Early March was a busy time for Perelman School of Medicine students and horticultural hobbyists Kevin Zhang and Sarah Santucci as they eagerly prepped for the Philadelphia Flower Show. Though this wasn’t the first time the couple had participated in the nation’s largest flower show, they looked forward to the day they could finally enter their plants into the competition after months of meticulously grooming their flytraps and orchids. Walking into the decorated space of colorful floral arrangements and elaborate garden displays, Zhang and Santucci submitted their houseplants for judging, with Zhang eventually earning 45 ribbons for his 18 entries and Santucci earning a second-place prize in the orchid categories. With the popularity of the show drawing in hundreds of thousands of people to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Zhang and Santucci wrapped up their day early to avoid the crowds. They did not know that they would be avoiding crowds only weeks later for a whole different reason.
Now, as Zhang and Santucci are among millions across the country staying at home to slow the spread of COVID-19, they have found that their hobby of tending plants has brought a sense of calmness and distraction from the stress of the pandemic. And they are not alone in finding solace in plant care.
The stay-at-home order can be challenging for many people as they try to adjust to a new schedule of working from home and avoiding physical contact with colleagues, family members, and friends. This disruption in the day, and lack of contact with the outside world, can also impact one’s mental health. “Each person has their own unique reaction in a time of uncertainty,” said Rinad S. Beidas, PhD, an associate professor of Psychiatry, Medical Ethics & Health Policy, and Medicine, and founding director of the Penn Implementation Science Center at the Leonard Davis Institute. “Stress, anxiety, and irritability are normal reactions to how different life was only weeks ago, and there are different ways of coping.” Penn Medicine is even offering a variety of tools that provide resources and access to support to help faculty, staff, and students cope with the pandemic.
The heightened potential for stress has not stopped Zhang and Santucci from continuing their favorite hobby, and in fact, Beidas encourages everyone to try new hobbies as it can maintain a sense of routine in this new way of living. “A sense of routine is so important to your psychological well-being,” Beidas said. “It’s easy to forget of the importance of routine when working from home. There’s no clear sense of a start or end time to the day, but making a schedule allows you to know what to expect and keeps you centered.”
For Zhang and Santucci, as for many others, the daily routine changed rapidly by mid-March. After the flower show ended, Zhang, a fourth-year student in the MD-PhD program, continued with his studies in his macular degeneration lab, while Santucci, a third-year medical student, had just finished her first board exam, looking forward to starting an elective rotation in infectious diseases. After her exam, she learned that all students were to be sent home as a precaution to the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly transitioning into working remotely to follow the stay-at-home order.
Raising plants has become increasingly popular for people in quarantine, and both Zhang and Santucci agree that taking care of their plants has been beneficial to their new lifestyles at home. Santucci’s courses have all been moved online, and along with her studies, she has been working on projects like calling patients to assist with their telemedicine appointments and joining a group of medical students and faculty members that request donations to support the internal medicine house staff. While Zhang still goes to his lab twice a week to perform cell maintenance, the rest of his work is remote as well. “I am spending a much greater fraction of my time in front of my computer screen, whether it is working from home or writing emails or relaxing and watching TV. This is definitely not healthy in many ways,” Zhang said. “Taking time out to look over my plants has been a welcome distraction from my computer.”
Engaging in an activity that involves nature can also be beneficial to your health, explained Beidas. “Nature reminds us of the wonders of the world and that we are part of something that is greater than us. It is not only visually appealing, but you are using all your senses. You are feeling the sun on your skin and you are seeing the greenery around you. There’s a calmness of being in nature.” Having a hobby like gardening where you’re able to work with your hands can be rewarding, Beidas explained, especially being able to see outcomes from what you’ve worked on, like seeing your plant begin to sprout.
“Taking care of another living thing is fulfilling,” Santucci agreed. “When you’re surrounded by uncertainty as we are during this pandemic, having a plant, or two or three or dozens, to nurture is a necessity for me and could be a great outlet for others.”
While it’s more challenging to begin raising plants when you cannot physically browse nurseries, many stores have utilized curbside pickup and delivery to bring the plants to you. Santucci also suggests shopping at the grocery store to kickstart your garden. “I’m a huge fan of saving seeds from store-bought peppers and tomatoes, replanting rooted lettuce from the grocery store and letting it go to seed, or just planting the unused ends of green onions,” Santucci said. Many new gardeners are now creating vegetable gardens to grow their own food, but Santucci believes this activity will allow them to “find food for the soul as well.”
Even though gardening is seen as more of an outdoor activity, you don’t necessarily need access to an outdoor garden to take up this hobby. In fact, when Santucci was an undergrad, she successfully grew habanero peppers, cabbage, and award-winning orchids from her dorm windowsill. Many of Zhang and Santucci’s houseplants today grow next to windows or under regular household LEDs, which can be a great alternative for those living in apartments. Some houseplants, including peace lilies and snake plants, don't need much maintenance, as they only need a few hours of light each day and water once a week.
Zhang feels that indoor plants have even made him feel more comfortable being in his apartment for prolonged periods of time while practicing the stay-at-home guidelines. “I can be around a lot of plants without going outside at all,” Zhang said. “It might help you feel a bit more at ease when you're quarantining so you don't feel as strong a pressure to go outside.”
Despite all the uncertainty during this time, Zhang and Santucci feel that raising plants can provide much needed stability. “I always have something to look forward to,” Santucci said. “Whether it’s an orchid bloom or a ripening fruit, this is something I think a lot of people need right now.”