26 July 2015
During the early miles of Moonwalk 2013, I noticed a mysterious looking door in a high brick wall as we were making our way through Chelsea. A sign told me this was the Chelsea Physic garden and, of all the things I saw during that long, long night, the name stuck in my mind. I wanted to see behind that door. Finally, more than two years later, I was going inside. Admittedly, it was a miserable wet day and I had CJ with me so I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be quite what I’d imagined.
The door we went through wasn’t the door I saw on Royal Hospital Road, it was around the corner in Swan Walk. Inside was a small green and white hut where we paid our money.
“You’re just in time for the next tour,” the man said.
“Is it OK if we give the tour a miss and just have a wander?” I asked, thinking a tour might be more than CJ could bear. When he was a child, he loved to mess about in the garden, breaking bits off plants and sticking them in the ground. More often than not they grew. At one point I had four or five Rosemary plants as testement to this. Even so, he isn’t especially interested in plants these days.
Chelsea Physic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in Britain, established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for its apprentices to study the medicinal properties of plants. There has been a garden on the site for far longer though, the land on which it stands was originally the garden of Danvers House, leased from Sir John Danvers by the society. Sadly, Danvers House was demolished in 1696 to make way for Danvers Street. Then, in 1713, Dr Hans Sloane purchased the four acre Manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne and leased it to the society in perpetuity for the sum of £5 a year and an anual supply of herbarium samples for the Royal Society.
Interesting as the history is, for me it was all about the plants. It was still drizzling gently as we set off, rather aimlessly, along the path. The high brick walls and the nearby river Thames create a warm monoclimate allowing an impresive array of non native plants to survive the harsh British winters. The first we came to were not especially exotic but lovely nonetheless. Tall spikes of acanthus stood beside the bright rays of inula by a low stone wall. To me these have always been ornamental plants but it turns out acanthus leaves and roots are used for the treatment of dislocated joints and to soothe burns. Inula, otherwise known as elecampane, was used to treat respiratory illnesses and to stop night sweats in menopausal women.
Fairly quickly, it became obvious we were never going to see everything and I adopted a rather arbitrary method, taking pictures of the nicest looking plants as we strolled along. The showy composite flowers of echinacea with their beautiful dark domed centres fell perfectly into this category. There were several varieties planted close together and I snapped away happily. These are actually North American natives, growing on the moist dry prairie. These days echinacea seems to be used as a kind of cure all herbal remedy but it’s main use is to help fight infections, especially colds and respiratory illnesses.
Amongst the plants there were white ceramic bottles on spikes giving the names of the plants and some of their uses. This was helpful as trying to recall names was proving quite taxing for my poor brain and some plants I’d never seen before. One I did recognise was bee balm or wild bergamot, although the central flowers had already fallen leaving just the spiky outer star. Used as a tea to treat colds and throat infections it can also be made into a poultice to soothe minor wounds. The strange aloe like plant nearby was a mystery to me and, as I couldn’t find a label nearby, I’m still none the wiser.
We found plenty of old favourites as we wandered. The oriental poppies, or at least their seedheads, needed no introduction, and their medicinal uses are well known. There were some extremely spiny thistles and I was surprised to learn thistles can be used to treat inflamation and as a poultice for aching joints. Surprisingly, even the humble clematis can be used for joint pain, headaches, varicose veins and applied to the skin to treat blisters and wounds. Who knew?
Then there were the scabious, pretty mauve and white flowers and interesting papery balls of seed heads. They have no end of uses, coughs, fevers, inflamation, blood purifier, dandruff, sores, spots, sore throats, Culpepper even thought they’d cure the plague! The more I saw the more astonished I became. So many plants I’d thought purely decorative are actually useful herbs.
During the 1700’s the physic garden became the most richly stocked botanic garden in the world when Philip Miller established a seed exchange program after a visit from Dutch botanist Paul Herman of the Hortus Botanicus Leiden. The program continues to this day. When we entered the first of the greenhouses we came face to face with one of the exotics, a tall plant hanging with large lantern like orange trumpets. This was brugmansia or angel’s trumpet, closely related to datura and extinct in the wild. They contain alkaloids used as anti asthmatics, narcotics and anesthetics. To me they were just beautiful flowers.
