For thousands of years plants have been used to alleviate anxiety and depression, with Pliny the Elder recommending borage, and the Roman military doctor Proscurides extolling the benefits of St John’s Wort, as early as the 1st century AD.
Now the NHS is catching up, prescribing plants instead of pills in a pilot scheme in Greater Manchester.
Instead of sedatives and anti-depressants, patients are being given a tubs of herbs, pot plants or trays of vegetables to tend in the hope that caring for a living thing will help lift their spirits.
Doctors have also selected specific herbs for their mood-boosting benefits, including lemon balm which is used in aromatherapy to relieve anxiety, stress and shock and catmint which helps release tension and aids insomnia.
After looking after the plant for a while, patients are encouraged to bring it back to the surgery’s communal garden, and get involved in the work. It is believed to be the first scheme of its kind in the country.
Augusta Ward, 31, a medical secretary at Cornbrook Medical Practice in inner-city Hulme, said: “The plants we will be giving people are mainly herbs - things like lemon balm and catmint, which all have mindful qualities.
“Having something to care for brings so many benefits to people - especially for those who may not have a garden or be able to have pets.
“The plant is then a reason to come back to the surgery and get involved in all the other activities in our garden and make new friends.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has called for an increase in “social prescribing” in a bid to “shift the balance” away from automatically prescribing drugs for many illnesses.
At last year’s NHS conference in Manchester he urged GPs to encourage patients to be more sociable and active referring them to classes and groups, in a bid to reduce reliance on painkillers and antidepressants.
Studies have shown that the presence of potted plants in homes, the workplace, schools and hospitals has a mood-boosting effect and can also help to lower blood pressure.
Tending to gardens is also known to alleviate sad feelings while the social nature of group gardening is thought to help depression as it centres on a collective goal, and prevents people worrying about individual problems.
Dr Philippa James, one of the surgery's GPs, said: “I've seen how our patients relax in the garden - and how they then get involved in wider events like picking litter, which all adds to pride in our area.
“There's a lot of evidence now about how two hours a week in a green space can lift mood - and then that too has physical, mental and emotional benefits. That's something we need to harness.”
The idea is backed by the city's health commissioners, who want to promote community support or ‘social prescribing’ to improve well-being in the city.
Many of the plants for the scheme have been donated or have been funded through the social enterprise group Sow the City.
Dr Ruth Bromley, GP and chair of Manchester Health and Care Commissioning, a partnership between Manchester Clinical Commissioning Group and Manchester City Council, added: "So much of what keeps people happy and well isn't medical.
“That's why ideas like this one are so wonderfully effective, building on what is best about our communities and supporting patients close to where they live.”