Daniela Silva-Rodríguez Bonazzi

The secrets of the deep restorative approach of Horticultural Therapy

Daniela Silva-Rodríguez Bonazzi has thousands of photos of flowers on her cell phone and a dahlia from Monet’s garden as her wallpaper. At the age of 23, she was managing the World Potato Germplasm Bank in vitro, then created her own company and later left it to become one of the most accomplished embassadors of Horticultural Therapy.

With a degree in Biology and Environmental Sciences and a Master’s Degree in Plant Breeding, the request from a psychologist friend to create the greenhouse of an addiction rehabilitation center inspired her forever: she went to study Horticultural Therapy in the United States and Canada and created pioneer centers of Horticultural Therapy in the Hispanic world.

Daniela will be giving some of the FTHub’s Lectures for Guides and Professionals. She works with institutionalized children, has worked with addicts in rehab, corporate clients, youth and adults. And she still designs public and private gardens.

For decades immersed laboriously and pleasantly among plants and gardens, classrooms and investigation, she defends the rythms and processes of each person, the importance of the knowledge of the Horticultural Therapist to deal with mental and physical health cases, and works towards the medical body to incorporate this therapeutic vision of the person as a whole.

“When I was 8 years old I lost my father from one moment to the next and that was very traumatic. We went to live at my Italian grandmother’s house, who had a very big garden and without knowing it I took refuge in the garden. In retrospect, washing the plants was a way of washing away my sadness. I became the apprentice of my grandmother, who had a secret garden with her special plants and she would give me that little notebook as when she traveled to Italy I was in charge of that garden.

“When I returned to Peru I was responsible, at the age of 23, for the World Bank of Potato Germplasm in vitro, and at the same time I began my Master’s degree in plant breeding, also dedicated to my passion for designing gardens. I have been involved with plants all my life.

“I managed my business for 23 years. In 2010 a psychologist I knew was opening an addiction rehabilitation center and asked me to create a greenhouse. That’s when I discovered Horticultural Therapy as a career path and started training in the USA. I created the Horticultural Therapy program in that rehab center and worked mostly with adolescents. It was a trigger: since 2013 I have been fully dedicated to spreading it: I founded the Peruvian Association of Therapeutic and Social Horticulture and the Institute of Therapeutic and Social Horticulture.”

How Horticultural Therapy operates in the transformation of people

“The case I remember most is that of a young economist hospitalized for chronic depression. The first day he did not make eye contact and responded by raising his shoulders. After 3 weeks, he began to transform: he lifted his face, made eye contact, asked me about plants and came to me very enthusiastic. He became my assistant on my landscaping projects and went to live in Toronto and started a plant company. He is one of my greatest prides”.

“Seeing that transformation was a push to give up a fixed salary and to this day my work is largely pro bono, disseminating Horticultural Therapy in Latin America. My income comes from the trainings in Horticultural Therapy, the program is the most complete in Spanish.

“Although plants are the main tool in Horticultural Therapy, the qualities of the therapist are fundamental: empathy, respecting the time of each human being. I like to start the sessions with aromatherapy. The sense of smell has a direct relationship with the limbic part of the brain and calms. You are sending a very powerful message to the person: you are saying ‘I am here and I respect what you feel and I respect your times, but I want to make you feel good; I don’t know what you have lived through, I am sorry for what you have gone through, but I am here to make you see that there are other things that make you feel good and help you to be better‘.

“There are many people who confuse and think that for Horticultural Therapy it is enough to know about plants, gardening or horticulture and they go out to work and they find themselves with mental health problems. How do you handle them? It is very delicate. In Horticultural Therapy you have a toolbox with a lot of variety, one is the plants, our qualities, therapeutic dynamics that you have to know. The therapist ends up being a very well trained professional if you are well informed about all that”.

The wonderful tools

“We work the physical area, because you can help paraplegic people, even with their limitations because if there is brain trauma the process is very slow. We can work on the cognitive functioning of people with developmental disorders, autism, retardation, Down syndrome, for example, to regulate their emotions and acquire soft skills for life”.

“You can create programs with a social focus, with community gardens that help communities of disadvantaged, at-risk or refugee people to have a sense of belonging and community, and to reduce violence.”

“And also the whole emotional aspect. My main work now is with institutionalized children. Horticultural Therapy has been very helpful for the emotional regulation of the children. Children deprived of liberty have anger, sadness, demanding behaviors, a huge attention deficit, and through Horticultural Therapy we have managed to regulate all of that.

“I think the horticultural therapist’s knowhow is to determine which goals to prioritize and work on with each person and then which gardening activities are going to serve to address that goal, because not all activities can be offered to just anyone.”

Forest Bathing and Horticultural Therapy, macro and micro nature

“Horticultural Therapy has a lot of similarities to Forest Bathing. I usually say that Forest Therapy is the macro experience, the macro therapy, because you are in nature. And Horticultural Therapy is that nature experience taken to the micro. They have in common the sensory stimulation, how I bring it to the micro level.”

The other similarity is to appreciate the silence, the sounds of nature. People often forget that our brains developed in nature so they’re used to, designed to find quiet in nature.

What time of your hectic day do you devote to restoring that attention? That’s what we want to spread at Horticultural Therapy as in Forest Bathing, to teach people to reconnect even if it’s 5 minutes a day.”

“What I’m most interested in is spreading the importance of helping people connect with nature and that especially the medical community recognizes it. They focus on the person’s disease, not on the human being as a whole. It is very important that they value the work of Forest Bathing and Horticultural Therapy because we are allies of health professionals.

“If a doctor had an alliance with a horticultural therapist and his patient receives 15 minutes of Horticultural Therapy before a medical treatment, how different it would be for the person. We have to work hand in hand and make a solid block of people spreading these benefits obviously with scientific evidence. The world is very broken, people are very lonely, there has to be a change, a return to reconnect with nature. I have seen it that way for a long time”.


Photos: courtesy of Daniela Silva-Rodríguez Bonazzi

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