Plants are Good for the Soul Including for those Living with Dementia

As I was leaving for a bike ride I passed my wife, out for her morning walk; "I think it was a successful resuscitation!" She asked who I was talking about and I answered, "The three foxgloves", beautiful purple flowered plants I had planted days earlier that were wilting in the terrible summer heat. I "diagnosed" severe dehydration and therefore I provided large doses of water so that overnight the leaves filled out and the tall stem holding the gorgeous flowers were almost upright. It seemed to be a miraculous feat of plant care for someone who having been brought up in Brooklyn knew close to nothing about flowers or plants. Betty Smith's famous 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, had little impact on my botanical knowledge or skill.

My wife had a good laugh and I biked away recalling my fond association with the foxglove that was important to me because of my medical studies in Scotland in the 1960s. During medical school what is now digoxin, a medication used for various forms of heart disease was provided as a biological preparation known as digitalis leaf, which meant its purity could not be as exactly determined compared to the more contemporary purified digoxin product. I was on an outing with classmates to the west of Scotland which culminated in a difficult uphill hike on the foothills of Ben Nevis part of the western Scottish mountains. As I stopped to catch my breath, Andrew Johnson, one of my more playful classmates, kneeled over me with a flowering plant in his hand and said laughingly in his Yorkshire accent, "here Michael, take a nibble of this, it will strengthen your heart," while waving a foxglove in front of me. I had never seen the plant but from then on, its appearance and medical importance was imprinted in my brain.

Digitalis was introduced into medical practice by William Withering (1741-1799) a great English medical botanist. Born in Wellington, Shropshire, England, he attended Edinburgh Medical School from 1762 to 1766. In 1776, he published, The botanical arrangement of all the vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain, an early and influential compendium of British Flora. The foxglove plant, digitalis purpurea, had been known for centuries as a folk remedy for the treatment of dropsy, or congestive heart failure, and other conditions. Withering in 1785 published his classic work, An account of the foxglove, and some of its medical uses: with practical remarks on dropsy, and other diseases. His observations changed the course of medicine and although digitalis is presently used less in current medical practice, I had frequently used it previously and observed its often dramatically life-saving effects.

My personal foray into gardening has occurred late in life but I have witnessed professionally the important therapeutic impact that raising plants can have on elderly individuals including those with cognitive impairment and cancer. There is a growing body of knowledge, studies and observations about the beneficial effect that plant care and gardening can have on those living with dementia. On a March 7, 2008 the website Caring Today ( provided some interesting insights as to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and the care of plants by individuals living with dementia. "Gardening requires certain steps or sequences," says David B. Carr, MD, a geriatrician at Washington University in St. Louis. "Lots of patients, especially those with Alzheimer's or dementia, need guidance or mentoring because they can't go through all the steps alone, but they can do some of them."

Carr describes one of his male patients whose wife was the brains of


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