Garden of Medicinal Plants opens at Chelsea Physic Garden
What did plants ever do for us? A new Garden of Medicinal Plants, which has opened at Chelsea Physic Garden this week, tells us all about the importance of plants as sources of healing, from their earliest uses by the ancient Egyptians feeding garlic to their slaves to prevent infection, up to recent research extracting chemicals from bananas to prevent and treat HIV.
Divided into sixteen rooms by dry stone walls, yew hedges and woven fencing, the Garden opens with beds each dedicated to a region of the world, showing the importance of plant medicines to indigenous peoples. Varieties have been chosen to show the spiritual and mystic dimensions to herbal medicine as well as the longevity of its use – for example- the North European Betula pendula, the birch tree, -at one level an ancient and sacred symbol of life, at another a traditional remedy for rheumatism and gout.
Other plants include the Piper betle from SE Asia chewed as a stimulant for millennia, Capsicum frutescens valued for its pain-relieving qualities in the Americas for 9000 years and Eucalyptus globulus prized by the aborigines for over 5000 years for its efficacy in healing wounds. The display also shows how our forebears took a holistic view of health linking it to balance within the individual- be it European humours or Chinese yin and yang – and to living in harmony with one’s fellow man and the gods.
Three smaller sections of the garden focus on the European tradition: there are the officinalis plants named from the officinae or pharmacies of the monasteries and now a descriptor for plants with long-term medicinal use. Nearby is an area devoted to Dioscorides, who recorded more than 600 medicinal plants known to the ancient Greeks in his De Materia Medica which became the go-to herbal text for the next 1700 years. Finally there are the sections devoted to British plants tracing traditions which go back to the Druids. Native plants featured include Rosa canina, the rose hip; Hepatica, the three lobed-leaves of which were once taken to signify its suitability for treating ailments of the liver; and Lactuca virosa, the lettuce, deemed ‘to procure sleep and ease the headaches’ by Culpeper.
On the east side of the garden are plants from which come many of the drugs used in contemporary medicine – whether it be Solanum laciniatum converted into progesterone and oestrogen for contraceptive pills; Atropa belladonna used once by Cleopatra and now seen in opthalmics and neurology; willow from which aspirin is derived dating back to Hippocrates who recommended chewing its bark to relieve the pain of child-bearing; or morphine the first active compound isolated from a plant. What is remarkable is the high proportion of drugs obtained from periwinkle, carrot, ivy, milkweed and cinnamon
A section on modern herbal remedies draws attention to the fact that 80% of the world’s population rely on herbal medicines as a source of primary health care and finally the end of the garden brings us bang up to date with the search for plants with the potential to be used in the treatment of currently intractable diseases and the work of the modern pharmaceutical companies.
The new garden designed by Head Gardener, Nick Bailey, to make the medicinal plant collection more accessible to visitors, is the latest development in Chelsea Physic Garden which is the oldest of London’s botanic gardens and a place which for over three and a half centuries has been growing and demonstrating medicinal plants, beginning with apothecaries’ apprentices studying plant identification and usage to a renewed interest in plant- based medicine today.
Gardening opening time 1st April to 31st October 2014: Tuesday to Friday and Sundays and Bank Holidays 11am – 6pm
Prices: Adults £9.90. Students and children- 5-15 years £6.60
Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HS