Phytoncides and Me


When I was small, my Dad and I would walk together. We usually walked in silence and we mapped our progress in distance and time; independent of each other but connected by place and process. I don’t remember when the practice of walking or the smell of leaf litter became central to my art practice. From a scientific perspective, decomposing leaves improve soil, adding carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and other inorganic compounds as well as helping to maintain moisture and temperature at ground level. However these visual, audible and aromatic stimuli also send out messages to our brains; neurons firing off electrical impulses and telling us that we can breathe, feel safe, relax…

As it turns out, our brains are really quite clever. They are programmed to respond to being in or around nature and you don’t have to be a seasoned hill walker to benefit. Just by standing next to a tree in a park or sitting in your garden, nature triggers a response in your brain that lowers your stress hormones and calms the mind. To protect themselves trees release Phytoncides, an active substance with antimicrobial properties that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria, microscopic fungi and protozoa. These Phytoncides also emit aromas that we associate with walking in a park, strolling in a city street after the rain, sedums draped over guttering, mosses growing in a woodland ride or leaf litter scattering beneath our feet as we run through it.

In 1966, Blandford Press released a series of books on rural Britain. In ‘Growing and Studying Trees’ J.B. Wood stated ‘The true value of trees and forests were now to be recognised, and steps taken to check the drain of tree-wealth. For not only do our forests produce timber in quantity – they also provide many other vital aids for the well-being of ourselves and the countryside generally.’ Over 50 years later, there finally seems to be an emergence of people that not only believe this to be true, but are fighting the tide of naysayers to prove it to be true. Recent studies in Japan show that having contact with nature can reduce sympathetic activity, increase parasympathetic activity, and reduce the secretion of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in saliva, and can stabilize autonomic nervous activity.

When I think about my childhood I remember collecting brambles with my family. Up and down the old rail tracks we would run; each with a tub that would never be full because little fingers kept dipping into them, juices running down our arms and laughter filling the space between us and the grown-ups. Wild places give us a sense of wonder and if they are treated well, they give us food, fuel, flood prevention, clean water, fresh air and carbon storage. Going outside to ‘play’ gives us quantifiable health benefits mentally and physically and all cultures recognize that trees uplift the human spirit. Playing in nature is a symbolic action for making towns and environments a happier safer place to grow.