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Finding the Joy of Plants in Winter

by Penn State Extension

Dec 03, 2021

Winter can be a season of joy, yet for many people it is also a season where the lack of light can cause sadness. Plants can provide spaces to be at ease and at peace.

By now, you may have heard of the Scandinavian lifestyle of hygge (“hue-gah”). Social media lights up during the winter season with curated pictures of cozy blankets, candles, woolen socks, fireplaces, baked goods, and warm drinks. However, hygge is much more than these material items. Those living in Scandinavian countries are all too aware of the consequences of the shorter days and longer nights. Despite their extreme light conditions, Scandinavians top the charts for joy, happiness, and contentment. The concept of hygge brings forth the ideas of coziness, togetherness, and well-being for individuals and families to cultivate in their lives.

Where do plants fit in with the idea of hygge? The research in the psychological science behind color theory has proven that green brings a sense of peace, hope, happiness, and comfort. Green is associated with renewal and growth, which is uplifting to our spirits even during the darkest of days. Different wavelengths of color can produce different moods. Green belongs to the short wavelength group, which is relaxing and cool. Having houseplants in your home during the winter months (and throughout the year) conveys the calm of green. Create a cozy corner with some tried-and-true foliage houseplants or place flowering plants among other hygge-like (hyggeligt) items to generate vignettes that bring visual and physical joy.

Not only does the color of plants put us in a happier mood, but the simple act of choosing to nurture a plant can also boost our well-being. In 1975, positive psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a study within nursing homes using houseplants (and other daily activities) to test whether being empowered to make choices increases wellness. One group of residents was given houseplants but was told that the staff would take care of it. The other group was given houseplants and was told they could care for them on their own. After 18 months, the group that could control their choices had improved health. The research showed that having control of our actions and spaces as we age, such as through tending plants, will keep us healthier. Especially during the winter months, for all of us, when we perceive that we do not have as much autonomy due to colder temperatures, snow, ice, and darker days, making a choice to care for something such as a houseplant will lift our spirits as it gives us purpose.

Decorating a cozy home with houseplants is wonderful. It creates respite for the togetherness of hygge. Many low-maintenance choices are available. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is not only easy to grow, but it also provides trailing vines with heart-like leaves, and opportunities to propagate more vines that can be shared with loved ones. The peace plant (Spathiphyllum spp.), with its dark glossy leaves and white flowers, exemplifies the meaning of peace in our society. The unique leaves, rabbit track pattern on the upper leaf and the purple underside of the prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura) add variation and softness to the cool green background. Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) flowers add warmth and bright colors. Clivia (Clivia miniata) requires patience but brings rewards in the winter with fiery orange blooms. Forcing bulbs such as hyacinth, tulips, and narcissus will expand the color palette and textures of your space. Flowers are cheerful and bring an early spring to our indoor spaces. Remember to consider the right plant for the right place just as you would outside. Also, be mindful of the toxicity of plants if you have children or pets.

While having a cozy home with houseplants is wonderful, the plants outside can also bring joy, even though they are dormant. Another lifestyle concept from Scandinavia is that of friluftsliv (“free-loofts-liv”) which translates to “open-air living”—basically, getting outdoors. Taking winter walks through your garden, the local botanical garden, or a nature preserve can allow you to see and engage with the beauty of the seemingly barren landscape. Structure and contrast of plants becomes prominent. The repetitive branching of jagged edges of trees is what mathematicians call fractals. Fractals are “infinitely complex,” composed of never-ending self-similar patterns. They are found everywhere in nature from plant root systems, to rivers and fern fronds. Fractals are classified under the new geometry that goes beyond triangles, rectangles, and linear structures. Numerous studies have been conducted on fractals and their appeal through art and aesthetics, as well as the benefits to our focus, productivity, and well-being. Studies conducted at schools have shown that if students have even one window where they can look out at a tree or greenspace, their ability to focus on their classwork improved: views of nature enhance recovery from stress and restore mental energy more quickly. Take time to admire an oak (Quercus spp.) or hickory (Carya spp.), with their branches grasping toward the blue winter sky.

While you are out on your walk, stop to look at and touch the bark of a tree. Take a copy of the Winter Tree Finder by May T. Watts with you and learn how to identify trees by bark and bud, thus adding to your horticultural trove of knowledge. The texture of each tree species stands out and is another appealing aesthetic of our landscapes. The trunk of an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is reminiscent of an elephant leg—gray, straight, and sturdy. Upon closer inspection, wrinkles appear, and light gray or pale green spotting may be found on the bark in the form of lichens. Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) lights up the garden with its white, flaky bark. The bark is smooth to touch in places, but it is marked by transverse (extending across) lenticels. Lenticels are like plant blisters that add unique texture but also function as a pathway in which gases can diffuse to the living cells of the tree bark.

No matter what time of the year or season, plants can bring us a sense of peace, calm, hope, and well-being. Whether indoors or out, we benefit from their presence and the time we take to observe and care for them. This winter, make space for being well, being cozy, and being together with your loved ones, surrounded by plants that can help set the foundation for these joyful times.

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