Living where I do I don’t get the chance to visit Chelsea Physic Garden very often, but last week I was in London for a course on Tibetan Moxibustion and planned my travel times so that I could.
Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1673 as a teaching aid for medical students. Despite changes in fortunes and ownership, the garden largely still retains its original layout. It extends to nearly 4 acres and is situated on a former market garden site next to the River Thames. The choice of site all those years ago was perfect – south facing, good soils and easy access to the transport options provided by the river – so important in those days.
Recently two new areas of the garden have been established, the Garden of Useful Plants and the Garden of Edible Plants. I was very impressed with the design of these gardens and the care that had gone into explaining the uses of the plants in an accessible and engaging way. I especially loved the display of sections of rope made from different fibre plants.
The garden as a whole is filled with botanical treasures. It is a feast for the eyes – the neatly divided rectangular beds, the beautifully cared for and labelled plants, the mature trees and the historic setting. I was pleased to see that even the humble nettle was included in this perfectly tidy display garden, albeit in a couple of very neat contained patches.
Wandering round though I couldn’t help feeling a little sad at the way the garden seems to have moved further and further away from the original emphasis as a physic garden for herbal medicine. A few years ago I had visited for the first time and saw a noticeboard about ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’. This was explained as a quaint bit of history, now completely discredited. At the time I was disappointed, but understood that as a body reliant on funding from external sources, Chelsea Physic Garden has to adapt the emphasis of its display material to some extent in order to continue to attract funding. This time I noticed that the display board had been completely removed. On enquiring at the office the person I spoke to had heard neither of The Doctrine of Signatures nor the display board.
To add to my feeling of disquiet I wonder was it just me or was there a hint of triumphalism in the way that certain plants were heralded as the sources of allopathic medicines, as if this had more credibility than hundreds of years of continuous safe use of herbal medicines such as Calendula?
Reading some blurb on the way home I did see that behind the scenes there is a continuing commitment to the study of herbal medicine. Chelsea Physic Garden is involved in a joint initiative with medical herbalists, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the Eden Project, the Botanic Garden at Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum on the Ethnomedica Project. This involves collecting data about herbal remedies which have been used over the years in Britain. Members of the public are invited to submit ‘remembered remedies’ on index cards available in the foyer at the garden.
This is a garden which has survived against all the odds in a prime piece of real estate in London. It has had to change with the times and its emphasis reflects current trends in thinking about herbal medicine. It is very much a garden for display and research purposes. Although a physic garden by name, it is not a physic garden by nature. I do hope that in time the emphasis on living herbal medicine will once again come back to the garden as more and more people seek a link with the natural world for their health care needs.
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