The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It lives on four acres of prime London real estate on the banks of the Thames across from Battersea Park (which wasn’t there in 1673.) A brick wall with three gates surrounds the garden. The iron gates leading to the Thames Embankment are usually closed, but they bear the Apothecaries Coat of Arms, which has moved up to Number One on my list of favorite coats of arms, which I started in order to put this guy at the top. Gorgeous!
I’m mainly going to write about the garden, but I must pause to find out about this coat of arms. It was granted in 1617, soon after the society received its charter. Apothecaries had formerly been lumped in with grocers, which naturally no one could tolerate forever. Although consider it: is lettuce a vegetable or an herb? It’s cool and can thus be used to abate fever or lust, as required. Or tossed in a salad – your choice.
The golden guy is Apollo, who is shown defeating pestilence, which is represented by a wyvern, aka a dragon. Overcoming looks a lot like riding, but maybe that dragon had a sensitive back. Wikipedia doesn’t tell me what the pig is for. Not the Bacon family, that much is certain.
The Apothecaries needed a place close to London where they could grow herbs, their principal stock in trade. They wanted land on the Thames because that was the handiest way to move things around back then. There was only one bridge over the Thames in London until the nineteenth century. The site had been used for market gardens, so the soil had been tended.
They also used the gardens to train apprentices to cultivate and recognize the materials of their trade. One of these apprentices, an Irishman named Hans Sloane, began his studies there in 1680. I’ll just quote his story from Bailey’s excellent book.
“After qualifying in 1687 Hans Sloane travelled to Jamaica to serve as private physician to the second Duke of Albemarle. Two years later, he returned to London armed with a special recipe and bottles of a compound, sourced from plants, which would go on to make him a fortune. The recipe was for milk chocolate – a drink he had seen Jamaican mothers give to children with colic – and the compound, sourced from the tropical tree Cinchona pubescens, was quinine – a medicine capable of preventing and curing malaria.”
Chocolate and quinine! Cures for whatever ails you.
Sloane did so well he bought the whole Manor of Chelsea in 1722, including the garden. In gratitude, he rented the land to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for £5. Yes, that’s five pounds, and that’s exactly how much is paid annually for those 4 acres today, to Sloane’s descendants. Some of them must gnash their teeth every year when they see that payment being rendered. Others undoubtedly smile and say, “This is what wealth is for.”
Garden of Medicinal Plants
The Garden is divided into “themed rooms” such as “Medicinal Plants” and “British Native Plants.” They have plants both early modern and ultra-modern, including some native to places as far away as Madagascar, like the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), used to treat leukemia.
As I recall, this is the section that includes the poison garden, but Bailey doesn’t mention that. Too exciting, one supposes. Damn straight, says this Texan. I write historical mysteries. Poison is far and away the handiest method for removing pesky persons from your path and I like to know what things look like.
Of course, most of the poisons you’d find in an apothecaries’ garden have non-lethal uses as well. It all depends on the dose or the part of the plant.
Shown here is belladonna (Atropa belladonna), aka deadly nightshade. A few drops will dilate your pupils, a mark of beauty in more bizarre times. It has also been used as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory.
Don’t try it at home! Its effects are unpredictable. The poison can be absorbed through the skin, which is what I was looking for. (For fictional uses only!!) Ingesting any part of this plant can cause dizziness, dry mouth, flush, nausea and vomiting, visual impairment, increased heart frequency, agitation and raving, followed by weakness and sleepiness, breathing compression and death. The overdose level for an adult is only 600 mg. That’s 0.02 ounces or 1/12 of a teaspoon. Yikes!
Another plant I happened to take a picture of is digitalis. We all know that one. Ugly in September — sorry about that. It used to be a type of figwort but has been reclassified as a plaintain ** – Plantaginaceae digitalis, aka foxglove. There are 20 subspecies.
It’s been used to treat heart conditions since 1785, which seems late to me, but what do I know? Give someone an overdose (another tiny amount) and they will suffer nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, the appearance of blurred outlines (halos), drooling, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, weakness, collapse, dilated pupils, tremors, seizures, and even death. Phew!
**They’ve had to reclassify boatloads of plants and animals too, one assumes. Things used to be classified by morphology — their shapes, mainly — but now can be more accurately related through their DNA.
I learned this fascinating thing (fascinating to a former archivist, anyway) at the Chelsea Physic Garden. You never know what you’re going to learn when you enter into a place full of marvels!
Garden of Edible Plants
Of course everyone loves the veggies. These beds were very attractive in early September.
The first picture is of a fine supported hops plant. This might have been in the herb garden, actually. You can use hops to make beer — everyone knows that. You can also use them to treat anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. Hm, beer will do that too, if you drink enough of it.
Then we have an example of a Ward case, used to transport delicate plants and seedlings across the vasty seas in sailing ships. I have often wondered how they managed it. They built small, portable greenhouses. Clever!
We could wish people had known about invasive plants back in those days, but hindsight is notoriously clearer than the regular kind of sight.
Garden of Useful Plants
I was less interested in useful plants, since nobody reads novels about amateur sleuths who go around helpfully building things for people and weaving garments. But I did take one picture answering the question you’ve always wondered about but didn’t know you did: What’s the most useful plant?
My first guess was hemp, but I was wrong. I’ll bet half of y’all instantly thought, ‘hemp.’ The rest were too busy calming their anxieties with beer. Anybody guess bamboo? If so, you win the Sir Francis “Smarty-Pants” Bacon title for this day. And now I really want a bamboo bicycle.
Still More Kinds of Plants
From the early eighteenth century, the Garden has been a leading center for botanical plant exchange, worldwide. Medical men, apothecaries, and adventurers brought back specimens to be studied and preserved in this beautiful, honored place. One such adventurer was Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, GCB, PRS (19 June 1820), an English naturalist, botanist and patron of the natural sciences. I asked the guide if the Lady Banks rose, of which I have two, was named after Sir Joseph’s wife. She didn’t know, but I’m happy to report that indeed it was. Rampant, evergreen, gorgeous, and usually way out of bounds, we love our Rosa banksiae!
The Garden has these “themed rooms” in addition to the three I’ve mentioned: Pond Rockery, Dicotyledon Order Beds, Atlantic Islands Border, British Native Plants, South American Plants, World Woodland Garden, Monocotyledon Beds, and History Beds. They also have three glass houses sheltering even more exotic plants, like cactus from the American southwest. You know I didn’t take a picture of that!
The nearest tube stop is Sloane Square, in case you’re interested. Herds of famous people have lived near it, according to the list of blue plaques in London. Chelsea is, or was, a favorite neighborhood for the creative types. Here are a few: Hillaire Belloc, Samuel Becket, George Eliot, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Lillie Langtry, A.A. Milne, Bram Stoker, and Mark Twain. I can’t imagine a writer living near such a garden and never visiting it.
If you ever get to go, do take the tour. It’s enlightening! You can stroll around to your heart’s content afterwards, and then have refreshments at the very pleasant cafe.
Bailey, Nick. 2015. Chelsea Physic Garden. Severn. [The booklet from the gift shop.]