Foxglove in Chelsea Physic Garden
both lifesaver and killer
THE CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN; LONDON'S HIDDEN SECRET
In May of London's Olympic year, I had the good fortune
to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, nestled in an upmarket
residential area close to the heart of Britain's capital city.
Created in the 17th century, it was in this garden that
apothecaries and healers acquired herbal stock for curing all manner
Confined within high walls, London's 'secret garden'
ranks among the oldest of its type in the world, preceded only by a
physic garden in Pisa, Italy and the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Laid out much like a monastery garden with mostly long
narrow beds separated by grassy ribbons, its central feature is a
rock garden pond, made with basalt spewed up by volcanos in Iceland.
In the garden's far corner, Britain's largest outdoor
olive tree produces abundant fruit; tiny bitter olives requiring a
brine soak to render them palatable. Overhanging a stony path
nearby, a massive Cork Oak is adorned with a necklace of bottle
corks. In the early 18th century nursing mothers believed
that wearing cork necklaces would dry up their milk!
Edible plants, medicinal plants and poisonous plants
are all represented here. Until fairly recently outside guides were
permitted to escort tours of the garden but that has been stopped. A
Spanish guide, I was told, allowed three members of her tour group to
taste the round almost black fruit of the Deadly Nightshade. All
three were hospitalized.
Attesting to the danger of some herbal plants, poison
from the husk of the castor oil seed was applied to an umbrella spike
used to kill a Bulgarian dissident in Britain many years ago. I was
surprised to see an apricot tree in the 'Poisonous Garden', then
discovered that the kernel is a source of arsenic.
More delectable is chocolate from the cocoa bean. It
also has medicinal properties. In 1742 Jean-Baptiste Labat, a
Dominican priest and renowned botanist, said dark chocolate quenched
thirst and was flesh forming. In his opinion it restored strength,
encouraged sleep, helped digestion and softened and purified the
blood, preserving health and prolonging life. But there have been
differing opinions on chocolate. Casanova, history's famous lover of
the 18th century, was not impressed with this new
addictive fancy. He claimed it was fit for maid servants only.
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted on Thursday, 28th June 2012