including peace lily, golden pothos, palm, arrowhead vine, fern, variegated vinca, Phalaenopsis orchid and yellow star jasmine. The combination of plants used in each room was identical. Patients were not told of the study objectives or how to interact with the plants. The control rooms contained no plants.

Carefully recorded data provided evidence that patients who viewed plants had significantly shorter hospitalizations than those of patients without plants. Use of pain medication was markedly different for the plant group compared with the non-plant control, with patients exposed to plants requiring less frequent and weaker pain medication than the control group. Intensity of pain was significantly lower for patients exposed to plants compared with no plants by the third day after surgery. Fatigue and anxiety were also lower for the plant group during the recovery periods.

Patients in rooms containing plants also voiced a more positive impression of the hospital staff from whom they were receiving care. Patients reported their rooms had a pleasant smell and were more satisfying, relaxing, comfortable, colorful, happy, calming and attractive, compared with patients in the non-plant rooms. When asked, the majority of patients in the plant group indicated that plants were the most positive qualities of their rooms, while patients in the control group reported watching television as the most favorable aspect of their rooms.

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Reporting on the research’s findings, HortScience suggested, “Colorful fresh cut flowers and blooming or green plants could be a complementary medicine for patients. Indoor plants can provide a great opportunity for patients to experience nature in all seasons when outdoor scenery could not provide this benefit. Furthermore, plants provide meaningful therapeutic contact, especially for patients spending much of their time indoors while recovering from painful surgery.”

This research study, which was replicated again with similar results on different patients recovering from abdominal surgery, correlates with a famous study published in 1984 in the journal Science by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich. Ulrich used strict experimental controls and measurable health outcomes to demonstrate that gazing at a garden from a patient’s hospital room can speed healing from surgery, infections and other ailments.

Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees with a nicely landscaped view healed faster, needed less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who instead viewed a brick wall out their window.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.