Andrea here, Where I live in New England, the weather has been unseasonably chilly, so the unfurling of Spring hasn’t yet burst into full bloom. But the flickers of nascent green and tantalizing hints of color from early flowers in the local gardens give promise that my daily walks will soon be alive with the sights and scents of the natural world cycling into its peak season.
Now, I’m not gardener. I’m too impatient to wait for several years for tiny plants mature into the original vision for the space. And weeding, mulching, deadheading feels like drudgery . . . I am much happier appreciating the work of others!
Which is to say, I very much enjoy gardens for the pure sensory pleasure of seeing the colors and textures, and savoring the scents and sounds of the bees busy at work pollinating. But I also find that I have a special appreciation for “practical” gardens, like herb gardens. And my very favorite are physic gardens, which are designed for medicinal purposes.
So in the spirit of celebrating the start here in the Northern hemisphere of gardens come to life, I thought I'd give a quick look at the history of Chelsea Physic Garden, one of Britain’s oldest gardens devoted to medicinal plants.
I’m intrigued by the “cutting edge” concept that sparked the creation of physic gardens. In an age where medical practices were still ruled by the ideas of ancient Greeks—the four humors that must be balanced by purging or bloodletting, to name just one ghastly guiding principle—there were a number of people who were beginning to understand through empirical knowledge the potent healing properties of plants.
And so, wishing to establish an abundant source of useful plants close at hand, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries established the Apothecaries’ Garden in 1673 on a four-acre plot of land leased from Sir John Danvers, who had his own well-established garden situated along the bank of the River Thames in Chelsea, a rural enclave in London.
The Society deliberately chose the river location, as the water setting ensured a currents of warmer air. Building a high wall around the garden perimeter also helped form a microclimate conducive to growing a variety of plants. Some of the notable exotic specimens including a fruit-bearing olive tree and hothouse pineapples.
The river location was useful in other ways as well. It allowed a convenient way to travel upstream by barge and explore the countryside for local medicinal specimens, and as London was a major port city, with ships arriving all the time from both the New World and the East, it made it easy for exotic specimens to make their way from the dockland to Chelsea.
In 1713, Sir Hans Sloane purchased the land on which the garden was located, and in 1722, he leased it in perpetuity to the Society for the yearly fee of £5. (Today the garden still pays the fee to Sloane’s descendants!) His only requirement was that the Society supply the Royal Society with 50 herbarium samples per year for their collection.
The 1700’s were the golden age of physic gardens as more and more connections were made with like-minded gardeners both in Britain and abroad, and seed exchange programs were initiated. (Many of which still continue to this day.) The sharing of botanical knowledge knowledge was hugely important and led to a number of important developments in both medicine and economics. For example, cotton is thought to have been introduced to Georgia as the result of early seed exchanges.
Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist and one of the founders of the Royal Botanic Gardens, helped advise the head gardener on the Society’s collection from the late 1700s until 1814. The Society continued to evolve and pursue its mission throughout the 19th and 20th century as a private Society, and the garden itself was not open to the public. That changed when in 1983 it became a registered charity. It’s now open to all! Today, it features close to 5,00 different edible and medicinal plants.
I have a balcony garden of planters filled with herbs, but that’s the extent of my gardening prowess. What about you? Are you a gardener? Do you grow edible plants, herbs or medicinals like chamomile for tea? Do you have a favorite historic garden?