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.
One of Miller’s pupils, William Forsyth, succeeded the master gardener in 1771. During his brief tenure of four years, he introduced the genus Forsythia and directed his talent to the cultivation of fruit trees. Forsyth’s demonstrator of plants was William Curtis, the author of Flora Londinensis and founder in 1787 of Botanical Magazine (now The Kew Magazine), which has published more than 10,000 color illustrations and stands as the model for excellence in botanical representation.
During the next several decades, the Chelsea Physic Garden flourished, although the Napoleonic Wars early in the century curtailed its acquisitions and activities for two decades. In 1846, Robert Fortune became curator at the garden. From his numerous trips to China for the Royal Horticultural Society, he made available to European gardeners many new plant varieties. Fortune’s successor, Thomas Moore, extended the number of species grown at the garden by 50 percent, including numerous fern species. During his tenure, the Society of Apothecaries recognized changing social attitudes and in 1877 admitted women students to the garden.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the importance of the garden waned as apothecaries became medical doctors or pharmacists and the role of medical botany in their training diminished. Environmental assaults—increasing atmospheric pollution, a lower water table, and exhausted soil—also threatened the garden’s existence. In 1899, the Society of Apothecaries, alleging that the garden was no longer suitable as a physic garden, relinquished stewardship to the London Parochial Charities, which agreed to help provide the funding needed to maintain the garden.
A Walk Around The Garden
A casual tourist in London might easily miss the Chelsea Physic Garden. Though centrally located, it is unmarked on many maps and minimally advertised. A walk along the Thames carries you past its high brick wall, with no clue to the delights behind it, but take Swan Walk, pass through a tall green door in the wall, and you enter four acres of botanical history.
The gate and its bell tower are more than 300 years old. The garden is laid out in a rectilinear plan that was common in the seventeenth century. Wide graveled walks separate the beds, mostly arranged by botanical family, that slope down to the Thames.
On the right as you enter through the Swan Walk gate is the area dear to herb lovers: the herb and medicinal gardens. This section of the garden is laid out by plant usage. The herb garden includes beds of culinary herbs, plants with edible parts, main-crop vegetables, minor vegetables, fruits, dye plants, ornamental herbs, and the largest olive tree in Britain, which is said to ripen fruit in some years. A Lessons Bed between the herb beds and the medicinal beds contains such look-alikes for comparison as poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), two herbs that you would not want to confuse, no matter which you were intending to use.
The medicinal garden includes beds of traditional and current medicinal plants, plants significant under the “doctrine of signatures”, medicinal plants under active research, poisonous plants, and “officinal” plants—from the Latin “of the storeroom”, meaning those plants that were once sold over the counter as nonprescription medications are today. Plants in this eclectic bed range from medicinal rhubarb (Rheum officinale) to the apothecary rose (Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’) to mandrake (Mandragora officinarum).
The scented-leaved and perfumery plants are in a bed of their own near a cork oak, the bark of which—according to Pomet in the Compleat History of Drugs (1712)—was useful “to hang around the neck to dry up Milk in Nurses Breasts.” To the north, the greenhouse’s Rainforest Corridor houses many medicinal plants from tropical and temperate rain forests. (A Chelsea Physic Garden publication notes that 50 percent of the world’s flora exists within the 7 percent of land surface covered by rain forest.)
The Physic Garden Today
The garden continues to fill its original role as a center for horticultural study, research, and education. It maintains close connections with various colleges of the University of London, the botany department of the British Museum (Natural History), and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The museum continues research at the garden on ferns and pelargoniums. The pharmaceutical firm Glaxo contracts for dried plant material for new drug research. Seeds from the garden travel to 300 institutions worldwide. The garden’s extensive botanical library contains many rare and antique volumes, most on permanent loan from the Society of Apothecaries. Although the library is not open to the public, it is available to researchers.
To focus public awareness, trustees decided in 1983 to open the garden for public viewing. To encourage “green” attitudes among school youth, the Chelsea staff offers its resources for education in botany, conservation, and the natural sciences.
Robbie Cranch is a freelance writer, folklorist, herb gardener, and medieval and Tudor historian. She lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Gary Thomson, currently teaching at a university in England, is from Ontario, Canada. He has written for Country Living, Columbia, and the Canada Medical Journal.