A stroll through the poisons and cures

I have unexpectedly found myself in London for a few weeks, helping a friend who broke her leg. Of course, if you have to be “stuck” in a city for a few weeks, London is a pretty good option.

I have been aiming to get out of the flat at least once per day (for the sake of my sanity if nothing else) and have been finding places to explore. Yesterday’s “sanity excursion” was to the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London in order to grow medicinal herbs and train apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants, the garden has played a key role in plant exchange around the world. The location was chosen due to its proximity to the River Thames. This allowed the Apothecaries to moor their barge, collect plants in the surrounding areas and take advantage of the river’s warm air currents, which contribute to the Garden’s unique microclimate.

The seal of the Apothecary can be found on the gates that used to be the entrance from the river (until the embankment sewer system was installed). It consists of the God Apollo astride the dragon of disease. The crest is topped by a rhinoceros, long held to have healing properties (to the detriment of the rhino population today).

One of the apprentices who trained at the Garden was a guy named Hans Sloane. That’s him in statue form. After qualifying in 1687, Sloane moved to Jamaica. When he returned two years later, he brought with him a recipe and a compound, sourced from plants, that would make him a fortune. The recipe was for milk chocolate- a drink he had seen Jamaican mothers give to children with colic.  The compound, sourced from the tropical tree Cinchona pubescens, was quinine – a medicine capable of preventing and curing malaria.

With his fortune, Sloane purchased the garden in 1722 and, by way of thanks to the Apothecaries who had trained him, he rented the Garden to them in perpetuity for £5 per year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants today.

The Garden is laid out with different beds for different purposes. There are the order beds, where plants are grown in separate beds according to their family. This is a long-running botanic garden tradition, developed to aid the teaching of plant classification.

Then, there are the medicinal beds, with over 400 medicinal plants grouped by what part of the body they help to heal.  There was a section for anaesthetics and analgesics, oncology, gynaecology, lungs and respiration, ENT (ear, nose, throat), etc…  In the anaesthetics and analgesics, there were  poppies (for opium, codeine and morphine) and willow for salicylic acid (ASA or aspirin).

In the oncology section, there was Madagascar periwinkle, which contains vincristine and vinblastine, which have been used successfully for the treatment of leukaemia and lymphoma, especially in children. There was also a yew tree, from where we get the compound paclitaxel which is used in treating ovarian, breast and prostate cancers.

Some of the plants had descriptions from Dioscorides (c.40-c90CE), who was a Greek pharmacologist, physical and botanist who produced a medicinal, De Materia Medica, which became the standard reference for medicine for over a thousand years.  My favourite was for Lady’s Mantle (alchemilla vulgaris), which apparently helped with sagging breasts?!

There was also a whole section for poisonous plants (very Agatha Christie) including hemlock (alas poor Socrates), oleander, the caster oil plant (where ricin comes from) and the Indian plant  Aconitum ferox, which contains the highly toxic alkaloid pseudaconitine, which was used by the Curry Killer to murder her lover in 2008.


There is also a great section called the Garden of Useful Plants (aren’t ALL plants useful?!). It had beds devoted to plants for dying, plants for building and making ropes, plants for scent and perfumes and plants used for cultural and faith purposes.  Our guide proudly pointed out the pot plant that the garden grows and made sure to mention that they had a special permit to grow it for demonstrating the use of hemp for rope. I refrained from pointing out that it should really also be in the medicinal section; no one likes a smart ass.

Other interesting finds in the Garden included the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in the UK, the oldest rock garden in Europe and two gingko biloba trees (one male, one female). Gingko biloba trees are thought to be the oldest trees on earth and were around at the time of the dinosaurs. Traditionally used to treat asthma and bronchitis, modern uses include improving memory and circulation.

The pond rockery was built in 1773 with black basalt rocks from Iceland brought back as ballast by the famous plant hunter Joseph Banks. It also holds fused bricks from an old brick kiln in Chelsea, clam shells which travelled from Tahiti with Captain Cook and carved stone cornices and other masonry that were once part of the Tower of London.


There were lots and lots of other plants and areas to explore. There were glasshouses, which have been used by the Garden for over 300 years to cultivate exotic species. And, there were wide areas of lawn to sit and relax and sketch or draw the many garden features.

A great place to explore and spend a sunny afternoon, I highly recommend a visit!





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