From the August 1997 Newsletter…
A report on the visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden and lecture by Sue Minter, on 2nd July 1997
A pleasant and informative afternoon was enjoyed by 21 members of the Society, at the Chelsea Physic Garden. At around 2:30 pm we gathered on a lavender-lined path, (which, on referring to the map is in fact named the Lavender Walk), and for the first part of the afternoon, we were given a guided tour of the gardens, while our guide, Tina, explained to us all about the history of the garden.
The Chelsea Physic Garden has always retained ‘physic’ in its name, relating to the science of medicine and the healing arts, and its purpose has always been to collect and grow herbs and medicinal plants, including the rare and unusual, but also to be an educational garden, where apothecary students could learn all about the plants, and to this day, education remains an important feature of the garden. This ‘apothecary’s garden’ was founded in 1673, and at that time, Chelsea was still very much a rural area, and there were also several market gardens nearby, for example in Fulham and Battersea. The herbalists used to go on excursions into the surrounding countryside to gather herbs, and occasionally they even went abroad to find more unusual and exotic specimens. The river Thames used to run right up to the edge of the garden and the boathouse where their boats actually docked still exists. When the embankment was built, the garden increased in size, by about half an acre, to four acres. Originally, there were four Cedar trees, but sadly none of these still exist today. Gradually, they died off and had to be felled, particularly as the factories and roads sprung up outside the garden, causing a lot of pollution. Two were still there at the beginning of this century, as we were shown a picture of how the garden used to look, but they too had to be cut down.
In one area, showing plants featuring in the history of medicine, we saw Mandrake, hiding under . some giant rhubarb, and apparently there was once a Chelsea Physic Garden superstition about digging up its prized roots, when the root is cropped it was said to ‘scream’, and it meant sudden death to the person making the crop, should he hear this. We learnt of how people used to attach one end of a rope to the root, and the other end to a dog, and then stick their fingers into their ears while they enticed the dog away, which of course, unearthed the root!
In the centre of the garden is a pedestal, where there is supposed to be a statue of Sir Hans Sloane, an important figure in the history of the garden, who in fact was responsible for introducing the recipe for milk chocolate to this country, but the original statue is in the British museum for safe keeping, and a copy is being made. Four walkways emanate from the centre, and these are said to relate to the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, or the four ancient humours, hot, dry , cold, and moist.
Down the far side of the garden is the Historical Walk, where all the curators of the garden throughout its history are commemorated. The curators were also called gardeners, but they were not gardeners in the sense as we know them today, it was they who decided which plants to grow in the garden, so to avoid confusion they continue to be called curators. We went inside the ‘Cool Fernery’, a Victorian glasshouse with a large collection of fern varieties, (apparently it was a popular Victorian pastime to go into the countryside and collect as many different ferns as could be found). We also saw an example of a ‘Wardian’ case – a packing case for transporting plants during long sea journeys. It was a house-shaped wooden case, with glass panes in the sloping ‘roof’ sections, and, once the plants were inside with compost and water, it became a complete, self-sustaining environment.
After a brief stop for tea, and a look in the gift shop, we went upstairs into a lecture room and were joined by Sue Minter, a specialist in herbs and their uses, for her talk, ‘Thinking with your Nose’. Sue devised her talk during a recent public exhibition on plants used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and although she amended certain sections, conscious that she was addressing perfumers and not the public on this occasion, it was obvious that she had carefully researched the subject and gave us an accurate and articulate presentation. Sue illustrated her talk with some interesting slides of plants, some in the garden, and some in their natural habitats.