Garden Profile: London's Chelsea Physic Garden

| December/January 1995

  • Sir Hans Sloane, the garden’s benefactor, surveys the history of medicine beds.
    Photographs courtesy of the Trustees of the Chelsea Physic Garden Company
  • Castor bean (Ricinus communis), which is used medicinally in the Ayurvedic treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, is featured in the Indian bed of the Garden of World Medicine.
  • The herb and medicinal beds at the Chelsea Physic Garden are concentrated in one quadrant, to the right as you enter the garden from the Swan Walk gate.

In the heart of metropolitan London grows a garden of living history: the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is the oldest teaching garden in continuous use in the Western world, and it is of particular interest to herb lovers because its purpose for more than 300 years has been the study of useful plants.

In 1673, at a time when ornamental gardens were rapidly increasing in size and popularity, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London founded the four-acre garden alongside the Thames. The apothecaries, who dispensed medications, attended to patients, and often prepared and sold medicinal compounds of their own, were charged as a guild with strict accountability for the purity, honesty, and standard strength of their ingredients. As a result, they had a lively interest in both member education and plant research. One of the best ways to address these interests was to create a “garden of simples” where apothecaries and their apprentices could learn the identity, habits, and properties of medicinal plants.

To distinguish their garden from the newly popular pleasure gardens, the apothecaries identified their guild’s proj­ect as a “physic” garden. Knowledgeable instructors accompanied students along “herborizing” paths, guiding them in studying familiar and exotic plants for their therapeutic qualities.

A Walk Through History

The Chelsea Physic Garden got off to a shaky start. The apothecaries were not a wealthy guild, and operating funds were hard to come by. In addition, apothecary John Watts, the curator, lost interest in the garden during his advancing years, and new plantings lacked direction and purpose.

Financial solvency came in 1712 when Dr. Hans Sloane purchased the Manor of Chelsea and so became owner of the garden’s freehold. Wealthy and influential, Sloane had studied at the garden during his training as a physician. In 1722, he granted a lease in perpetuity to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year “on condition that it be for ever kept up and maintained by the Company as a physick garden.”

In the same year, Sloane appointed Philip Miller as curator. Son of a market gardener, Miller soon gained a reputation for stubborn excellence and obsessive secrecy in his procurement of new plantings. Diligence, achievement, and notoriety marked his forty-eight years of service. He planted numerous specimens from Europe, such as tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum), and from the Americas, including balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and American barberry (Berberis canadensis). He also acquired, via the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, a specimen from Madagascar: Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). Miller oversaw the export of cottonseed to colonial Georgia to found the staple crop. And throughout his tenure, he worked on his Gardeners Dictionary, the first modern encyclopedia of horticulture, which ran into its eighth edition during his lifetime. He also trained many botanists who later assumed prominence in British horticulture.

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