Friday, June 22, 2012

At the Chelsea Physic Garden with a lady from Louisiana

I've always loved the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is often described as one of London's garden oases. It's a four-acre garden, just along the road from the Royal Hospital, where the Chelsea Flower Show is held, and a short walk from the bustle of the King's Road.
It's often hired as a venue for parties, so I've spent many evenings there, sipping a glass of white wine at a book launch or some such. And I've been to the plant fairs. But I haven't "taken the tour", as it were.
Anyway, all that changed on Tuesday when I met up with the delightful Jean McWeeney, formerley of Austin, Texas and now living in Ruston, Louisiana. I knew Jean was coming to London and we'd hoped to get together, so I thought the Physic Garden, with its highly recommended cafe and its central location, would be perfect for an afternoon out.
The Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries. As one of the big London Guilds, their Livery Hall was at Blackfriars, in the City of London, so they needed somewhere where they had space to grow plants for their apprentices to study and learn to identify. The Chelsea site, subsequently bought by Sir Hans Sloane in 1712 and rented to the Society, was perfect.

This is one of the ponds - not just any old pond, but a Grade II* listed pond. When we build a pond, we go to the DIY store or the garden centre to buy hard landscaping materials. When the Physic Garden built this pond, they used the basaltic lava - see the black rocks? - which formed the ballast in the ship that took Sir Joseph Banks on a voyage to Iceland in 1772. And the bits of carved stone (see below) that look like architectural salvage? They're from the Tower of London. Naturally.

The garden was originally divided into four parts, and until recently this was still pretty much the case. One quarter was devoted to medicine, one to the "order beds", arranged by families of plants, one to the great plant hunters and their discoveries, and one rather scruffy bit - it might have been shade plants. It's recently been revamped though, by head gardener Nick Bailey, and it works really well, not only from an aesthetic point of view but also as a way of displaying plants. It still looks like a garden, rather than a classroom.

The garden faces south, and this, combined with the protection afforded by the surrounding buildings, creates a warm microclimate. Our excellent guide, Anne, told us that the Chelsea Physic Garden can be up to 7C warmer than the surrounding streets - and London itself is not exactly a frost spot.

This means that otherwise tender plants, such as the iochroma, above, or the towering echium, below, can flourish.

What looks like a flowering tree is actually an enormous rose. It's the Himalayan musk rose, Rosa brunonii, growing over a Catalpa bignonioides, or Indian bean tree.

Here's a superb yew - you don't often see yew trees like these days. Hedges, or topiary, are much more fashionable. According to Anne, our guide, the English cut down so many yews to make longbows during the Middle Ages that we were in danger of running out of yew trees altogether. 

Anne was a wonderful guide, informative and entertaining. Veratrum viride, she told us, was used by some Native American tribes to elect a new leader. All the candidates would eat a leaf, and the last one to vomit was made chief. They ought to adopt it for the US elections. It would be much cheaper than months of campaigning - and far more entertaining!

This is the Madagascan periwinkle, or Catharanthus roseus, which is used in the treatment of leukaemia and lymphoma. It contains alkaloids in its sap - interestingly, one of the side effects of treatment is hair loss.

The gates of the Chelsea Physic Garden carry the arms of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries - it shows Apollo, the Greek god of healing, killing the serpent Python, which represents disease. These gates, which open onto the Chelsea Embankment, are not used by the public. They are only used on two occasions, said Anne - when a member of the royal family comes to visit, and when the manure is delivered. Hopefully, not on the same day.
The river access would have made this garden even more convenient when it was first developed, as plants, seeds, supplies and so on could be transported by water, which at that time was safer and quicker than travelling by road.

These school children were having a great time pond dipping at the Robert Fortune tank pond, named after the Scottish botanist who helped to develop Assam as a major tea planting region.

This is one of the new areas of the garden, and this bit contains Useful Plants. Anything that is used to make paper, or rope, or dye, or fabric - you can find it here.

All the work on the new areas was done in-house. I like the way they've picked up the theme of the Order Beds, with the rectangular planting areas - it gives a sense of unity. The terraced beds at the end contain plants that used for perfume, such as carnation. The retaining wall on the lowest bed acts as a bench, so you can sit in the sun and savour the nice smells.

And here's Jean, the lady from Louisiana. We had such a wonderful afternoon. It is a real treat for me to spend an afternoon looking at a garden, in the pleasant company of another gardener, followed by a glass of wine and some good food. Thank you, Jean!