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You arrive at the main entrance well before opening time at 8.00 am. Pity 10,000 other RHS members have the same idea! Once inside, straight into Main Avenue, bumping into hordes, everyone craning their necks to view the world’s greatest showcases for garden designers, nurserymen and garden gadgets. You raise an eyebrow (or two) at Best in Show, then gravitate towards the Great Pavilion plunging deep into the scrum. Bliss for an hour or so – the Pavilion houses horticulture’s finest nursery and floral displays and at least one stunning exhibit pulls at the heart strings – but by mid-afternoon, you’ve had enough.
Emerging from the Chelsea Flower Show you turn left into Royal Hospital Road and a few minutes walk brings you to a healing garden, indeed London’s oldest botanic garden, hidden behind high walls next to the Thames, and the perfect antidote (and sedative!) to the bustle of the Chelsea Show. Chelsea Physic Garden is an extraordinary survivor. This oasis of calm still functions as a living museum and as an outdoor classroom, as it has done since 1673.
Founded to train apothecaries’ apprentices in ‘physic’, the old name for the healing arts, its 3.5 acres holds endless fascination for those interested in alternative medicine, the garden now home to an ethno-botanical Garden of World Medicine which discloses how medicinal plants are used by different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples.
During the 17th century when plants were the major source of medicines, the site beside the Thames embankment was already famed for its market gardens, orchards and several great houses belonging to Henry VIII. The riverside position appealed because the Society of Apothecaries of London needed somewhere to house the gaily painted barges they used for royal pageants and for their celebrated expeditions to collect plants. Add to this the free-draining soil, southerly aspect and an exceptional microclimate which enabled the curators (as the gardeners were known) to cultivate many rare and tender species, including the largest olive tree (Olea europaea) growing in Britain, which still fruits most years in December.
A key phase of development was under the benefactor Sir Hans Sloane in the 18th century – under his auspices the garden was instrumental in developing the American cotton industry (cotton seed was sent to Georgia) and the tea trade in India. Sloane appointed Philip Miller as curator, who made the garden world famous. He trained William Aiton, who became the first curator at Kew, and William Forsyth, after whom Forsythia is named. Miller’s ‘Garden Dictionary’ remained the standard reference work for gardeners for many generations in Britain and America. Many other notable botanists and great plant hunters have also been connected with the garden over the years: Thomas Moore, William Hudson, William Curtis, Sir Joseph Banks, John Lindley and Robert Fortune. The great Swedish botanist Linnaeus was a regular visitor during his lifetime.
The garden was opened to the public in 1983 (it is only unlocked to the public on selected afternoons: www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk). The main grounds are still divided by gravel paths into narrow, rectilinear, systematically-ordered beds which demonstrate plants used in medicine, the perfumery, cosmetic and food industries, as well as plants used in making textiles and dyes. Most of the glasshouses are at the north end (the heated one at the west end is thought to be the first in Europe); in the centre, the world’s first rock garden was built here in 1773 using bits of old stone from the Tower of London, and basaltic lava used as ballast on Sir Joseph Banks’ ship during a voyage to Iceland in 1772. It was restored in 2004 and today is a ‘listed’ feature.
Near to the entrance in Swan Walk, the inexplicably scarce single-flowered Rosa chinensis ‘Crimson Bengal’ was in flower when I visited last February on Snowdrop Day – it blooms prolifically almost all year long. The garden’s winter flower count on New Year’s Day 2007 had 189 open blooms – the highest tally to date. (Many Chinese roses were originally known as Bengal roses because of them having reached gardens in India prior to being introduced to Europe). Obviously planting against a sunny wall helps! A spectacular cloud of yellow flowers of the mimosa, Acacia dealbata, was another highlight; a plant of antiquity Aloe vera was beginning to push up its flower spike inside the conservatory. The Woodland Garden was wonderfully fragrant – from wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, and a variety of sweetbox, Sarcococca confusa, S. ruscifolia, and the heavily sweet-scented S. hookeriana var. digyna with its small, pink-tipped flowers. The garden displays over 100 snowdrop species and cultivars.
During Chelsea week the towering Echium pininana (native to Las Palmas and referred to as Prince of Tenerife, or Tower of Jewels) was in flower to an impressive four metres. This is fast-growing, dies after flowering but self-sows everywhere. So too the more difficult Echium wildpretii (from Tenerife), which struggles but just manages to clear winter in the garden. The charming though invasive umbellifer Smyrnium perfoliatum generated a lime-green haze throughout the Woodland Garden. And look! An exotic, red-blossomed Eucalyptus leucoxylon ‘Rosea’, one of the few red-flowering species to survive outside in England. Other notable trees on this occasion included magnificent examples of the Maidenhair Tree Ginkgo biloba, and the Indian Bean Catalpa bignonioides. Fascinatingly, a member of the pea family and native of southern Africa, Sutherlandia frutescens (aka ‘cancer bush’) and now being used in the fight against AIDS, was a major point of interest.
Revisiting in August there were many additional goodies. On the south-facing wall Punica granatum was in flower still, and regularly fruits with fine pomegranates. A curiosity was the toothache tree Zanthoxylum americanum with spines and knobs along its trunk and branches – the small, round, fleshy fruits smell strongly of cloves when crushed. A most beautiful specimen was found in the collection of Australasian plants, the cow-itch tree, the evergreen Lagunaria patersonii, with its pretty pink flowers resembling a cross between Eucryphia and Hibiscus. A substantial specimen of the night-scented Cestrum parqui bearing panicles of lime green blossom in huge abundance, caught my eye, together with the garden’s very own Eryngium pandanifolium ‘Physic Purple’, a noble evergreen species which sports a 2.5 m branching inflorescence of wonderful structure. But the star of the August garden was a huge Magnolia grandiflora with its ample gloriously lemon-scented chaliced blossoms wafting over the exit on Royal Hospital Road.
This unique ‘secret’ garden offers the perfect escape. There are seats and picnic areas everywhere; there is shade and sun, fragrance, bird-song and the feeling of an old country garden. A remarkable melancholy beauty permeates throughout the site. Chelsea Physic Garden takes part in national and international plant conservation programmes; it holds the National Collection of Cistus under the scheme co-ordinated by the NCCPG; the garden supplies plants for Medical Research and many Physic plants have been proved effective by controlled human medical trials and evaluations. The biggest ‘scrum’ you’ll experience is a well-behaved coach-load of local school children busy with their coloured crayons and collages of fennel, digitalis, and the very black, blobby, highly poisonous berries of Deadly Nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) in this intimate theatre of healing plants on the banks of the Thames. Alternative medicine indeed!
First published in the East Yorkshire Group Newsletter, November 2007
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Mike Hayward
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.
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