A visit to the plant souk at Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed, particularly in the depths of summer, can be like a breath of fresh air — believe or not. Sure, you have to shimmy through narrow alleys lined with giant bags of soil and assorted greenery. You have to step around watering hoses, navigate a street cat or two and even a mechanical butterfly. But at the end you are likely to come away with a living, breathing green companion who is going to make your life better in more ways than you might have thought.
Most of us are aware of the air purifying properties of plants. According to a NASA study conducted in 1989, when houseplants were added to a space, they reduced the level of volatile organic compounds, including benzene and other carcinogens. But have you considered what they might be doing for your mind?
Becoming a plant parent
LaToya Maria Jones, 33, from Virginia in the US is a cabin supervisor for Emirates airline and a yoga teacher. She says she started acquiring plants when she was at university, and later, when she moved to Dubai in 2007, as a way to connect with her green-fingered father who, despite developing dementia in the later years of his life, never lost his love of plants. As a result, she shares her one-bedroom apartment in Al Barsha South with 30 plants. They are spread out across her home. There’s a peace lily, lucky bamboo and a miniature palm in her bedroom. The balcony, living room and even dining table are populated with aloe vera, eucalyptus, monsteras, snake plants, succulents and many more plants.
The plants are important in making her home a place of comfort, and each morning after meditating, she spends time with her many leafy companions, spritzing them with water or wiping their leaves so they stay healthy.
“It’s important to me because it is part of my ritual and it is part of connecting with myself,” she says. “If I’ve had some bad news or just had a hard day, the first thing I do is seek out one of my plants. I do believe that gardening and tending to plants is a form of therapy, allowing you to be focused and present.”
Jessie Manoj is a mother-of-three and a resident of Dubai who has lived in the Gardens community in Jebel Ali for nearly 12 years. Aptly named, the community is surrounded by trees and landscaped green spaces. Manoj, who comes from the south Indian state of Kerala, famous for its lush setting, decided she wanted to bring greenery to her balcony. At times, she has bought more than a dozen plants and likens caring for them to caring for a child.
“Taking care of my plants makes me very happy,” she says. “I like to see them bloom and the variety of colors.”
For many people, plants are an important part of their personal ecosystem. Walking down the plant isles of an Ikea, at the stalls at Mina Zayed in Abu Dhabi or the Dubai Garden Center promotes a palpable sense of calm – one that is backed up by science.
How green beats the blues
Studies have shown that spending time in green environments is good for your mental health. A 2010 study looked at the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. The test participants were found to have lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure and more relaxed muscle and nerve activity than those in city environments.
According to Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of Lighthouse Arabia, “having plants in your home space not only beautifies your environment but can also reduce symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, tension, anger and hostility.”
Indoor plants serve as a reminder of how it feels to be outdoors, among nature, with the added benefits of being natural air purifiers as the extra oxygen plants emit is associated with better physical and mental health. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied found that adding a pop of color to your home or workspace with a plant might even boost creativity, mood and productivity.
Gardening is also a great way to relax and shift focus away from a busy day of work, reducing a sense of acute stress and boosting overall mental health.
“Tending to plants also reduces blood pressure, lowers the heart rate, fatigue and other signs of physical stress,” Dr Afridi adds. “What’s happening is that when you engage with the elements – soil, water, plants, flowers – you are literally able to get more grounded.”
There are people who are reluctant to have plants for fear of killing them. Jones, who struggled to keep an orchid alive during her years at university, says she has learned a lot about caring for her assortment. She has found that each plant has its own personality, with some needing more care and time than others.
Her jasmine, for example, needs more attention than her snake plant, which is tough and resilient.
Knowing that life is transient in the UAE, she is already thinking about what will happen to her plants when she decides to move on.
“I am always on the lookout for other plant parents,” she says. “I already have a list of five people I know.”
The process of learning how to care for plants and maintain them provides a real opportunity to establish routine in a chaotic schedule – another mental health bonus.
“Having a sense of discipline and rhythm to each day is a very grounding experience for a person,” says Dr Afridi. And when you are nurturing something, you feel productive, important and valued, she adds.
Plants can also help new UAE residents adjust to life in a desert.
“When we first bring back a seedling, I’m excited to see how it will look when it blooms,” says Manoj. “The most memorable moment for me was when I was able to grow a tomato on our balcony after taking care of it for two to three months.”
For Jones, a plant menagerie not only helps her breathe better, it also provides a colorful backdrop for the yoga videos she posts on Instagram. And for the first time in her life, she says they have made her apartment feel like home.
Neha John is a rising senior studying literature and creative writing at New York University Abu Dhabi. She loves art, books, traveling and writing stories about her life in the UAE.