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the secret garden

June 28, 2010

Down a narrow street, just off one of the main roads running through SW3, lies the entrance to one of London’s best kept secrets.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Society of Apothecaries as a place for their apprentices to learn to grow medicinal plants and study their uses. I have visited many, many gardens over the years but never before one where the beds are laid out by medical specialty. In the oncology bed, for example, there is a specimen of yew, taxus baccata, from which the breast cancer drug Taxol is derived. In the psychiatry area we find the herbal sedative, Valerian, as well as a host of others that have been used to treat melancholy or depression, and many other disorders.

Some of the plants are generally well known for their medicinal properties. Poppies, for example, which are a source  of morphine and heroin.

But who knew that the humble broad bean had yielded a medical breakthrough?

This thistle is Sybilum Marinarum, Our Lady’s Milk Thistle, which was once regularly concocted into a solution to promote the flow of breast milk

You can approach this garden in many different ways. You can enjoy it simply as a verdant oasis in one of the busiest cities in the world.

You can admire the planting in the herbaceous border.

You can take it as a rare opportunity to observe what happens to gardens that have been tended continuously for hundreds of years. This tree is not, as I thought, some rare flowering variety.

The flowers actually belong to a specimen of Rosa Brunonii that is growing through the tree and has now reached such a height and blooms in such abundance that it looks as if it has fused with its host.

The whole garden is like a planted encyclopedia. It holds important, hard-won knowledge about plants, their properties and the effects they can have on the human body. It is also a living, growing historical record. It contains, for example, the oldest constructed rock garden in Europe. At the top of the rock garden is a pond, where a little island displays conch shells that were brought back from Tahiti in the mid 18th century by Captain Cook on the Endeavour.

The stones of the rock garden include volcanic basalt transported in the 18th century from Iceland as ballast by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks. Sir Joseph’s bust looms disconcertingly out of the foliage.

The garden is also home to a most agreeable cafe, serving cakes made with orange, lemon, lavender, cinnamon and other botanical ingredients.

It may not be a truly secret garden but I was surprised not to see more people there. It certainly deserves to be better known

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 10:06 pm

    How wonderful, I’ll definitely pay it a visit!

    • JoannaD permalink
      June 29, 2010 8:34 am

      You should! You can add it to your tour of places you haven’t visited in London, which I am enjoying very much.

  2. June 29, 2010 9:31 am

    Thanks for putting the idea of ‘a planted encyclopedia’ out there; it’s a wonderful description of these long-tended medicinal gardens. I enjoy the Oxford Botanic Gardens for the living knowledge it holds, but I had never heard of this garden in London – a secret indeed!

    I must remember to visit next time I am in town.

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