I’m already dreaming of pie when we take one of London’s ubiquitous black cabs to the Chelsea Physic Garden. I know nothing about the garden, but we’ve been offered a free tour and lunch afterwards and the chef’s reputation proceeds him.
The cab drops us off outside a tall featureless brick wall on the Royal Hospital Road, where the red-coated Chelsea Pensioners live, as the actual entrance to the garden on Swan Walk is blocked by roadworks. Our friend and guide awaits at the ticket booth and as we greet each other the morning rain stops. The garden’s plants are left with a shimmering gleam of water droplets that make the air misty and magical. As we are first whisked to the Pharmaceutical Garden by our enthusiastic host, we begin to realize what a hidden gem of a space we have stumbled into.
It was established as the Apothecaries’ Garden on the banks of the River Thames in 1673, making it the third oldest herbal garden in Britain after similar plots of land in Oxford and Edinburgh.
The Druids were the earliest healers in ancient Celtic Britain. With the Roman invasion in 50 AD the medical teachings of the classical world were introduced. A lot of this knowledge came from a text by a Greek physician to the Roman army named Dioscorides (c. 40-90 AD). He recorded the medicinal value of over 600 plants in his five-volume encyclopedia, De Materia Medica, which was still in use until the 17th century. In mediaeval Europe most of the care of the sick fell to monasteries. The monks cultivated herbs and medicinal plants in their gardens. The officina was a building or room were the plants were stored and where the monks made their potions and lotions from about 1100. When Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) created his system for naming plants, he coined the word officianalis to describe plants with strong medicinal properties. Over time officianalis came to denote plants with a long history of medicinal use.
With the dissolution of the monasteries, people relied more on folk remedies, but much of this healing was driven underground when women healers were persecuted as witches. However, a female healer introduced foxgloves to physician William Withering (1741-1799) as a remedy for heart ailments, leading him to experiment and develop safe doses of digitalis officianalis.
After the invention of the printing press, new ‘herbals’ were published for healers and apothecaries, many of which formed part of the library of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, more than 400 years ago. About 50 years later, they decided to create a garden on a leased site in Chelsea. In 1722 one of the generous members of the Royal Society leased an adjacent four acres to the Apothecaries for £5 a year, in perpetuity, requiring only herbal samples annually.
The garden flourished, because the Apothecaries could bring the plants directly into the garden by boat. It’s south facing location and the high brick wall created a micro-climate which allowed some Mediterranean plants to flourish. Unfortunately, during the Victorian era, river access was chopped off to make way for the Chelsea Embankment, and later part of the north side was lost to road improvements. Still, a very worthwhile three-and-a-half acres remain. The garden was a jealously guarded secret during the four-century tenure of the Apothecaries, but in 1983 it became a registered charity and was opened to the public for the first time.
Our guide leads us to a series of plants which have helped man and woman-kind, starting with rosacea alchemilla vulgaris, which according to a healer named Culpepper, writing in 1653: “… is very (useful) for such women and maids as have great flagging breasts causing them to grow less.”
Atropine drops from the atripa belladonna, or deadly nightshade plant, dilate the pupil. Dating back to Cleopatra in 100 BC, women used the poison to cosmetically enlarge their pupils, and it’s now used by opthalmologists, we learn. Compounds derived from St. John’s wort have been used in the treatment of drug overdoses. Medicines made from cassia senna are used as a purgative or laxative. There’s more, much more.
Apart from the garden we are standing in, where plants are arranged according to the ailment they are used to treat, there’s a Garden of World Medicine, with medicinal plants arranged by the culture which uses them, and a garden of edible and other useful plants. Here we find Britain’s largest fruiting olive tree. In 1976, the head gardener collected seven pounds of ripe olives, which is a London crop record.
Our tour concludes in the World Woodland Garden, where I admire giant palms, quite out of place in London. It’s not all science. There’s beauty here too, even in the autumn with most flowering plants gone to seed. The greenhouses hold tropical plants which flower all year round and unlock more medicinal mysteries. A pretty pond and rockery of unusual Mediterranean and alpine plants, reputed to be Europe’s oldest, is overlooked by a statue of benefactor Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). So, I naturally feel I should buy a bar of orange chocolate, named for him, when visiting the garden’s nice little shop.
During his voyage to Jamaica in 1707 he observed the use of chocolate mixed with milk as a remedy for sickly children. The cure is “greatly recommended by several eminent physicians especially those of Sir Hans Sloane’s acquaintance for its lightness on the stomach and its great use in all consumptive cases” declares the label. I do share the bar, but I’m not convinced my portion will sit lightly on my belly. Sloane sold the recipe for milk chocolate to Cadburys, which made him very wealthy and allowed him to become a generous supporter of many cultural initiatives. In addition to his generosity in donating the garden, Sloane was also instrumental in the foundation of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Lunch in the Tangerine Dream Café is a well-earned pleasure. Don’t expect anything formal, or even very organized. It’s possible the servers and the cashier are volunteers, as ordering from the buffet is a bit chaotic and the food arrives at our table slowly. But when it does, it’s wonderful. Chef apparently hails from the well-regarded River Café and knows his stuff. The pear tart we conclude our meal with is transcendental.
Now that winter approaches, the garden is limiting its hours and is closed on weekends. The next big event in the Christmas Fair, promising decorated Christmas trees, carols, mulled wine, handmade wreaths, gifts and gobs of food and drink. Tickets can be pre-booked on their website for Saturday, November 25 and Sunday, November 26. Then the garden and the plants head for a long winter sleep to revive in the spring with new growth.