Martha Cover’s favorite plant inside Adventist Health Sonora is an 8-foot-tall ficus benjamina whose leafy branches beckon to patients and families who pass through the main entrance.
Though they might go overlooked, plants like the ficus benjamina offer people the presence of life in a place that might otherwise look sterile, Martha said.
“People just stand in the plants. They feel safe, they feel comfortable, or maybe it’s just privacy,” she said. “But this ficus gets the most people standing and talking with it. More than any of the others.”
Cover, 77, an Adventist Health Sonora volunteer for more than 32 years, donated about 100 of the plants inside the hospital and Diana J. White Cancer Institute across the street.
Dense strawberry begonias, glossy, broad-leaved schefflera and winding Norfolk Island pine are among the plants that grace the corners of halls and reception rooms on all levels of the facility.
When the plants need to be fed, Martha lugs a tub of fertilized water through the hospital, tending to each and every one.
“A former chaplain here said it reminded you of a high-end hotel to have plants,” she said. “There’s a lot of things we can’t do to help the hospital, but this we can do.”
Four to five times a year, Martha and her husband, Les Cover, host a fundraising plant drive for the Adventist Health Sonora volunteer staff. A downstairs conference room is bedecked with tables full of lustrous ferns, blooming corn plants and ficus in various stages of maturity.
The conference room brims with green foliage as staff members peruse the selections, which range down to small items such as string-of-hearts rosary vines, spearmint ivy, yellow lollipop shrimp pants, cacti and succulents.
The staff members ask Martha questions — How much water does a fern need? How big will the ficus get? How do I get the plant I bought last year to bloom again?
Martha’s advice can be extensive, the fruit of a lifetime of plant rearing.
Her mother had various plants lining the windowsills of their home when she grew up, she said.
“Anywhere you could stick a little plant, you’d find one.”
The plants in Adventist Health Sonora are the result of a 40-year collection grown and developed with Martha’s expertise at her 18-by-36-foot greenhouse in Tuolumne.
“It’s like going to Hawaii in there,” she said.
The one-story building was designed to stay “warm in the winter and cool in the summer.” Fiberglass siding and a double-paned plastic arch on the top create an atmospheric effect that mirrors the subtropical climate from which most of the plants originate.
Before any plant makes it to the floor of Adventist Health, there might be years of propagation (root, stem or leaf cuttings), fertilization and gentle care.
“It’s nice to work with plants. It’s a very healing environment,” she said. “I like to focus on the ones nobody can get. That’s why I have so many customers, they come here to get things that nobody else has.”
Inside the facility, the plants have a magnetism that draws in staff and patients alike. A Swiss cheese philodendron, purple Swedish ivy and an Indian rubber plant adorn the main reception lounge. The cancer center, the birthing area, the diagnostic imaging laboratory, the surgery center, outside the pharmacy and in the emergency room share similar decorations, she said.
Les Cover, 85, said he helps with plant maintenance, but said his wife was “the one who really knows all the plants.”
Les touted their holistic air purification benefits in the hospital.
“There’s benefits to having plants. People are encouraged by them. We’ve been to places where they have no plants and then later they want them,” he said.
Before Martha’s plants were installed at the new Diana J. White Cancer Institute, patients complained about the sterility of the facility, he said.
Once the plants went in, their hearts and minds were put at ease.