Less than 24 hours after our plane touched down at Heathrow we are visiting our first true London garden–not quite a record for me in a foreign country, but close. I just could not see enough of the Buckingham Palace garden to call it a true visit. Dave and I walked the 1.7 miles from Queen E.’s turf to take in the beauty of London’s oldest botanic garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden. While the green stuff is more my passion than that of my pharmacist husband he could not help but admit he was intrigued with the history and purpose of this 4 acre walled garden which was establish in 1673.
The Worshipful Societies of Apothecaries purchased this plot of land on the River Thames for the purpose of training apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants. It would also serve as the base for their extensive livery services which moved goods up and down the Thames. The proximity to the river allowed the Apothecaries to moor their barges, collect plants in the surrounding areas and take advantage of the river’s warm currents which contributed to the location having a very favorable microclimate for growing a wide variety of useful plants. The establishment of the garden also allowed plants from other parts of the world to be introduced to Great Britain through the garden’s Apothecaries. In the 1700s the garden’s establishment of a global seed exchange system called Index Seminum solidified its international reputation. This seed exchange still exists today!
In 1680, a physician trainee named Hans Sloane apprenticed at the Chelsea Physic Garden and would eventually play a pivotal role in the life of the garden. As other transportation forms emerged and the monopoly of the barge livery service declined, business slowed and the Apothecaries were no longer financially solvent. Hans Sloane, now a successful physician, purchased the 4 acres and the surrounding land, called Chelsea Manor. Dr. Sloane then leased back the garden area to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for the sum of 5 pounds per year. This business arrangement remains intact–the non-profit organization called Chelsea Physic Garden pays 5 pounds per year to the descendants of Dr. Sloane and the garden has flourished for 300 years as London has developed around it. It remains a hidden gem behind brick and stone walls and serves not only as an educational resource but also as a place of respite from a bustling city.
Our docent, Zoe, started our tour in the shadow of this statue of Dr. Hans Sloane which stands in the garden’s axis. We found that we were the only visitors in our group who were not residents of Great Britain!
There are multiple sections of the garden and the contents of each is organized differently. For example, in one section of small formal beds each represents a different part of the world and its medicinal plants as they were known in the 1600 and 1700s. The star of this area as you see below is an interesting built up rock garden, some rocks having come from the Tower of London and others from distant Polynesian volcanic islands. This area had been spruced up a bit in Victorian times with the addition of a pond water feature accented by a giant clamshell–the vignette tips its hat to the plant crazed late 1800s when British adventurers traveled the world procuring specimen plants to add to both public and private collections.
Also of note tucked in a corner of the Garden of Medicinal Plants is the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in England and the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree–both of which thrive in the garden’s warm microclimate.
The Garden of Medicinal Plants features formally ordered small beds highlighting plants deemed to cure various ills–many of which were the precursors to modern medicines. This area was especially interesting to Dave and by the time we were halfway through Zoe was looking to him for interesting information to add to her talking points. Each small bed featured an exhibit citing the general medical arena in which the plants were thought to be useful and historical information of how those plants, in fact, do yield curative substances used today. I am not sure you can read the titles on these but they are ENT & Lung Diseases, Analgesics & Anesthetics and Oncology.
The Poisonous Plants Bed featuring a huge Castor Bean lurks behind the Medicinals. Behind the skull and crossbones section I saw the Abhorrent Arbour vining up on the side of the Glasshouses (what Americans call greenhouses.) As its name suggests, vines with nose wrinkling qualities entwine the structure. Zoe noted that most plant material is left to its natural life cycle in the garden as the medicinal capabilities may be found in the roots, stems, leaves, seeds or mature pod casings at various points of development.
We wandered through the Atlantic Islands Border, featuring many rare and endangered plants of the Canary and Madeira Islands and Crete and the Garden of Useful Plants in which we saw plants grown for their fibers or other parts used in making needed household goods.
The Historical Walk introduced us to several people whose contributions to the world of botany and association with this garden are noteworthy. I was especially interested in the story of Robert Fortune who was the garden’s curator when he left in 1848 on a trip to China. He traveled on behalf of the East India Trading Company to collect tea plants for cultivation in the northern hills of India, then a British colony. He also perfected the Wardian Case which was a sort of mini greenhouse designed to transport seedlings successfully in the holds of great sailing ships through voyages many months or even years in length.
This intensively cultivated 4 acres also includes a World Woodland Garden, a Garden of Edible Plants, Sweet Pea Avenue, a Fernery (unfortunately closed for renovation) and many other delights. They offer lectures and classes throughout the year along with Family Days focused on child friendly activities. On our Sunday afternoon visit the lawn area bordering the cafe was full of families still dressed in their church clothes with “packed lunches”, blankets, books and bubble wands.
Our tour ended at a pair of gypsy style caravans used in educational programs. The one pictured below features the life and pursuits of Dr. Sloane, the garden’s benefactor. The other, unfortunately in too much shade to photograph well, introduces the work of Dr. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who formalized the modern system of binomial nomenclature. I was humbled to know that I have been writing scientific plant names improperly all my life. I learned that in the two name system of genus first, then species, the genus and species are always either in italics or underlined, the genus is always capitalized and the species is not. I stand corrected and will endeavor to do better!
I’ll close this post with a few more photos of this lovely not quite secret garden. As always, there is never enough room to share every photo. I hope you’ll enjoy those I have selected and give a thought, if ever in London, to step away from the glitz and glamour of Kensington and Kew to see this tiny tribute to Great Britain’s contribution to the botanic world.