Botanical Gardens Contribute to Visitors’ Well-Being

Research by Katherine E. Soule, PhD, University of California, Christopher L. Wassenberg, MS, California Polytechnic State University, Marni Goldenberg, PhD, California Polytechnic State University

Kniphofia ‘Orange Flame’ and Athanasia acerosa with Cerro San Luis in the distance.  Photo: Kim Snyder

Kniphofia ‘Orange Flame’ and Athanasia acerosa with Cerro San Luis in the distance. Photo: Kim Snyder

During the summer of 2011, researchers from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, conducted a study at the Leaning Pine Arboretum to look at the effects of botanical garden visits on participants. Following a guided interview script, researchers asked study participants to connect meaningful components of their garden visit with their feelings after the visit and to identify values important to them.

A qualitative research method called Means-End Theory was used in this study. This theory was developed by economists to understand how people create meaning through their uses of products, services, and experiences. Eighty-three visitors—mostly white (86%), ranging in age from 18 to 78, and evenly split by gender (42 females and 41 males)—agreed to participate in recorded interviews.

Researchers then analyzed transcribed interview data to determine which attributes of the garden and garden visit led visitors to obtain their desired values. Analysis revealed that, collectively, the garden visitors mentioned nine attributes that were particularly meaningful to their garden visits. In order of importance, these attributes were: plants, the overall experience, activities (e.g., walking, jogging, touring), individual garden spaces, garden management, the physical environment (e.g., temperature, wind, lighting, shade), the location of the garden, wildlife in the garden, and being with family and friends.

Visitors at Leaning Pine Arboretum learn about geophytes in mediterranean climates. Photo: Kim Snyder

Visitors at Leaning Pine Arboretum learn about geophytes in mediterranean climates. Photo: Kim Snyder

These attributes allowed visitors to experience a variety of consequences and outcomes. For example, analysis revealed that visitors developed new perspectives through their garden visits. Other examples included experiencing stress relief, having fun, feeling a sense of escape, developing an increased self-awareness, fostering a sense of place, and cultivating warm relationships with others.

Overall, this research highlights how visiting botanical gardens can help visitors improve their mental well-being. In fact, the benefits of relaxation as well as mentally and emotionally restorative activities were of equal importance to the visitors as horticultural learning. In many cases, learning and mental well being were often an intertwined experience that prompted visitors to express positive outcomes as a result of their visit.

Although the findings from this study are population specific, this research supports results from past research that revealed that botanical gardens help visitors cope with stress. For garden managers who want to enhance the environment for visitor’s mental well being, study results reveal clear connections between specific garden attributes and positive outcomes. A healthy, diverse collection of plants and a rich overall experience has a positive effect on visitors. Intimate garden spaces within a larger botanical garden enable visitors to withdraw from crowds, work, stress, and technology. At the same time, large garden spaces provide a place for friends and family to gather and enjoy a meaningful experience. Accessible paths with smooth surfaces enhance opportunities for physical activity that promote health and well-being. In particular, opportunities to view wildlife were connected to visitors’ sense of enjoyment, as well as stress relief and relaxation.

Finally, a garden’s location enhances positive outcomes. Leaning Pine Arboretum provides faculty, staff, and students a place to retreat from the fast-paced academic environment into a more natural setting, which leads to reduced stress and, ultimately, an improved quality of life.