Plant power

(First published in the August 16, 2018 issue of City Pages)

The UW-Extension’s horticulturist is taking the job into new therapeutic directions

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As the Marathon County UW-Extension’s new Horticulture Specialist, Brianna Wright not only answers plant questions, she’s designing outreach programs, including a garden that could serve the Marathon County Jail.

A person walking into the office of Brianna Wright, the brand new Horticulture Specialist at the Marathon County UW-Extension, might notice something a bit ironic: Despite her passion for plants, there isn’t a single bit of live greenery in the room. It’s also an office cut off from sunlight, tucked away in the UW-Extension office on River Drive, just south of downtown Wausau. A windowless office isn’t exactly conducive to greenery, but she explains she doesn’t have plants in her home either.

Don’t let that fool you. Wright has a strong passion for horticulture. She has plenty of plant pressings and other arts. But all the live plants at her home are growing outside.

The joy of horticulture is getting your hands dirty in the fresh air, and Wright aims to spread that joy as the new horticulture specialist. Previous to Wright starting three months ago, horticulture questions and programs were handled mainly by the UW-Extension’s ag agent, who’s a specialist in dairy. As part of the UW-Extension’s reorganization (a system-wide process throughout the state) county officials wanted to create a local position that would promote horticulture and its therapeutic benefits—someone who could lead not only services around basic horticulture topics, but also innovative programs that use gardening to help those with addictions, mental illness or other difficulties.

So Wright answers questions from people, either by phone or in person, about identifying various plants. Wright averages about three-four of these per day, she says.

But Wright also does much more than that. Just three months into the job, she already has wrapped up a five-class series at North Central Health Care’s Community Corner Clubhouse, a safe place for those dealing with mental health issues; she’s meeting with community leaders about programs to help those who have experienced addiction; and she’s organizing a program in conjunction with the Marathon County Jail to provide a garden where Huber-release inmates could volunteer.

If Wright seems ambitious and fast moving, it’s because she believes in the power of plants to calm people and make them feel better. Horticulture therapy is a fast-growing field with adherents going back to one of the founding fathers of America. Today it technically would be done by a certified therapist, so Wright quickly points out that what she does is considered therapeutic horticulture. She’s not a therapist incorporating gardening into treatment; she’s a horticulturist who designs programs for those who could benefit from the power of nurturing plants.

“Anyone who has gardened or spent time in nature understands the therapeutic nature of getting your hands dirty, touching the soil, watching the plants,” Wright says.

Avid gardeners will tell you the same, and it turns out there’s some science behind it. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that the bacteria in soil increases a person’s serotonin, a chemical associated with feeling good. In other words, getting your hands dirty really does make you happier.

Wright is on a mission to help more Marathon County residents get their hands dirty, including populations that might not otherwise have much exposure to horticulture. And she’s off to a fast start.

Plants in the clubhouse

One of the first places Wright connected with was the Community Corner Clubhouse, located on Third Avenue just north of Bridge Street in Wausau. A program of North Central Health Care, the Clubhouse provides a supportive space for people with mental illness and/or addiction issues.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Wright sits at a table with a group of about six clubhouse members. She talks about the project they’re going to work on with the quiet patience of a school teacher. Her voice is soft but her passion and knowledge shines through. She’s talking them through the project of the day: making plant pressings. She shows off some of her own work, a book of various plants pressed flat between two large, flat, heavy items.

It’s the fourth of a five-week series, and the clubhouse members listen intently as Wright speaks; no one’s attention wavers for a second. It’s been a popular event at the clubhouse, says Mike Frankel, referral coordinator for the Clubhouse. “The members who have taken part in this activity really look forward to it,” Frankel says. “They’ve dedicated those weeks to be there.”

Wright met Frankel at a mental health summit held in May, shortly after Wright started in the horticulture position. Wright said she was touched by a speech given by a Clubhouse member, and contacted Frankel to see how she could incorporate therapeutic horticulture into the program. They brainstormed and came up with the five-week series. Other workshops in the series included a botanical walk and a sensory experience in the herb garden.

Wright shows me what that means: We’re at the garden outside the UW-Extension office and she plucks a leaf off a plant and hands it to me. Running it under my nose reveals the strong, familiar smell of licorice. She then hands me an orange-red flower. It’s edible, and tastes like a pepper, complete with a little spicy kick.

Clubhouse members also learned about container gardening, and some of them are still keeping up with it, Frankel says. Frankel hopes to find a way to add more gardening opportunities for the clubhouse’s members. Therapies like that seem to work in a way that traditional therapies fall short on, Frankel says. The Clubhouse also held acting sessions, including theater games and even staging a two-act play, Frankel says. Both acting and horticulture therapies proved popular and effective, Frankel says.

“It’s a new avenue,” Frankel says. “It’s not drugs, it’s not individual counseling, it’s not group therapy. They’ve all been in different groups and talked about their story over and over. This is different; you can tell your story while getting your hands dirty.”

