Town Hill Hospital uses sensory garden for therapy

2011-12-07 00:00

THE healing powers of smell and touch are being harnessed at Town Hill Hospital where a sensory garden provides relief for both staff and patients­.

The hospital was built in the late 1870s and opened in 1880. At the beginning of the 20th century it was almost a self-sufficient community with vegetable gardens, a piggery and a quarry and permanent residences for many of the staff, gardeners and workers. The first medical superintendent, Dr James Hyslop, planted the trees, many of which still remain, and must be up to 100 years old. There are groves of bamboo, yellowwood, cycads, enormous azaleas and avenues lined with jacaranda and London planes in the grounds, which give it the atmosphere of an English country estate with a dash of decaying colonial splendour.

In 2009 staff decided to design and plant a sensory garden in a spare patch of ground outside Peacehaven ward, which houses long-term female patients and some younger patients who are awaiting placement in the community.

Sensory or therapeutic gardens are used to provide a healing and nutritional environment for both patients, staff and visitors. The garden consists of exotic and indigenous shrubs and herbs that are visually pleasing as well as stimulating to smell, touch and taste.

They provide a relaxing atmosphere as well as a therapy in the form of gardening, watering, and empowerment for patients. Obviously poisonous­ or toxic­ plants are avoided as well as shrubs with thorns.

Shrubs and plants are collected from local nurseries and the hospital had an opening ceremony where shrubs were planted by individual patients. A bird bath and bird feeder was also put in. The garden is maintained by patients and a sense of ownership is encouraged by keeping the bird bath full, feeding the birds and watering the plants.

Shrubs have been selected that are fragrant or which have medicinal or therapeutic properties and some for attracting butterflies and birds.

The indigenous medicinal shrubs include African Wormwood (arte- misia­ afra) which is a popular local shrub and is known in Zulu as mhlonyane­ and recognised for its use for coughs and colds and drunk as a tea or used as an inhalation.

At the entrance of the garden is a wild African sage (orthosiphon labiatus), which comes out in profuse pink long-stemmed flowers in the summer. The crushed leaves have a rich herby smell. Behind this is a Sacred basil plant known to Indian people as tulsi. This has pungent aromatic leaves that smell like Vicks rubbing ointment.

On the other side of the garden is a young South African jasmine (jasminum angulare) which is indigenous to KwaZulu-Natal and has an exquisite fragrance throughout the summer. At the side is a small tree with pungent aromatic leaves. In Afrikaans it is called perdepisboom, but it has the more elegant name of Horsewood (clausena anisata) in English. It is a natural habitat for the Swallowtail butterfly.

There is also the Natal ginger bush, which was donated by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s botany de- partment­ and is known in Zulu as iboza­.

This shrub is also known as the misty plume bush and is one of the few shrubs that flower during the winter months. The aromatic leaves are crushed and the scent is inhaled for the treatment of chest complaints and headaches.

The shrub that was planted to attract birds is called Lion’s Tail (leonotis­ leonurus) and which, in Zulu­, goes by the appropriate name of utshwala bezinyoni, which translated means “the beer of the birds”.

A Buddleia bush at the back attracts the butterflies and a lemon verbena­ produces fragrant leaves that can be used in summer drinks. The signs and labels for the plants and bushes are made by the patients in the occupational therapy unit, which is very active at Town Hill.

It is interesting to see the eyes of patients and staff light up when they recognise the different smell of the herbs from the crushed leaves.

This is known as “bright eyes” therapy­, which­ is used by occupational health workers to aid in connecting with patients with intermediate and advanced dementia.

It is a sort of Proustian nostalgic journey, au recherche du temps perdu­.

The sensory pathways of taste and smell are still not completely understood. There appears to be some cross-over as the sensations that we consider to be taste can actually be conveyed by smell and vice versa.

Smell is also tied up (via the limbic system­) with memory and hence the nostalgia induced by certain smells.

Emotion is also enmeshed with this system so events, places or people, who are emotionally significant, are likely to be remembered. These are ancient primeval pathways which began to evolve in us over 400 million years (the human species does not seem to be in a hurry over these matters­).

Patients may also use the herbs from the culinary section, such as parsley, basil, mint and thyme, as additions­ to their normal diets.

There are plans to map out trails so that patients­ and staff can visit from the other wards as part of therapeutic exercises­.

This is all part of a strategy to create a healing natural environment to aid in the recovery of our patients.


• Chris Ellis is a family physician in Pietermaritzburg and part-time principal medical officer at Town Hill Hospital.


• This article was originally published in the South African Medical Journal, 2011.

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