As I’m planting out my own physic garden I thought a trip to the Chelsea Physic garden would aid the research into my own emerging version. While there, I noticed a new fashion, which I rather liked. Ladies were sitting around on this glorious day for the most part looking witheringly thin, wearing black or dark navy tops/t shirts with straw hats on top. No flouncy floral dresses here. On a Sunday, the gardens have a buzz from the occasional marquee set up for a private party and picnickers, yet still provides enough cover and shade to sit down and sketch or write.
The garden is lucky to have survived with such value on real estate in Chelsea. Back in the 17th century the Apothecaries created the garden for the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. They had chosen the location as it was close to the river and had a perfect micro climate. The apothecaries would travel by river boat to Chelsea and could step straight off the boat and into the garden. Today though it has a busy Chelsea embankment in between. But a time came when the Apothecaries couldn’t afford the upkeep and that’s when their patron Dr Hans Sloane stepped in. He purchased the Manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne. This purchase of about 4 acres was leased to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity.
He must have had a good lawyer to tie it all up for this amount and for it to stick. But it survives today, flourishes, almost hidden behind high walls of old brick.
I was attracted to one of the oldest trees, a Ginkgo Biloba. This species of tree is truly Jurassic, although not this one which is about a hundred years old. They have a masculine and feminine in the grounds. It has many therapeutic properties and is used in Chinese and Western herbals. It is the only tree which combines a leaf with pine type needles. In the illustration, you can just see the needles lined up in the leaf. It is a completely individual tree and hard to define having combined characteristics of a leaf tree and a pine needle type tree.
I have several friends who are currently healing cancer with a strict diet and a rare herb and so visited the Oncology section and was surprised to see that the drug most often used for breast cancer, called Tamoxifen comes from a plant. And also in flower was a pretty pink flower called Catharanthus Roseus also effective in treating cancer. In fact the natural origins behind major drugs such as aspirin, morphine and penicillin reveal that ‘natural’ medicine is not as separate from ‘traditional’ medicine as might be thought. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80% of the population relies on plant based medicine as being their main form of healthcare.
I have started my own physic garden with three herbs: marsh mallow, Pasque flower and lemon verbena. Marsh Mallow is a pretty mauve flower which the Greeks used to eat instead of wheat. Followers of Pythagoras thought mallows sacred. It is the abundance of mucilage in the root which makes it a soothing medicine for all kinds of irritation and inflammation.
The Pasque Flower has silky purple flowers and silvery hairs like a halo. It is said the pasque flowers were originally called passé flowers from the French passé-fleur, meaning it surpassed all other flowers for beauty. In 1597 Gerard renamed it Pasque because it came into flower at Easter and its colour was used to dye Easter eggs. Pasque flower makes an excellent relaxant as well as tonic, ideal for the nervous system. Lemon Balm has been used to soothe nervous tension and anxiety and I originally used it to make a cream for treating herpes, but have subsequently found something much more effective which has kept herpes at bay during this hot summer.
I also have mint, parsley lemon thyme and rosemary which are now quite mature. The herbs are either eaten or used in my creams. I shall be adding sage as I wish to use it in a toothpaste as traditional toothpaste stings my mouth following my own cancer treatment. In Chelsea, my boyfriend seemed transfixed by the infamous Monks Hood which is a highly poisonous plant, even to the touch. We looked it up afterward and it looks so deceptively pretty.
I wish I hadn’t pulled out all the stinging nettles in my garden as I’ve learned they make good soup. And I reckon that anything that survives by itself and is so strong must have a lot of good vitamins in it. It will be quite a while before my own physic garden is set up, but I am now well on the way.