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Botany Professor Nox Makunga on health, beauty and healing gardens

The plan is to sip on some  (really good) wine, wear your pretty flower crown (because you are a queen darling), have friends and family over, and live your best life this Garden Day, (20 October). This needs to be a regular thing—not referring to the drinking of wine, of course—because spending time in the garden has several undisputed health advantages.

Professor Nox Makunga is a plant scientist working in the Department of Botany and Zoology, at Stellenbosch University. Her research focuses on medicinal plants in an attempt to uncover new pharmacological activities, and potentially new uses that may lead to commercialised products. The botanist shares the benefits of gardens, how to to start a healing garden, and some health and  skincare tips.

How do gardens benefit us?

Apart from their aesthetic beauty, gardens have many healing properties linked to psycho-spiritual healing. They may provide us with food and medicine, and an inter-connectedness to nature and the world around us, to our very self. Benefits are psychological, social, emotional and physical.  When one works the garden, this can be meditative but also physical labour can provide good exercise that benefits both the cardio and muscular system; and even, works the brain. A medicinal garden in some households is a first line of primary healthcare. 

What do we need to create or design a healing garden?

The idea of designing a space that will be of benefit to the body, mind and spirit is central to the design of a healing garden. A healing garden should be a space that offers an intrinsic biological connection to nature, allow for both the physical and psychological health and well-being. Research has shown that such a space should have an inviting entrance(s) for the visitor or garden keeper and include elements of water (essential for its psychological, spiritual and physical effects)—creative use of colour and lighting to invoke emotion, comfort, and a sense of awe and splendour. The integration of art and other features from nature such as rocks, wood, wind, sound to enhance the mood and atmosphere are important in creating the spirit of the garden.

A healing garden is not necessarily one that is full of medicinal plants but being surrounded by plants in general has healing powers and is excellent for our psyche. A healing garden needs to stimulate all of our senses to invoke full health benefits.

And does this apply to indoor gardens for those in flats and apartments?

YES, absolutely! Being surrounded by greenery indoors helps with anxiety and stress. The colour green provides us with a sense of calm.

Many indoor plants are known to be very effective in purifying the air and conditioning rooms. Having plants indoors can even boost life expectancy, increase attention span, assist with better and deeper sleep and boost creativity.

Skin care and beauty tips using medicinal plants

Many medicinal plants and herbs plus spices have healing properties. There are many others that are used for skin related ailments and one can do topical and also take teas to improve the skin.

A lot of plants (leaves) from the mint family can be placed in a hot tub or basin and use this to steam the face.

Make sure you are not allergic to them first by rubbing a small part of the leaf, and if no reaction takes place then you can use them.

Marula oil: Hydration, soothing reduces redness excellent antioxidant and full of oleic acid, good skin moisture.

Helichrysum oil - and even tea-(imphepho): Has a long traditional use for invoking good energy to the home, but this makes an excellent oil that has strong antiseptic effects. Traditionally it has been used to treat scarring dermatitis and acne and it has anti-ageing effects.

Salvia stenophylla – blue sage: Anti-irritant and contains a chemical known as bisabolol that is included in several skin products.

Pelargonium species: Skin sores and it has antiseptic effects.

Lippia javonica: Great for treating rash.

Buchu – Agathosma species: Was also used as perfume – leaf decoctions can be used in the bath as a mild antiseptic and also can take as a mild diuretic for water retention.

Artemisa afra – wilde als – African wormwood – root, stems and leaves: Used for body washing. The essential oil is a strong antiseptic.

Athrixia – Bush tea is good for blood cleansing, boils and pimples.

Caporbrotus: Can be used as an ointment.

Bulbine: Good for burns, cracked lips, acne. It is used as a traditional medicine, natural Viagra – or aphrodisiac.

Cape wild rosemary: Perfume, excellent anti-allergenic effects, antiseptic properties.

Some other South African orchids are also used for reproductive purposes and also as love charms.

'Next time you’re feeling under the weather, down in the dumps or stressed out, don’t reach for a packet of pills – grab your garden fork instead,' says Professor Nox Makunga.

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