Chelsea Physic Garden

Announcement, from the Spring 2014 Newsletter :

“Situated in the heart of London, Chelsea Physic Garden has a unique living collection of over 5,000 different edible, useful, medicinal and historical plants. In 1673 the Society of Apothecaries of London founded a Physic Garden, so that their apprentices could learn how to grow medicinal plants and study their uses. In England this was unusual, as it was not attached to a university.

The Apothecaries chose a four-acre site beside the River Thames, which was already famed for its market gardens and orchards. The mild micro-climate created by the sheltering walls, the river and the Garden’s south facing aspect enabled cultivation of many tender species. After a difficult start, one of the Gardeners made contact with Paul Hermann, the professor of Botany at Leiden University, and by 1683 the two men were exchanging plants and seeds, the most notable being four seedlings of Cedrus libani, the Cedar of Lebanon, which were amongst the first to be cultivated in Britain. The Garden continues to publish an Index Seminum, and still exchanges seeds with botanic gardens around the world.

In 1712 Dr Hans Sloane took over the freehold of the Garden, when he bought the Manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne. He granted the Apothecaries a lease on the land for a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity, on condition that ‘it be for ever kept up and maintained as a physic garden’. This deed of covenant, established in 1722, secured the future of the Garden. Sir Hans Sloane made another great contribution to Chelsea Physic Garden when he appointed Philip Miller as Gardener. Miller (1691-1771) made the Garden world famous during his fifty-year tenure. Miller’s correspondence with the leading botanists of the day generated an exchange of plants and seeds, many of them cultivated in the Garden for the first time.

Carl van Linné (Linnaeus), the great Swedish botanist, made several visits to the Garden in the 1730s and many species first described by Miller still retain the names he ascribed to them.

In 1899 the Apothecaries finally gave up the management of the Garden and it was taken over by the City Parochial Foundation. During this period, university and college students continued to use the Garden for scientific research, but it remained closed to the general public. In 1983 the City of Parochial Foundation decided that they could no longer maintain the Garden, so a new independent charity was set up, and it was decided that the Garden should be open to the public for the first time in its 300 years history.

Today Chelsea Physic Garden is still dedicated to promoting education, conservation and scientific research. The Garden holds approximately 5,000 plants, the collection focusing on medicinal plants and those of ethno botanical interest, as well as rare and endangered species. It also grows plants named or introduced by people associated with the Garden’s history. The mild microclimate allows also cultivating many tender plants, especially from the Mediterranean region and the Canary Islands. This hidden gem is a peaceful green oasis in which to enjoy a fascinating tour. ”

Report on our guided tour on 10 July, by Chantal Tjon

At the end of the morning, while the gardeners were still busy watering the plants, our group was eagerly waiting at the entrance gate to enter this hidden gem in the middle of Chelsea. We started our tour at the statue of Dr. Hans Sloane, where our guide Joanna, explained the importance of this man to the history of this garden. The Society of Apothecaries of London founded the Physic Garden in 1673, but had been struggling with its upkeep. Having made his fortune as being the physician of the governor in Jamaica and by importing cacao to England, he bought the Manor of Chelsea in 1712 and took over the freehold of the garden. In 1716 he granted the apothecaries a lease on the land for a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity on the condition it was to be kept up and maintained as a physic garden. This secured the future of this garden.

photo shows members in front of Dr Hans Sloane's statue

Then we continued by following the historical walk. The historical garden has been planted to show the work of some of the best-known people associated with the garden’s history, through plants introduced or first named by them. One section is understandably dedicated to Philip Miller, the gardener in whose care the Chelsea Physic Garden became an outstanding botanic garden, renowned throughout Europe, particularly for it North American plants. Other sections commemorate seven more men who made major contributions to the garden; not only through donating seeds and plants but also for example like Sir Joseph Banks by bringing back lava from Iceland, collected during his travels.

photo shows sign "croplifters will be propagated"We stopped in front of the school building where a witty sign ‘Croplifters will be propagated’ reminded us how we as visitors should behave ourselves. Chelsea Physic Garden still provides learning programmes and talks to connect people to plants.

Next stop was the impressive old Victorian cool fernery. However, the passage inside was blocked, as behind the barrier the outline of a body was drawn on the floor of the greenhouse! Apparently this was part of the forensic biology workshop where the poisonous effects of plants in forensic investigation are taught.

photo shows the old apothecary's sign over the entranceWe shortly paused at the South gate, the old entrance gate, with on top the shield and crest of the god Apollo, patron of medicine and healing. In the past, this symbol was used for apothecary’s shop signs. In the old days the river Thames was in front of the gate, as transport was mostly by boat at that time.

Three years ago a new part in the garden was introduced: useful- and edible plants. This area displays a range of plants species on which humans depend: from forest fruits and land restoration plants to plants used for hygiene, science and arts. Joanna showed us all sort of interesting useful plants like the flax plant which fibres were utilized for the linen bandaging of mummies or cacti which needles were used for microphones.

We ended our interesting tour at the garden where it all started: the garden of medicinal plants. Recently redesigned and opened on 1 April this year, this garden displays the extended collection of medicinal plants, the use of which dates back thousands of years. Small garden ‘rooms’, separated by low brick walls, have been created and some are dedicated to different forms of diseases, others have an ethno-botanical layout showing plants from every region of the world and their key medicinal uses. At the end of our tour Joanna pointed out the Wardian case, invented by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, which carried one of the tea plants, smuggled from China by Robert Fortune in order to set up tea plantations in Assam in 1848. Dr. Ward became master of the Society of Apothecaries in 1854.

After the extensive tour in which Joanna tried to share as much of her botanical knowledge as possible, the group headed for a delicious lunch at the garden café, nicely situated in the garden. We would like to thank Joanna for guiding us around in this unique historical site and the Events Committee for organising this interesting and educational excursion.

photo shows a cart used by travelling apothecaries