Enjoy the great outdoors – from the inside

James Wong
Photograph: Stefano Cavoretto/Alamy

As a botanist, I am fascinated by the growing body of scientific evidence of the powerful and positive impact that simply being around plants can have on mental and physical health. From reducing healing times in hospitals to helping control pain and anxiety, spending time in nature can constitute an important therapeutic tool for many people, especially in the current situation.

However, amid continuing lockdown, for many of us escaping on a forest walk or to a country park is difficult to achieve. For city flat dwellers like me, getting time with nature can be even tougher, just when we need it the most. So here are three simple ways in which anyone can benefit from the great outdoors, without needing to leave your front door.

Purple reign: lavender will thrive almost anywhere. Photograph: Aleksandr Volkov/Alamy

The interesting thing about the research linking green space with positive health outcomes is that it shows you don’t even need to be physically out in nature for this to work. One of the earliest studies, for example, looked at the recovery rates of patients undergoing gall bladder surgery in hospital. It compared those who were in beds with a green view from their window with those who looked out on to a brick wall. By all measures, the “green view” group faired considerably better, with benefits including a reduction in signs of mental distress by as much as 80%.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to do this is with window boxes. They can be either inside the window with a trough of low-maintenance cacti and succulents, or outside on the ledge with some cheerful bedding plants.

According to the evidence gathered so far, the benefits of being in nature are probably the result of several factors, including not just visual stimuli but other senses, too, such as smell and taste. We know, for instance, that many plant scents, such as lavender, have been repeatedly demonstrated to have a positive impact on health, reducing both subjectively reported feelings, such as anxiety, and objectively measured ones, like heart rate. Lavender also happens to be one of the balcony and patio plants that is the easiest to grow and maintain. Its Mediterranean origins mean it can handle baking sun and drought stress.

Indoors, you could go for an option like gardenia, whose scent compounds have been shown in some of the early research to have a similar effect to Valium. While much more research needs to be done, I challenge anyone to have a gardenia on their bedside table and tell me they don’t derive pleasure from drifting off to its scent.

Finally, let’s talk edibles. With fancy citrus houseplants, you get the best of all worlds – beautiful, glossy leaves all year round, powerfully scented flowers and tasty fruit. With Italian bergamot or Japanese yuzu, even if they only give you five pieces of fruit a year, that’s 25 fancy margaritas from fruit which is rarely available in the shops. And all this from plants that are as easy to grow as a common lemon or orange.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek