Tree-Hugging and Forest-Bathing

‘Tree-hugger’ is a vaguely insulting term for those perceived as hippy environmentalists, used fairly indiscriminately to describe pretty much anyone from an animal rights activist to a bypass protester. It’s also an epithet that has come to be associated with Prince Charles following his mid-1980s confessions about talking to his trees and plants to encourage them to grow… And it’s something, dear reader, that I have recently become. A tree-hugger. A hugger of trees.


Much of my babbling on Homesick and Heatstruck refers to nature – and those aspects of British nature that I particularly miss whilst living abroad – but last year, these yearnings must have reached some sort of critical pitch as, whilst on a summer ramble in the Cotswolds, I felt an overwhelming urge to wrap my arms around an oak tree.

I can report that it was quite a nice feeling. Solid, rough, a bit scratchy. But I did feel what I was hoping to feel – close to something living and breathing and benign and ancient. It was very comforting and peaceful.

And – this is particularly reassuring for those concerned about the state of my mental health – it may not be quite as bonkers as it sounds (fairly bonkers, admittedly, but perhaps not certifiably so). Research has shown that proximity to trees is actively good for the health. Plants release phytoncides or wood essential oils – antimicrobial organic compounds which help to defend against bacteria, fungi and other nasty things. When inhaled, they can help to slow our breathing, reduce our anxiety and even strengthen the immune system. Oak trees, pine trees and tea trees are particularly good for us, apparently. In parts of Japan and Korea, shinrin-yoku – or ‘forest-bathing’ is an established practice to reap the relaxing and health-giving properties of these phytoncides.


Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many forests for me to bathe in out here in Dubai, and, sadly, many of the more mature trees that lived in and around my beloved Safa Park have recently been uprooted to make way for a glamorous new canal-side

Footbridge adjoining the two halves of Zabeel Park

Footbridge adjoining the two halves of Zabeel Park

development (heaven knows we desperately need more upmarket boutiques and restaurants here…). There are other parks nearby though. Mushrif Park is big and green and has some pleasingly wild bits – it’s a good spot for bird-watching, and Zabeel Park is just a twenty minute walk away from our apartment. Last Saturday morning, before it got too hot, we set off to explore Zabeel Park properly. It’s very much a park of two halves – the footbridge that adjoins them straddling a multi-lane motorway. One half of the park is filled with exciting rides and activities for children and permanent barbecue and picnic spots. It hosts the wonderful Ripe Market every weekend; the other half (a hop and a skip over the footbridge) is much quieter. It’s green and peaceful and full of lovely trees.

The quiet bit of Zabeel Park in the early-ish morning light.

The quiet bit of Zabeel Park in the early-ish morning light.

We walked a full circuit of the park and sat down for a while in the shade. The trees were very pleasant company, but I didn’t feel particularly moved to hug anything. On reflection, that may have been for the best, given the attitude to public displays of affection in this part of the world… The forest-bathing will have to wait for my next trip home; until then, a spot of park-paddling will just have to suffice.

Homesick and Heatstruck’s Top Tips for Tree Hugging: 

  1. The best tree hugging is to be had with big, old, wise trees. Young trees have very little to say for themselves. Oak trees give particularly good hugs.

    This tree is too prickly and would not be nice to hug.

    This tree is too prickly and would not be nice to hug.

  2. Ensure you are alone and not observed. People will laugh at you. Or maybe call the police. Alternatively, hug trees with lots of friends – there’s safety (and, indeed, dignity) in numbers.
  3. Select your tree very wisely – and be sure to choose a friendly-looking one. Avoid anything prickly, rotten or potentially poisonous.
  4. Beware of insect nests, territorial squirrels or burly men with axes shouting, ‘Timber!’
Try wrapping your arms around this fella.

Try wrapping your arms around this fella.

Further reading on this topic:


  1. I didn’t realise it could be do green in Dubai. I stupidly thought it was desert, shopping mall or maybe the odd golf course.

    And I don’t think you are bonkers, well no crazier than the rest of us.

    • Hi PN! It IS mainly desert, shopping mall, golf course, beach resort and building site, but there are a few parks (landscaped, planted and artificially irrigated of course) and some of them are big enough to feel like you’re surrounded by green stuff… which is nice 🙂 Most of the pics of trees for this blog were taken in England – but the Zabeel Park one is here, and very nice it is too! Hope you and the Mrs are both well! x

      • We are trying to survive the winter. Roll on summer

  2. Rick

    Informative, interesting and funny: and it goes without saying, beautifully written. I suppose that never having lived too far from trees, I’ve taken them for granted. They are lovely, and it would seem, extremely good for you as well.

    • Sanks! Hope you get a chance to indulge in some winter forest-bathing soon – if it’s not too chilly! xxx

  3. I’ve not actually tried tree-hugging (yet!) but I do find trees are very good for the soul.

  4. We have plenty of trees…and we’re planting more to try to improve the water supplies on the hills – the trees were cut to provide space for coffee and cattle in the 70s and the water has been drying up ever since.

  5. Maybe the Latvians were onto something after all 😉

  6. Another great post. I so enjoy your stories from Dubai. Living in Florida, our surroundings are green all year round and we grow to take it for granted. Thanks for the reminder to appreciate what we have. Having traveled Europe, and loving it, I’d like to make my way to Dubai at some time as a tourist, but don’t think I’d aspire to actually living there. I never would have thought there would be such a glorious park in the middle of deserts!

  7. Will

    Aha! I believe I can remember watching you spontaneously wander over to hug a nearby Oak tree on that walk in the Cotswolds….. Little did I know that it was all part of your research for one of your blogs…. and a beautifully written and uplifting blog it is too….. Will xx

  8. Really interesting and funny post–lovely photographs, too. I feel inspired to go hug a tree now. 🙂

    • 🙂 There should be a national Hug A Tree Day. There probably is, actually…

      • I think you’re probably right. Maybe it’s in the spring along with Earth Day. 🙂

  9. Hugging trees is one of my favorite pastimes. It seems like a silly thing to do…until you do it. It’s cheaper than a therapist, and more reliable.

  10. Confession: Just this morning on a walk around our beautiful Mountain Lake in Moran State Park- I hugged a cedar. It begged me. I would say it would take 2.5 to 3 of me to circle this tree. It’s big. It’s wise. It felt good and made me smile and even chuckle a little.
    Congrats on the book deal.

    • Thanks so much, Wendy! And good to know I’m not alone with the tree-hugging! H&H 🙂

  11. very informative and interesting post. I love forest bathing and tree hugging. When I am in Nepal I used to go for forest bath once or twice a month. We have many green dense forest in Nepal. When I walk through the forest I can’t stop hugging the trees. I love plants, flowers and trees and whenever I see them I feel like embracing them or caress them with care 🙂 . I miss it desperately. I came to Dubai of 25th of Feb. I haven’t seen any greenery yet. 😦 . Seeing the pictures of Zabeel Park make me happy. Thank you very much.

    • Wow – forest bathing in Nepal sounds BRILLIANT!!! Hope you were able to find a bit of solace in Zabeel park. Mushriff park is also lovely – and has a fair bit of ‘wilderness’ 🙂

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