Gardening Health Benefits & Turk’s Cap

Turk's cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

An article by Emily Main about the physical and mental benefits of gardening was recently brought to my attention. Main’s article may be found at, the organic gardening website.
Four “surprising benefits” of gardening are highlighted.
First and foremost, it is apparent that gardeners demonstrate a palpably optimistic attitude and joie de vivre, especially when compared to people who don’t work in the garden. In a study conducted by the University of Texas, gardeners proved to be more optimistic and more enthusiastic about living than non-gardeners. Main mentions that the use of antidepressants among people over 65 has tripled over the past 30 years. She suggests gardening as an alternative to Prozac.
A second gardening benefit mentioned by Main is the comparative lack of osteoporosis among gardeners compared to people whose exercise is confined to swimming, jogging or aerobics.
Gardening involves schlepping, to use a Yiddish term , which is good for your bones. Digging holes and pulling weeds are similarly good for your muscles and bones. Gardening activities, taken as a whole, are comparable to a weight-training regimen, which is considered the optimal form of exercise for staving off osteoporosis.
Lowering your risk for developing diabetes, or managing diabetes if you have it, is a third gardening benefit. Weekly exercise of 150 minutes is recommended for diabetics and non-diabetics alike, and taking care of a garden should easily involve that much time. If you raise vegetables as part of your gardening routine, this will also be beneficial since consumption of fresh vegetables is recommended in managing diabetes.
Sleeping better is a fourth benefit of gardening. Those suffering from anxiety or stress, as well as dementia patients, are likely to be less agitated as a result of regular gardening activities, leading to more regular, and better, sleep.
Further mental health benefits of gardening are demonstrated daily at Desert Survivors, a unique nursery in Tucson, Ariz.
As described by Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, the name Desert Survivors has a double meaning. First, the nursery is home to
400 species of plants native to the Sonoran Desert. Second, it is a source of employment and activity for people facing a variety of mental health issues.
An example would be someone diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. The therapeutic approach in such a case is not to identify the individual as a bipolar person but as a person who happens to be bipolar. Through working in the nursery, a person can learn to identify as someone who plants, prunes or propagates, rather than identifying as someone with a certain disease or diagnosis, Blazek writes.
I would add that the nursery and the garden are unique in offering a variety of ways for experiencing recognition and a sense of accomplishment.
Only in the garden are you a partner in creation, especially when you plant seeds and see them slowly turn into flowering plants. Then there is the steady observation of plants as they go through their life cycle and the attendant chores of watering, fertilizing and pruning that accompany the various stages and seasons in a plant’s annual growth. Developing a routine is essential to mental health so why not develop your routine around the maintenance of plants and gardens?
Blazek’s article may be found at and you can learn more about the expanding field of horticultural therapy by visiting the American Horticultural Therapy Association’s website at
One of the plants grown at Desert Survivors nursery is Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii). Turk’s cap is remarkable for several reasons.
Flowers seem ready to open but never do. Actually, when fully open they just appear half open, resembling a Turk’s cap or fez. Turk’s cap has the flimsiest leaves of any desert plant. Most desert plants have succulent, leathery or needlelike leaves or, if leafy, have a grayish or dull green color. Turk’s cap has thin, bright green foliage. Yet even in the hottest weather, it will never require more than two or three soakings per month.
It is also considered by bird watchers to be more attractive to hummingbirds than any other plant.
Malvaviscus means viscous (sticky) malva and refers to the mucilaginous sap of this plant, a trait it shares with many other members of the malva or mallow family.
Examples: Okra is a member of the mallow family and is quite a sticky vegetable, and marsh mallow , a kind of mallow that grows in marshes, produces sticky sweet sap. And yes, that confection called marshmallow, although made of artificial chemical ingredients today, takes its name and its flavor from that of the actual marsh mallow plant. In Roman times, this plant, and especially its roots, were considered a special treat.
If you detach a Turk’s cap flower and suck from the bottom, you will enjoy a sugary refreshment that is the reason hummingbirds are always humming about it. It grows best in partial shade and is tolerant of heavy or poorly drained soil.
meaning lugging loads, as in moving wheelbarrows full of compost or dirt (Althaea officinalis) A mom to many
Mother-of-thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) grows into a 2- to 3-foot candelabra laden with ready-to-go plantlets all along its stems.
The plantlets fall off and grow into new “mothers” themselves or, if you wish, you can plant the little ones anywhere and everywhere, creating a veritable forest of them.
Mother-of-thousands is a succulent and extremely modest in terms of water and fertilizer requirements.
Tip of the week
Euphorbia graminea ‘Diamond Frost’ is a long-blooming annual that can handle almost any garden or flower pot environment, from sun to shade, from regularly soaking to barely being watered. It blooms nonstop from spring until fall with uninterrupted clouds of white. No deadheading is necessary to keep it flowering. Fertilizer is an afterthought. To my knowledge, no one has every regretted planting ‘Diamond Frost.’

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