Thứ Hai, 13 tháng 8, 2012

     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.
Visitors exploring in Chelsea Physic 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.
The Physic Garden Cork Oak

      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.
Deadly Poisonous Foxgloves

      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.
      In the Chelsea Physic Garden pesticides are an unknown entity. Thirty tons of manure arrive every winter from the Buckingham Palace garden. On this rich and nutritious diet the plants thrive. The resident bees are happy too with their pesticide-free environment. Peter James - the beekeeper – tends the garden hives and last year harvested 100 kilos of honey from a single hive.
Chelsea Physic Garden Coat of Arms

      You may wonder who in the past kept this garden weed-free and beautiful. It certainly wasn't the apothecaries. Until the turn of the century women were banned from entering the gardens except for “weeding women” who were paid the paltry sum of sixpence a day. Fortunately pay and conditions have changed, but the rent for the garden - five pounds per annum when Sir Hans Sloane was the landlord in the early 18th century - remains frozen in time, a mere pittance for what today must be one of London's most expensive pieces of real estate.
      Five hundred years after its inception, the Chelsea Physic Garden is a place of delightful tranquility where perfume from scented herbs and the twittering of birds is a perfect locale for rest and learning. Its early rural loveliness – flower-filled meadows, fields and farms - have been replaced by London sprawl, but it still retains a fascination with a history that attracts a never-ending flow of plant loving tourists from around the world.

Photos copyright Anne Gordon

Posted by Anne Gordon on Monday, 13th August, 2012 


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