Between this greenhouse and the next CJ found a display of chillies in pots and suddenly any worries I’d had about him being bored evaporated. For some reason he’s a bit of a chilli officionado and soon he was pointing out the hottest ones. When he gently rubbed a leaf between his fingers the strong chilli smell filled the air. Maybe, when I get my potting shed, I’ll have to buy him some chilli seeds.
When we entered the next greenhouse CJ’s eyes actually lit up. It was full of insect eating plants, the kind you see in giant form in horror films devouring people. He was fascinated by them. Amongst the cobra lilies and drosera were mosses and liverworts but it was the carnivores he was interested in. I swear I saw him looking around for a fly victim to feed to one of them. While I admit they have a strange kind of beauty, especially the drosera with those rays ending in shiny balls of sticky stuff, I don’t think I’d want them in my garden.
The next greenhouse was filled with ferns. Of course, after the carnivores, these didn’t hold much interest for CJ and we passed through with more speed than I’d have liked. There was some mild interest in the stags horn fern but we were soon back out in the garden. Here we saw a swaying mass of beautiful blue agapanthus. Having always thought of these stunning plants as purely decorative I was surprised to see such a long list of uses. They contain an oxytocin substance that can be used to hasten childbirth, as a heart tonic, anti fungal for both humans and plants, an anti inflammatory, expectorant and also lower blood prensure.
There was a cafe near the greenhouses but we both declared ourselves to be all coffeed out and passed it by. We wandered along winding paths, stopping now and then to look at interesting plants or attractive groupings. Although the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries has been collecting and studying plants here for hundreds of years it hasn’t always been possible for outsiders to see behind the high brick walls. In 1876 young women training to be botany teachers were allowed inside to attend lectures but still the garden was a mystery to most. At the end of the ninteenth century the City Parochial Foundation took over the running of the garden and, almost a hundred years later, in 1983, members of the public were finally allowed to visit.
We found a gigantic fatsia japonica that put the tiny specimen in our garden to shame. As I’d always thought it was mildly poisonous I was surprised to see it but, apparently, it has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Even so I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to the garden to eat any. CJ was astonished to see what artichokes looked like when they were growing and flowering. Most people have eaten artichoke at one time or another. Although I don’t really care for it myself it was interesting to learn the leaves contain a compound that increases bile production, protects the liver and lowers cholesterol. Maybe I should eat it more often.
Around the next corner we discovered some more of the exotic plants. The magical microclimate must work wonders to allow an orange tree to grow in Southern England. The oranges were small but perfectly formed although I imagne they would be bitter tasting and good for nothing but marmalade. The wonderful neroli scent of the tiny white flowers more than made up for any shortfall the fruit may have had though. Then there was the mulberry tree. In Tudor times the first mulberries were brought to England because, as everyone knows, silkworms feed on the mulberry tree. Medicinally a decoction of the bark and leaves will cure toothache and I’m told the berries are delicious although I’ve never tried them.
When we stumbled upon a lovely raised pond and rock garden I wasn’t aware that this was actually the oldest English alpine garden. Neither was I aware that some of the stones used came from the Tower of London. There is also Icelandic lava, brought to the garden by Sir Joseph Banks on the ship St Lawrence in 1772. Maybe I should have looked at them more closely. I did like the giant shell in the centre of the pond though.
It was a surprise when we turned the next corner to find ourselves back where we’d started, by the little green and white hut. We’d obviously completed a circuit of the garden. Of course there was certainly a great deal we missed but, in my mind, that’s just an excuse to come back. It was time to go but there was one more thing to see before we did. As we’d walked around we’d noticed a statue in the centre of the garden, now it was time for a closer look. This is actually a replica of a statue of Sir Hans Sloane, who’s generosity guaranteed the continuation of the garden. The original, sculpted by Michael Rysbrack in 1733, was damaged by pollution and is now in the British Museum.
Our time in the garden was at an end but not our time in London. There was still a lot more to see…