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Do Trees Have the Power to Heal?

Published on June 18th 2020
Worms-eye-view of trees
They clean the air we breathe and the water we drink, they slow the flow of water to reduce flooding, they provide crucial havens for wildlife, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, they provide a multitude of benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing – and now they are even being recognised for their potential to heal. This is the power of the tree.
Particularly during these challenging times, simply seeing a tree can reduce stress, encourage physical activity and aid recovery from illness.
Autumn trees
Earlier this year, The Woodland Trust formed a partnership with the National Gardening Scheme to encourage a wider appreciation of trees within both a wild and domestic garden setting.
Citizen science manager for the Woodland Trust, Dr Kate Lewthwaite says: ‘[Many of our volunteers] recall having severe depression [when they began volunteering] and claim that being in the woods has helped them enormously.’
When asked what the most important thing is that trees can do for us, Kate explains: ‘I couldn’t pick one. It’s like someone asking you to pick your favourite child, you just can’t do it because there are [so many benefits].’
Blossom tree, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
Research conducted by the University of Michigan showed an immediate improvement in memory and mood among people with depression walking in the woods. Meanwhile, a Chinese study noted markedly lower blood pressure in elderly people after a week of forest bathing – the Japanese practice otherwise known as shinrin-yoku. Their blood pressure fell by six per cent while the same participants saw no reduction in blood pressure following city walks.
Further, evidence confirms there is an anti-inflammatory fat in a soil-dwelling bacterium – Mycobacterium vaccae – which is thought to act as a natural antidepressant to humans through contact, for instance, via gardening or by hugging trees.
Large tree, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
Not only do trees have the power to provide physical benefits, but also the ability to do the following:
  • Improve air quality – trees, woodland and other green infrastructure absorb harmful pollutants known to exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma.
  • Assist flood management – rainfall is intercepted by the canopy of a tree and later evaporates from the leaves meaning less water reaches the ground.
  • Reduce stress – having a view of tees and green surroundings can reduce anxiety levels and also physical signs of stress including muscle tension and pulse rate.
  • Alleviate depression – nature-based activities can help to decrease levels of anxiety and depression in people who have poor mental health.
  • Aid recovery – hospital patients with a view of greenery have been shown to recover more rapidly than those with only a view of buildings.
  • Cool cities – trees can lower summer daytime temperatures through shading which can help to prevent heat related illnesses and deaths.
  • Encourage physical activity – people who use parks and other green spaces are three times more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical exercise than nonusers due to the space they provide.
Trees, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
Kate agrees that trees can help you to recover from illness more quickly.
‘I ended up in hospital for a week,’ she says, ‘I was on the top floor and I had an amazing view of some woods and parkland. When things were difficult or there was an unpleasant procedure happening to me, I could just look out and see them.’
It’s the same principle for people working from home, she claims.
‘If you’ve got a green view out of your window, it’s calming. [It’s similar to] when you look in a fire and see the random movements of the flickering flames; I believe the way the leaves move in the breeze is very calming to your brain.’
When I look away from my busy inbox and see trees that have probably existed for over 50 years, it also provides a longer-term perspective, she adds.
Tree, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
Kate hopes that lockdown will provide people with the opportunity to appreciate local trees.
‘We [usually] hop in the car and drive to a national park, but we tend to ignore the trees on our street that are there day in, day out cooling the environment, soaking up pollutants and providing habitats for urban wildlife, perhaps, because they aren’t the biggest or they don’t look the best, but actually they are doing an amazing service both for us and the environment.
‘[It’s about] appreciating what you’ve got locally and suspending your judgement; we’ve got quite an idealised idea of beauty and that’s why we drive to the Lake District, for example, but actually you’ve probably got some beautiful trees on your street. In our busy lives, we so rarely get a chance to stop and appreciate what we’ve got. For those of us that have gardens or street trees or local green spaces, it’s time to learn to love them again.’
Trees in a garden, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
The Committee on Climate Change has stated that 1.5 billion trees need to be planted in the UK by 2050 to tackle the climate crisis.
Visit the Woodland Trust website to buy a tree and for advice on tree planting. You can also dedicate an individual tree or an area of woodland.
Trees, NGS
Image credit: National Garden Scheme.
The information in this article should not be substituted for medical advice. If you are concerned about your health, please consult a health professional.

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