Leah Diel of the University of Florida's Environmental Horticulture Department recently received funding to study plants as a more mainstream treatment option for students showing signs of stress, anxiety or depression. | Photo Courtesy UF

J. Scott Angle: Growing Plants That Heal

November 7, 2023

UF/IFAS provides the science for how we fix plants, but Leah Diehl of our Environmental Horticulture Department is growing a movement for plants to fix us. 

Diehl and Department Chair Dean Kopsell recently delivered a persuasive pitch for plants as healers to University of Florida President Ben Sasse. It was persuasive enough that he recently awarded her nearly half a million dollars to expand therapeutic horticulture programming.

It is compelling enough that President Sasse chose Diehl’s project as one of 19 campuswide from among more than 150 proposals for funding to advance initiatives that improve the UF student experience.

The president’s funding will allow her to support the mental health of as many as 80 students per semester through potting, pruning and propagating.

Until now, UF/IFAS therapeutic horticulture programming has been geared more toward special needs populations, such as veterans, the developmentally disabled or the elderly. Funding from the president increases Diehl’s capacity to position plants, primarily ornamental plants, as a more mainstream treatment option for students showing signs of stress, anxiety or depression.

It’s a major step forward in the program Diehl has led from a greenhouse at the UF medical center for 10 years.

As professionals in the nursery and landscape fields, you intuitively appreciate how an active connection with plants can be a restorative experience and have a profound effect on quality of life. Diehl makes the case with data that people are better off for having gone through a structured interaction with plants. She has demonstrated in past student cohorts that it decreases stress and anxiety and increases optimism and academic resilience.

I know Diehl’s work has enriched my own life. My wife is among the latest round of volunteers that Diehl has recruited to help with greenhouse operations and to support programming. I’m also enjoying the hanging donkey tongue plant my wife brought home from the greenhouse recently.

This research, campus outreach and teaching (Diehl offers a certificate in horticultural therapy) unfolds at Wilmot Botanical Gardens, where a retired UF College of Medicine dean named Craig Tisher has provided the personal funding and passion to build a program. With the help of FNGLA, we recently restored a corner of Wilmot and dedicated it as The Ben and Renee Bolusky Garden.

FNGLA has been a supportive partner in our journey to investigate and expand the use of therapeutic horticulture. The Frontrunners Chapter directly supported programming for developmentally disabled adults that gave them vocational training via therapeutic horticulture which resulted in several securing long-term employment in the green industry—a major step for their independence and an innovative way for the industry to recruit needed labor.

We see an expanded future role for therapeutic horticulture. In addition to promoting it as an academic discipline and potential career path, it shows great potential as a tool to increase student success.

With the new presidential funding, Diehl plans to bring therapeutic horticulture from its traditional home at Wilmot to new corners of campus.

For example, her vision includes drop-in therapeutic horticulture sessions throughout campus during high-stress times for students such as exam periods.

Diehl’s groundbreaking work is expanding students’, the public’s and the president’s view of plants’ value. And that can only help the value you’ll see in your sales.


Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Interim Provost. Since 2020 he has served as UF’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). 

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