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Linda Holmes-Cook | Dahlias: Stress relief on a stem

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World file photo/Mike Bonnicksen Linda Holmes-Cook prepares her dahlias for growing in preparation of the annual NCW Dahlia Society show in 2010. She was going around the community garden at Fuller and Russell streets in Wenatchee cutting off extra buds so the energy would go into the best flowers.

I don’t remember the first time I realized what good medicine it was to walk through my dahlia garden. Oh sure, I knew how good exercise was for me, and gardening certainly provides that. We also know that there is a direct correlation between stress and overall wellness, and that being active is better than being sedentary. But therapy? Seriously?

Now, for those of you who think of dahlia gardening as menial labor, thereby adding even more stress, please hear me out. Having a dahlia garden can be really good for you. Working in a dahlia garden can stimulate your senses like nothing else.

The smell: I still remember how much I loved the smell of dahlia stems when my dad would cut bouquets. The flowers themselves are virtually free of fragrance, but the greens have a completely unique aroma. When I finally had my own garden, I found the essence of crushed dahlia leaves under my nails whenever I disbudded or pinched back my plants. Now, when planting seedlings, one of the ways I determine whether I have a weed or a dahlia coming up is to pinch off a bit of leaf, rub it between my fingers and take a whiff ... foolproof!

The feel: I would become enveloped in the smell of the foliage and the tall, strong stems whenever I wrapped my arms around them, gathering them together when they got tall enough to be tied up.

Being around 5-foot-2, I have the added benefit of almost getting lost between the rows of 6- to 7-foot tall, hollow-stemmed wonders. During mid to late summer, as the sun is dropping behind the hills, there is nothing that calms me more than spending an hour or two just working among these lovely, cooling plants.

The look: luscious color, diversity of form and size, draws in even the most reticent among us. Words are woefully inadequate to describe the appearance of the sensational dahlia. You know I speak the truth.

Many of my friends and I are clearly Type A personalities. Family concerns, work responsibilities, social life and community involvement enrich our lives, while at the same time, depleting our energy. If this is the story of your life, I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of dahlia gardening as therapy. When it is evident that my pendulum has reached its apex in one direction, puttering among my dahlias is just what the doctor ordered, to help me swing back to center.

During my college years, I learned that there are actually two kinds of stress, and also that some level of stress is necessary in order to support life. This includes the “flight or fight” response that helps us to respond to danger. “Distress” is defined as anxiety, sorrow, or suffering. “Eustress,” on the other hand, is normal psychological stress that is interpreted as being beneficial for the person experiencing it.

Examples of eustress might be falling in love, becoming a parent, solving a problem, getting a new job, or building something wonderful. The work of dahlia gardening definitely falls in the latter category.

A stunning dahlia bouquet is a tangible outcome of your dahlia garden and can make you melt, resulting in a lowered pulse rate and blood pressure. The joy is an intangible, but every bit as real, and provides a therapeutic outcome that money cannot buy.

Linda Holmes-Cook blogs regularly at