Visiting a London garden twice in eighteen months might seem indulgent when there are so many fabulous gardens to see but the Chelsea Physic Garden was well worth another visit. Second time around I joined a guided tour, something I tend to shy away from but which I highly recommend for this garden. The tours are taken by volunteers and Jane, our guide, was excellent, full of knowledge delivered with humour and authority. The ease with which she remembered countless botanical names was impressive, but she did mention she’d been taking tours for 14 years so had had plenty of practice. I don’t know a lot about medicinal plants so was ready and willing to absorb everything I could.
Jane’s tour was made up of highlights from various areas in the garden and as it’s easy enough to find out about the history of the garden on its website, I’ll concentrate on those.
The pond rockery (which as the name suggests is a rockery with a pond in the middle) was built in the garden in 1773 and is thought to be the oldest rockery in Europe. Several of the stones the rockery was built in have connections to people who, as a New Zealander, I felt an affinity with. Clam shells from Captain James Cook’s voyage to Hawaii and a black basalt stone donated by Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s first voyage when New Zealand was “discovered”, are part of the rockery. I love rockeries and had never seen one with a pond in the centre before so that was a first.
As we moved along Jane introduced us to the philosophy behind the Doctrine of Signatures, an important part of medicine at the time the garden was created in 1673. This was the belief, by those administering to patients, that every plant had a signature, that is if a plant looked like a part of the human body, then it was able to heal illnesses of that body part. I knew that Plumonaria’s common name was lungwort and this explained why, as it was believed that the leaf shape resembled a lung and so Pulmonaria was useful for treating diseases of the lung. Another Dentaria (toothwort) was used for dental ailments. Unfortunately, as Jane told us, none of these treatments worked.
A section on common but poisonous plants caused lots of consternation within the group, especially the deadly aspects of the popular oleander (Nerium oleander). I was standing next to a woman who, in an undertone, told me she was a florist and that they frequently used oleander in their arrangements which seemed more than slightly risky.
The Garden of Useful Plants included a bed full of plants that could be made into tea or tisanes. Like the rest of the garden, the plants were all labelled, which made it easy to identify exactly what plants could be brewed and poured into a cup and saucer.
I’ve long been fascinated by plant hunters and have read frequently of the importance of the Wardian case, which enabled plant hunters to get a much higher proportion of plants home alive. The Wardian case on display was much bigger than I thought it would be although I’m not sure what I was expecting because after all it was designed to transport species found over a period of months.
After the tour we wandered and discovered additional parts of the garden. There were several glasshouses, including one containing a fernery – always a favourite of mine. The glasshouses were various ages. I loved the iron shelving in the Victorian one.
I’m always a sucker for sweet peas and one of the projects the student gardens were given was to plant a bed of sweet peas and stake them. They were all different but all looked lovely and the fragrance was magnificent.
So, I’d urge you when next in London to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden. I know I will, although probably not for another year or two.