CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN, LONDON'S SECRET HIDEAWAY
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.
Visitors exploring in Chelsea Physic 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.
The Physic Garden Cork Oak
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.
Deadly Poisonous Foxgloves
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.
In the Chelsea Physic Garden pesticides are an unknown
entity. Thirty tons of manure arrive every winter from the
Buckingham Palace garden. On this rich and nutritious diet the
plants thrive. The resident bees are happy too with their
pesticide-free environment. Peter James - the beekeeper – tends
the garden hives and last year harvested 100 kilos of honey from a
Chelsea Physic Garden Coat of Arms
You may wonder who in the past kept this garden
weed-free and beautiful. It certainly wasn't the apothecaries.
Until the turn of the century women were banned from entering the
gardens except for “weeding women” who were paid the paltry sum
of sixpence a day. Fortunately pay and conditions have changed, but
the rent for the garden - five pounds per annum when Sir Hans Sloane
was the landlord in the early 18th century - remains
frozen in time, a mere pittance for what today must be one of
London's most expensive pieces of real estate.
Five hundred years after its inception, the Chelsea
Physic Garden is a place of delightful tranquility where perfume from
scented herbs and the twittering of birds is a perfect locale for
rest and learning. Its early rural loveliness – flower-filled
meadows, fields and farms - have been replaced by London sprawl, but
it still retains a fascination with a history that attracts a
never-ending flow of plant loving tourists from around the world.
Photos copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Monday, 13th August, 2012