The Chelsea Physic Garden

The heart of London is not where one would expect to find a garden of Mediterranean plants, but since the 17th century, medicinal plants, many of them from Mediterranean climates and more recently a collection of plants endemic to the island of Crete, have been grown on a south-facing, 3.8-acre site in the borough of Chelsea that has been a conservation, research and educational center for hundreds of years. On what used to be the bank of the River Thames (now just across a busy road) the site was granted to the Society of Apothecaries in 1673 by Sir Hans Sloane for 5 pounds a year, a sum still paid to his heirs. The Chelsea Physic Garden was originally where apothecary apprentices could learn to grow the plants that were the prime source of medicines. On the riverbank, the apothecaries kept painted barges that took them on «herborizing» expeditions to collect plants, as well as on royal pageants. Since those early beginnings, the garden has seen continuous development under a serious of gifted gardeners, as the curators were then called, including Philip Miller and William Forsyth. Since 1983, the garden has been run by an independent charity and is open to the public on certain days. From the Greeks Kathimerini English Edition visited the garden last month and talked to the present curator, Rosie Atkins, formerly the editor of Gardens Illustrated magazine. «In the early days, a lot of what the apothecaries knew dated back to Theophrastus and Dioscorides, whose knowledge was not based on superstition but on observation. The apothecaries were the first who really wanted to study plants. They were at the period of our history called the Enlightenment, when people were moving away from superstition and looking more toward science for explanations.» An early gardener, John Watts, initiated an exchange of information and plants with the professor of Botany at Leiden University, as well as with Padua, Pisa and other old establishments in Europe. «At that time, many of the ‘physic’ gardens were attached to medical institutions, as one couldn’t actually study medicine without studying botany,» explained Atkins. «There was a great awakening of knowledge and interest in what plants could do for us – people saw there was money in this, and power. In those days, the enlightened few knew something about everything, unlike today where we specialize. Sir Hans Sloane, our original benefactor, was a physician, a collector, philanthropist, botanist, astrologer. They learnt it all from the Greeks. The idea that the natural world wasn’t connected was an anathema. They all became obsessed with trials and observations.» Over the centuries, the garden has received a number of plant collections – among them some 500 specimens gathered by Joseph Banks on his 1770 voyage around the world with Captain Cook. The garden faces south and is protected by the city from north winds, and the special microclimate enables the cultivation of many tender species, including the largest olive tree growing outside in Britain. Although many of the Mediterranean plants were under wraps for the winter, in one corner of the garden, Greek favorites such as Origanum dictamus (dittany, diktamo in Greek), Campanula cretica, Smyrnium creticum and Iris unguicularis were growing, obviously happy enough away from their usual habitat. Cretan collection The Cretan collection, donated by Nicholas Turland (the author of «Flora of the Cretan Area») in 1992-1993, has been increased with wild collected seed in recent years by John Fielding, the photographer and plantsman who has also just published a major book on flora called «Flowers of Crete.»  «It is an ideal botanic garden plant collection as it gives a good representation of a flora (i.e. Cretan plants), is taxonomically accurate and has extremely good provenance (the majority of the plants are wild, collected with good collection notes),» said Ed Ikin, the assistant head gardener who is in charge of the collection. «It is also a good educational tool, as it raises interesting questions about conservation and shows good examples of how geographical isolation can lead to increased speciation,» he added. «As far as we know, the collection has not been used by Greek botanists but we would welcome them.» Research and education Today the Chelsea Physic Garden is a place where the uses of plants are studied and demonstrated to the public through lively educational programs and where many threatened species are conserved. There is a taxonomist who updates the records, an important part of the garden’s work, as is its collaboration with the Natural History Museum. Although dependent on its members and donations, the garden’s management also earns revenue for it in other ways, such as hiring out its facilities to the English Gardening School for its design and practical horticulture courses and making the grounds available for social functions. The Chelsea Physic Garden, which is located at 66 Royal Hospital Rd, London SW3 4HS (internet site at, tel +0207.352.5646) is open to the public from April to October on Wednesdays from noon until 5 p.m. and Sundays from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.