The Rosy Periwinkle in Your Garden

Each month in our Open Voices blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. This October we share in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The Rosy Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) from Madagascar is a delicate, cheerful flower cultivated worldwide as an ornamental plant. Indigenous healers valued it for its many medicinal properties and Western scientists eventually developed it for pharmaceutical use. This pink flower generates chemical compounds commonly used in chemotherapy to treat several types of cancer, including breast cancer. 
Catharanthus roseus

When we hear mention of a new discovery in cancer research, botanical compounds like the periwinkle’s vinblastine are typical (although not to be taken for granted). But, humans and plants are also interacting in a holistic, environmental exchange at a much larger scale.

We know multiple factors support healthy bodies: stress reduction, physical activity, social ties and social support, and strong immune functioning 1. For each of these factors, we find evidence linking these to time spent in nature. For example, walking through a forest has been shown to improve immune function as measured by the number and activity of immunity-supporting cells and anti-cancer proteins 2 3. Levels of these cells remained elevated for as much as 30 days after a forest visit, and did not increase at all during a carefully matched urban visit. Dr. Li, the lead scientist on ‘forest bathing’, has studied the effects of environmental chemicals, stress and lifestyle on immune function since the late ‘80s. His research has steadily shifted to investigating these large-scale immune responses to the environment and is establishing a new field of Forest Medicine to document the interactions of human response to physical environment factors. Health and environment researchers such as Li are leading us to consider the benefits of Rosy Periwinkle not only in our bodies, but outside of them as well.

1 Hartig, T., A.E. van den Berg, C.M. Hagerhall, et al. 2011. Health benefits of nature experience: Psychological, social, and cultural processes. In: Nilsson, K., M. Sangster, C. Gallis, T. Hartig, S. de Vries, K. Seeland, and J. Schipperijn (Eds.) Forests, Trees and Human Health. Springer: Netherlands.
2 Li, Q., K. Morimoto, M. Kobayashi, H. Inagaki, M. Katsumata, Y. Hirata, K. Hirata, et al. 2008. Visiting a Forest, but Not a City, Increases Human Natural Killer Activity and Expression of Anti-cancer Proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology 21, 1: 117-127.
3 Park, B., Y. Tsunetsugu, T. Kasetani, T. Kagawa and Y. Miyazaki. 2010. Trends in Research Related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the Forest Atmosphere or Forest Bathing) in Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 15, 1: 18-26.