tree fernAt the beginning of July I was lucky enough to visit Chelsea Physic Garden, situated in the heart of London, 66 Royal Hospital Road London SW3 4HS, just a little way from where the Chelsea Flower Show is held every May.

It was a fascinating visit to a serene and beautiful garden extremely well kept, very organised and with a calm atmosphere, contrasting with the busy London streets outside its walls.

It is very sheltered, giving it a mild microclimate, which allows such plants as a cork tree, a beautiful red flowered pomegranate, the largest and oldest Olive tree grown outdoors in Britain, and even a fruiting grapefruit tree, to be grown. However, the grapefruits are too sour to be edible, as our summers are too short to allow them to ripen adequately.

Chelsea Physic garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. At the time, ‘physic’ meant ‘pertaining to things natural as distinct from the metaphysical’. The garden was established to train apprentices. Not only did they learn to grow and use medicinal plants, but they learnt to identify useful and edible plants as distinct from harmful, poisonous ones (such as the difference between wild garlic and lily of the valley). Now the garden still grows these plants and carries out a lot of educational work, but its remit has widened to include beds defined by the family of plants, for instance a bed of brassicas (cabbage family,) including many ornamental plants such as Crambe cordifolia and Erysimum (wall flower). The pea family (Papilionaceae) is very interesting, containing a lot of ornamentals such as Laburnum, Wisteria, Hedysarum (French Honeysuckle), Hippocrepis (Vetch), Genista and Cytisus (Broom), Lupins, Robinia and Gorse (Ulex). The Rose family (Roseacea) is very broad, including mainy of our best known and loved plants, such as apples (Malus), Alchemilla mollis, Amelanchier, Chaenomeles, Cotoneaster, Crataegus (Hawthorn), Exochorda, Filipendula, Kerria, Medlars (Mespilus), Photinia, Potentilla, Prunus (which includes Cherries, Plums, Laurels, Peaches Apricots, Damsons, Greengages and Nectarines), pears (Pyrus), Pyracantha, Blackberries (Rubus), Sanguisorbia, Sorbus (mountain ash/ Rowan), Spirea, Strawberries (Fragaria), and Raspberries.   They also have beds allocated to dicotyledons, (plants with two seed leaves) and monocotyledons (plants with one seed leaf, such as grasses, Crocosmia and Irises).

The garden includes a garden of world medicine with different parts dedicated to plants used for medicinal purposes in different parts of the world, including plants which were the origins of many drugs used in contemporary medicine (such as the opium poppy used to make morphine). It also grows plants used for perfumery and cosmetics as well as in the manufacture of fabrics and dyes.

There is a fern house developed in the Victorian era – Victorians were famously passionate about ferns, and glasshouses which have always been a feature in the garden. Back in 1685 it was known to have a heated glasshouse, probably the first in Europe. Being located originally on the banks of the Thames (before a new road was put in), the garden was in an ideal place to receive plant material and seeds from around the world, brought in by plant hunters. Indeed, it was because of this location that it boasts the first man-made rockery in Britain. The volcanic rocks were used as ballast to stabilize Sir Joseph Bank’s ship on a journey to Iceland in 1722. When he arrived home, he off-loaded the rocks on the banks of the Thames and someone had the bright idea of building a rockery to grow some of the plants brought in from around the world that prefer more free draining soil and mountainous conditions, and were not thriving in the relatively heavy and damp London soil.

The garden is a little haven for wildlife, including frogs, toads and newts, which live in the central pond, and is still involved in scientific research, working in partnership with the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the Eden Project and the Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, including research into potential medicinal uses of plants. As part of this, it is asking members of the public to contribute any ‘remembered plant remedies’, for its collection of information about herbal remedies for ailments.

Overall, it is a very worthwhile place to visit for anyone interested in plants and also beautiful and tranquil. It has a restaurant serving delicious unusual food and can be hired for weddings and other events.

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