Thứ Năm, 28 tháng 6, 2012

Foxglove in Chelsea Physic Garden
both lifesaver and killer

In May of London's Olympic year, I had the good fortune to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, nestled in an upmarket residential area close to the heart of Britain's capital city. Created in the 17th century, it was in this garden that apothecaries and healers acquired herbal stock for curing all manner of ailments.

Confined within high walls, London's 'secret garden' ranks among the oldest of its type in the world, preceded only by a physic garden in Pisa, Italy and the Oxford Botanic Garden.

Laid out much like a monastery garden with mostly long narrow beds separated by grassy ribbons, its central feature is a rock garden pond, made with basalt spewed up by volcanos in Iceland.

In the garden's far corner, Britain's largest outdoor olive tree produces abundant fruit; tiny bitter olives requiring a brine soak to render them palatable. Overhanging a stony path nearby, a massive Cork Oak is adorned with a necklace of bottle corks. In the early 18th century nursing mothers believed that wearing cork necklaces would dry up their milk!

Edible plants, medicinal plants and poisonous plants are all represented here. Until fairly recently outside guides were permitted to escort tours of the garden but that has been stopped. A Spanish guide, I was told, allowed three members of her tour group to taste the round almost black fruit of the Deadly Nightshade. All three were hospitalized.

Attesting to the danger of some herbal plants, poison from the husk of the castor oil seed was applied to an umbrella spike used to kill a Bulgarian dissident in Britain many years ago. I was surprised to see an apricot tree in the 'Poisonous Garden', then discovered that the kernel is a source of arsenic.

More delectable is chocolate from the cocoa bean. It also has medicinal properties. In 1742 Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest and renowned botanist, said dark chocolate quenched thirst and was flesh forming. In his opinion it restored strength, encouraged sleep, helped digestion and softened and purified the blood, preserving health and prolonging life. But there have been differing opinions on chocolate. Casanova, history's famous lover of the 18th century, was not impressed with this new addictive fancy. He claimed it was fit for maid servants only.

Photo copyright Anne Gordon

Posted on Thursday, 28th June 2012

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