Plant Therapy: What Is It, And What Are The Benefits?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 25, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

For thousands of years, plants have been used worldwide in numerous ways for their healing properties. Studies into the physical benefits of plants have shown that herbal remedies are more effective than placebos when treating physical illnesses like inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. Plant-based natural products have also been studied for use in cancer therapy because of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

As plants can heal the body naturally and may involve fewer side effects than other possible treatment options, many providers also use them for mental health treatment. There are many ways that people can use the power of plants to ease symptoms of mental illness, including anxiety and depression. Plant therapy can be used as a natural alternative to other treatments in minor cases or complement other treatments. Used as a coping mechanism, plant therapy can also assist with long-term success, recovery, and well-being for many clients. 

Gain insight into the benefits of plants as therapy

Different types of plant therapy

There are many ways that plants can be used therapeutically to improve your mental health. The proper method for you can depend on your interests, personality, and treatment goals. Some of the primary ways that plants can be used to boost your mood or address symptoms of concerns like anxiety and depression may include the following: 

  • Essential oils
  • Gardening or taking care of plants
  • Spending time in nature
  • Eating a healthy diet of plant-based foods
  • Volunteering for a nursery or greenhouse
  • Visiting a curated therapeutic garden 

These strategies can be used individually or in combination with other forms of therapy as part of a healthy lifestyle. You can take them up on your own or do more research and seek guidance for maximum benefit. For example, you can start a garden or participate in a horticultural therapy program for additional guidance. 

Essential oils

Aromatherapy is a coping mechanism often used to improve mood, mental health, or mental state. Many individuals use essential oils for this practice, made from natural elements like plants, leaves, stems, seeds, or extractions. Essential oils are an alternative treatment option and may not work for everyone. In addition, these oils are not a replacement for medicine, therapy, or advice from a licensed medical professional like a psychiatrist. Although they may be helpful in addition to treatment or as a temporary coping mechanism, essential oils do not "cure" mental illness. 

Note that essential oils contain plant elements, so you may have an allergic reaction. If you experience symptoms of allergies while using an oil, stop use and talk to a medical professional. 

Essential oils that may be recommended for symptoms of depression can include the following: 

  • Jasmine
  • Sandalwood
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium

Essential oils that may be recommended for treating symptoms of anxiety include the following: 

  • Rose
  • Vetiver
  • Frankincense
  • Bergamot
  • Lavender

Essential oils can be used on their own or blended and used in different combinations for different purposes. They can also be used in many formats. For example, you can diffuse essential oils, use them in a bath, or apply them topically with a roll-on or during a message.

A few pilot studies have shown the effects of aromatherapy on mental health. One study by Conrad, P. and Adams, C. (2012) suggested "positive findings with minimal risk for using aromatherapy as a complementary therapy in both anxiety and depression scales with post-partum women." Another pilot study on aromatherapy massage by Edge, J. (2003) showcased improvements in mood, anxiety scores, and relaxation in six out of eight participants. Future studies may be needed to understand the impact of these oils fully. 

Do your research when using any natural product. Certain oils aren't safe for pets or during pregnancy, for example. If you're working with pure oils, you may be required to dilute them to avoid irritating your skin or experiencing unwanted side effects. If you buy pre-made aromatherapy products, avoid those with artificial scents. 

Gardening or taking care of plants

Gardening is a form of plant therapy sometimes used in inpatient mental health centers, rehabilitation, or nursing homes. This plant therapy can complement talk therapy and possibly other treatment options, boosting mental health outcomes.

The Horticultural Therapy Institute notes some of the best types of plants to use in therapeutic gardens (according to students and alums), including the following: 

  • Fragrant Plants: Rose, gardenia, lilac, lemon balm, pine
  • Edible Plants: Fruits, vegetables, herbs
  • Seasonal Annuals: Pansies, tulips, hyacinth

Like with essential oils, research the safety and toxicity of plants you are using, especially if you have pets or plan to consume any plants. Some plants are toxic to cats and dogs, so be wary of keeping those plants away from your pets. 

At its root, gardening can be a relaxing and rhythmic activity that can distract individuals from mental health challenges, allowing them to work toward a goal with visible progress and care for a living plant. Working in nature can release "happy chemicals" in the brain and make you feel more present. Some other benefits of gardening include improved self-esteem and a sense of nurturing and responsibility. Gardening could also foster a connection to the earth and the world around you. 

Many forms of plant therapy include gardening centers and therapeutic gardens. A therapist may accompany clients to this type of treatment, talking to them as they garden or teaching them new gardening techniques. 

Spending time in nature

Staying in the house all the time or spending most of your time indoors or in a city can be challenging. Many studies and resources show that being in nature benefits mental health. Artificial lighting and manufactured settings can adversely impact an individual's physical and psychological health. Spending time in nature can allow you to take a break from these settings and connect with yourself and the world around you. 

If gardening doesn't sound therapeutic, you might enjoy time in nature. According to a study by Barton and Pretty (2010), green exercise (activity in the presence of nature) benefits mood and self-esteem, even in short durations. Evidence suggests that those effects are enhanced when this physical activity occurs near water.

Next time you're feeling down or anxious, try one of the following activities for up to 30 minutes, and see how you feel afterward: 

  • Head to the nearest park or nature path and walk, hike, or bike
  • Do yoga or exercise outside at the beach or by a river or another body of water
  • Find a peaceful place outside in nature to lie down or sit on the grass
  • Sit on a bench in a park and read a book
  • Swim in a pond, lake, or river
  • Go kayaking, water-boarding, tubing, or boating on a body of water near you 
  • Hike up a hill or mountain 
  • Drive into the forest and look at the trees
  • Do art in the forest 

If you love nature and are open to more prolonged exposure, grab some friends or family and go on a weekend camping trip. Spending time in nature regularly can help you feel calmer and more connected, put you in a better mood, and help you feel energized for the day ahead.

Healthy eating and diet

Studies show that a healthy diet can also impact mental health. Many individuals benefit from plants by eating them, which are healthy for your body. Paying attention to your diet and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can positively impact your mood and energy.

A study by Jacka, F.N., et al. (2011) found that those with quality diets were less likely to experience depression. In contrast, a higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods was associated with increased anxiety. Similarly, people on plant-based diets may experience fewer symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances. Although you don't have to be a vegetarian or vegan to achieve positive effects from a plant-based diet, many people also choose this option. 

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Gain insight into the benefits of plants as therapy

Counseling options 

When many individuals think of plant therapy, they might consider essential oils as the only option. However, there are several ways that plants can be used therapeutically to improve mental well-being, including horticulture therapy, spending time in nature, and eating healthy plants like vegetables. Many therapists use studies about plants to aid in their clients' treatment plans, and some use methods like gardening sessions to assist individuals. 

Although you can use plants in conjunction with treatment, if you're experiencing mental illness or serious concerns, you might also benefit from therapy with a licensed professional. If you're having trouble finding a therapist, online services like Regain for couples and BetterHelp for individuals can offer an alternative to costly in-person counseling. 

You can match with a therapist unique to your preferences through an online platform, which you may set when you first sign up. Your therapist may also be able to point you toward any plant-based coping mechanisms you're interested in trying in your area. One study found that those experiencing bipolar disorder found online therapy 95% effective in reducing symptom severity. Many sources showcase that internet-based counseling is as effective as in-person methods. 


Alongside therapy, plant therapy can help clients address symptoms and self-soothe. If you're experiencing stress or looking for a coping mechanism involving nature, consider essential oils, gardening, or spending time in a natural setting to relax and connect with your surroundings. You can also contact a therapist for further guidance on this topic. 

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