Wright also already led a tour with residents at North Central Health Care’s Lakeside Recovery center, says Manager Daniel Shine. Patients in this 21-day, medically monitored treatment center went on a botanical tour and they loved it, Shine says. There is a lot of shared symbolism between nature and addiction, especially the concept of planting of a seed and watching it grow, Shine says.

It’s worth noting that NCHC started as an asylum with a working farm attached to it. For the first half of the 20thcentury, residents there worked on the farm tending crops, gardens and cattle.

Founding planters


Wright leading one of a five-part series of workshops at the Community Corner Clubhouse, a gathering place for individuals with mental illnesses. It’s one of many ways Wright is planning to reach out to populations who might not ordinarily have much exposure to horticulture and its therapeutic benefits.

The idea of horticulture therapy goes back to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Lesser known than other founding fathers outside of history buffs, Dr. Rush was the first to document the positive effects of therapeutic horticulture on individuals with mental illnesses.

The concept grew into prominence, when plants were used in therapies for World War II veterans in the 1940s and 1950s, according to the American Horticulture Therapy Association.

It’s not just the bacteria in the soil that helps, as mentioned in the Journal of Neuroscience. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology compared the effects of both reading and gardening in reducing cortisol levels (cortisol is known as the stress hormone). While both activities led to a decreases in cortisol in participating groups, the decrease was more pronounced in the group that gardened.

And there is precedent for using it with troubled youth. A teen camp in Hawaii, for example, uses a garden-to-plate program to emotionally engage teens.

But you don’t have to travel to Hawaii to find such a program; Dunn County Jail has its own gardening program.

Wright has been visiting with Dunn County Jail staff to learn more about their program so that she can bring that idea to Marathon County Jail. The program is popular among Huber release inmates (those who earned the right to be let out to work jobs during the day); the only challenge has been finding enough master gardener volunteers, Wright says.

Wright even has a potential plot of land in mind to use; the site on the corner of Grand Avenue and Thomas Street where Vino Latte once stood could work well, Wright says, and she’s been in contact with city leaders about the lot. The challenge is that part of it will disappear once Thomas Street undergoes construction in the next couple of years. But Wright says that’s no big deal. “If we used raised garden beds, they can be moved,” Wright says.

Growing into the position

Wright grew up in Wausau and graduated from Wausau East in 2000. She majored in biology with an emphasis in plant biology at UW-Stevens Point, and became certified to teach.

In 2005 she entered grad school at the University of Wyoming for forest and fire ecology. She conducted her research in Yellowstone National Park, where she would be dropped off for a week at a time in remote areas. “In one of the more remote areas it was just my field tech and I, and the grizzlies,” Wright says.

She also taught undergraduate classes as part of her graduate work, and that’s when the education bug really hit. Though she had school-age classroom experience while getting her Wisconsin teacher certificate, “I fell in love with teaching adults,” Wright says. “I found my passion at the University of Wyoming.”

Wright still had plenty of family and friends in Wausau, and when her husband got a job offer in Antigo, moving back to Wausau made sense, Wright says. She first worked as a teacher at Newman Catholic High School, but longed to teach adults again. “I like the opportunity UW-Extension provides,” Wright says. “I can get out in the field, educating people where they live and work. There is a lot of learning that occurs.”

So far, Wright has been surpassing expectations, Marathon County Deputy Administrator Lance Leonhard says. “What an excellent hire,” Leonhard says. “She has brought a lot of passion to the position.”

One of Wright’s initiatives was a series of lunch hour chats on horticulture therapy aimed at community stakeholders. Wright conducted a survey at the second lunch hour asking how many people had previously heard of horticulture therapy. Only about one-third said yes. The most recent lunch hour chat seemed to confirm a true buzz around the concept. Wright says people were sharing stories and Wright heard a lot of feedback like, “Feel free to call me” and “Come on out and see what we have.”

“I think the more we lean on one another and collaborate to achieve our common goal of improving wellness, the better our chances of success,” Wright says.

Collaboration is exactly what the county hoped to create with that position, Leonhard says. Its main focus is to find ways of using horticulture to reach at-risk populations, particularly those who are or have been in jail. And Wright already has the ball rolling on that and so much more, Leonard says.

Wright is in talks with city hall to use the vacant land on the corner of Thomas Street and Grand Avenue, and is working with jail officials to help develop a program that Leonhard says could essentially be job training for inmates while providing therapeutic benefits.

Wright says she also envisions a community garden that would foster collaboration and mentorships. The garden would be an inclusive setting “where people from the community can garden, build, learn and improve their well-being.”

Want to learn more?

Brianna Wright started a Facebook page, Marathon County Horticulture, to interact with the public and keep them informed about horticulture in the area. Follow the page to learn about upcoming programs, local horticulture news (a good example is her recent warning about the dangers of wild parsnip) and general information about horticulture and its therapeutic benefits. She’s even planning an “Ask the Plant Lady” feature to help answer horticulture questions. Also find information at