Plant Picks for a Healing Garden

Avoid toxic and allergenic plants when designing a healing garden.

Credit: Logan Ingalls

What to plant in a healing garden

What to plant in a healing garden

What to look for when selecting plants for therapeutic purposes

Landscape architect Deborah LeFrank counsels that there’s more to healing-garden design than just plants. The exposure of the garden and the time of day it’s most likely to be used will affect design 
decisions, for example, and permanent fixtures like paths and pergolas must be carefully planned. But LeFrank does favour some plants, cautioning care with others.


Good plants for a healing garden

  • Lilac (Syringa): LeFrank says that lilac is the plant that tells us “summer is here.” The robust scent of lilacs tends to be a favourite with older people. 

  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis) and sweet box (Sarcococca): Both of these shrubs flower in late winter. LeFrank suggests planting them near a door or gate where their sweet fragrance can be enjoyed with every entry and exit. 

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus) and lavender (Lavandula): Evergreen leaves with a beautiful fragrance, especially when handled. 

  • Japanese maple (Acer japonicum): The bright-red fall colours offer sensory stimulation and a strong memory of childhood to retired easterners.

  • Assorted ferns and mosses: Mosses (but not on paths that could be slippery) in particular offer tactile pleasure and are visually soothing.


Bad plants for a healing garden

LeFrank warns that some plants labelled as deer-resistant can be toxic or at least have an unpleasant effect on humans – it’s always wise to check a good toxicity reference before planting.

Very young children or older people with dementia can easily mistake a bulb for an onion, for example, or be attracted to harmful flowers or leaves. Among the offenders: wisteria, euphorbia (which can cause a rash), hellebores, daffodils, monkshood, foxglove (Digitalis), tulips, autumn crocus and hyacinths. If in doubt, she suggests checking with the B.C. Poison Control Centre (1-800-567-8911, toll free).

In the meantime, LeFrank is on a “one-woman mission” to rid all gardens of Skimmia japonica: the entire plant is poisonous and can cause cardiac arrest in a child or a senior adult. 

LeFrank also advises taking allergies into account (cedar, for example, can cause skin rashes). And while roses carry an emotional attachment for many gardeners, thorny rosebushes are also best avoided in a therapeutic garden.