3:22 PM EST, December 3, 2012
Inside the greenhouse at the Salem Veteran's Administration Medical Center you won't just find flowers growing. You'll find people healing.
At this time of year the greenhouse is filled with poinsettias. They're red, ivory, and pink. Some are striped. Some look like glitter has been sprinkled on the petals.
There are 16,000 poinsettia plants in the greenhouse including 14 varieties with names such as Winter Blush, Freedom Red, Ice Punch, and Monet."I believe this one is Winter Blush. Yes, Winter Blush," said Sandy Lane the Director of the Compensated Work Therapy Program at the Salem VA as she pointed to a pink colored poinsettia.
The plants are brought in during the summer in August. "We bring them in when they are very very little," said James Lugumira, a veteran who has worked at the greenhouse for six years.
He is known here as the poinsettia man and after a few moments with him, it's easy to see why. Lugumira is the one who regulates the fertilizer, makes sure the plants are watered and he also has the tedious task of pinching every single plant. To him, though, this is not work."If you are doing something you love it's almost nothing at all," said Lugumira.
This guy knows his plants. When I picked up what I thought was a traditional red I soon realized I was wrong. "This one has the chance of being a little bit greener in between," Lugumira explained.
Yes, he knows his poinsettia plants.
James Lugumira is from Africa. He served in the U-S Army in Israel, Kuwait and Panama. Lugumira suffered from high blood pressure and post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. His work as a railroad engineer wasn't helping.
Then six years ago he gave up that job and began working in the greenhouse as part of the V.A.'s compensated work therapy program. "Every time I'm around plants my blood pressure goes down. I relax," he explained.
His PTSD has also improved. "Instead of using so much medication for it now I just come down and grow my plants," Lugumira said with a smile. "I look at my plants (and it's) almost (as though) they are talking to me and then I become calmer and calmer everyday."
"There is a lot of evidence that shows horticulture helps relieve stress, reduce depression and helps with anxiety," said Sandy Lane, a horticulturist who heads up the Compensated Worker Therapy Program at the Salem V.A. Medical Center.
She's a believer in the power of plants and with good reason. "I often see a lot of people come in very quiet and with more withdrawn. They become more sociable and open up the longer they work here," Lane said.
For Lugumira, growing flowers brings joy and seeing people come in and buy the plants makes it all worthwhile. "I like to see the look on people's faces when they say 'oh beautiful plants."
Lugumira earned a degree in horticulture from Virginia Western Community College since working at the greenhouse.
The greenhouse is open year round growing seasonal flowers and herbs.
Poinsettias and other plants are on sale. Poinsiettas are $8.00. All the money goes back into the program. The greenhouse is open from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
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