The fact that Chelsea Physic Garden has a distinct microclimate is fitting for a place that’s a world of its own. Entering from a discreet walled entrance feels like finding a genuine London secret garden, and the deeper you go, the more you want to know about this fascinating, calming and unique place.
The garden’s microclimate is the result of its south-facing aspect, shelter from tall buildings on three sides, and the warm air that flows from the river on the fourth side. This fortunate combination contributes to the flourishing of 5,000 species of edible, useful, medicinal and historical plants, including the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain, an avenue of sweet peas and the most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree in the world.
Flying, crawling and hunting among these plants is a host of wildlife, including a species of aquatic micro-moth that, according to garden staff, has never been seen before in Britain. And let’s not forget the thousands of human beings who have flocked here to relax, heal and learn for over 340 years – not least the recovering soldiers of the First and Second World Wars who were prescribed visits here to aid their recuperation.
As well as being an oasis of calm in the city, Chelsea Physic Garden is also an independent charity dedicated to demonstrating how important plants are to our survival and wellbeing. The charity organises an impressive number of events and courses to educate all ages about using the medicinal, economic, cultural and environmental benefits of plants to our advantage. Courses range from introductions to beekeeping, perfumery and propagation, to using the 5,000-year-old practice of Ayurveda in daily life.
300 years of botanical history
Founded as the Apothecaries’ Garden in 1673, Chelsea Physic Garden has always been a place dedicated to healing. It was created to train budding physicians in identification of medicinal plants – the garden’s location next to the river provided convenient transport and its inbuilt boatyard meant plants could be dropped-off and stored quickly and easily.
Prominent plant hunters such as Robert Fortune were brought in to be curators of the garden, helping its reputation immensely, and it was soon playing a central role in the introduction of plants from around the world to the British Isles. It was also crucial in introducing the rubber industry to Malaysia, transporting cotton to the Southern US and establishing the tea industry in India – plants would stop here on their way to their final destination.
Sir Hans Sloane’s training at Chelsea Physic Garden wasn’t to be his last encounter with it; he would later acquire the garden with his purchase of the Manor of Chelsea in 1713, and lease it back to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for £5 a year. A lot has changed in the 300 years since but, incredibly, the price of the rent hasn’t. £5 a year is quite a bargain for three acres in Chelsea these days! Sir Hans Sloane’s involvement with Chelsea Physic Garden is now marked with a statue of the man himself, which stands proudly at its centre.
A place of healing
Eighty per cent of the world’s population use herbal medicine as their main source of healthcare. The Garden of Medicinal Plants at Chelsea Physic Garden displays many of the most important healing specimens in a fitting tribute to the healing power of nature, and the ways that plants have helped influence the pills and potions we buy from a chemist.
It’s also fitting that the many countries of origin in the Garden of Medicinal Plants reflect the cosmopolitan nature of London’s population. Walking through it gives a sense that herbal medicine brings together many centuries of tradition, knowledge and experimentation from countless different cultures for one purpose: the wellbeing of humankind.
From asthma and arthritis to Parkinson’s disease and childhood leukaemia, there seems to be a plant here to treat any illness or ailment. And they come in every aesthetic imaginable – from mundane weeds and herbs that can treat high cholesterol and constipation or help lift depression, to beautiful flowers used in cancer drugs.
Catharanthus roseus (Madagascar Periwinkle): This beautiful flower, native to Madagascar, is an ingredient in anti-cancer drugs that are used to treat childhood leukaemia.
Vicia faba: Also known as the broad bean, this plant aids in controlling the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Probably originated in the Middle East, before spreading to Europe.
Ammi majus: Contains psoralens which, taken orally or applied to the skin, cause photosensitivity; used against psoriasis and vitiligo.
Ocimum tenuiflorum: Dedicated to Vishnu, this herb is traditionally used to increase stress-resilience and reduce blood sugar. Now used for fevers, bronchitis and asthma.
Sedum spectabile: Also known as the ice plant; used as a decoction for sore throats. The fresh leaves are applied to abscesses and bruises.
Illicium verum: The shikimic acid in star anise is the foundation of the synthetic drug oseltamivir, the basis of Tamiflu. It is used for treating bird flu, swine flu and influenza A and B.
Plantago species: The seeds of this common lawn weed produce a thickening agent which, when eaten, reduces cholesterol and helps treat constipation.
Vitex agnus-castus: Thought to regulate the menstrual cycle, temper premenstrual syndrome and aid infertility caused by low progesterone levels.
Rosmarinus officinalis: Commonly known as rosemary, this herb contains essential oils that are claimed to improve memory and lift depression.
Silybum marianum: Milk thistle seeds have been used for more than 2,000 years to treat liver diseases such as cirrhosis.
Filipendula ulmaria: Otherwise known as meadowsweet, this is the plant from which salicylic acid was first made in 1835, leading to the introduction of aspirin in 1899.
Digitalis lanata: Extracts from the leaves of the woolly foxglove are used to control and prevent abnormal heart rhythms and strengthen the heartbeat.
Hydrastis canadensis: A cure-all for native North Americans; today, it’s used to treat gastrointestinal problems, vaginal infections and to stop bleeding after birth.
Senna corymbosa: The main ingredient in Senokot, this powerful laxative acts on the nerve cells of the large bowel.
Gaultheria procumbens: Sold under the name of ‘Oil of Wintergreen’ for musculoskeletal conditions. Methyl salicylate is converted into the painkiller salicylic acid in the body.
Capsicum frutescens: Used against microbial infections, and by the Aztecs for toothaches. Now used to treat rheumatism, psoriasis and muscle pain. Aids circulation and digestion.