Herbal medicine:gardens to visit

by Abigail Willis

Image courtesy of Michael Smythe

Plants have been used in medicine for millennia and the World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of the world’s population still relies mainly on herbal medicine for its wellbeing. Even in the west it’s become routine to describe gardening as therapeutic, but how many of us really appreciate or understand the actual healing properties of the specimens that we so lovingly tend? Suddenly however medicinal plants are high on the agenda; with permanent displays and temporary exhibitions springing up across the country, we can explore the use of these botanical wonders through history as well as their future benefits.

Chelsea Physic Garden

chelsea garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden (www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk) is a great place to start, having been in the business of teaching about medicinal plants since its foundation in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries. Its new Garden of Medicinal Plants opened in April continues that tradition, guiding visitors on a health-conscious journey around the world, via some 500 plant species. Designed by Head Gardener Nick Bailey, this neatly ordered corner of the Garden is the place to discover the monastic origins of the ‘officinalis’ suffix -meaning used in the practice of medicine -attached to so many healing plants, learn how the pyramid builders of ancient Egypt fought infections (by eating garlic, since you ask) and to compare different cultural approaches to plant-based medicine, from Oceania to Asia, Europe and the Americas.

It’s fascinating to see familiar garden plants in a new light – be it Sedum spectabile as a decoction for sore throats (in Chinese medicine), Echinacea purpurea as an American snakebite treatment, or Artemesia afra as a tonic for gastro-intestinal complaints (Zulu & Xhosa tribes, Africa.)  But before the urge to self-medicate takes hold, there are also some stark reminders of the plant world’s power to harm as well as heal; the label that accompanies Berberis vulgaris, which has been used as a diuretic in Indian medicine, contains a stern health warning: “deaths have been recorded”.

These ethno-botanical beds are complemented by a pharmaceutical garden, featuring plants that yield therapeutic compounds of proven value in modern medicine.  These beds include plants such as Filipendula ulmaria, Ephedra altissima and Taxus baccata, and highlight respectively their role in alleviating pain, treating ENT conditions, and assisting the fight against cancer.

chelsea features

Royal College of Physicians’ Garden

The Royal College of Physicians (www.rcplondon.ac.uk/museum-garden) is another venerable institution with an educational collection of medicinal plants.  Although founded in 1518, its garden is relatively recent, having been installed in 1965, and replanted with a medicinal theme in 2005.   Almost every one of its 1100 species has a medicinal link and, as at the Chelsea Physic, the garden’s scope is international, ranging from the ‘muthi’ plants of South Africa to specimens such as Livistona chinensis, a palm valued by Chinese herbalists.


The clear labelling reveals the shared history of medicine and botany, recalling pioneers such as Clarke Abel, physician to the Canton Embassy, whose name lives on in Abelia x grandiflora and John Fothergill, the 18th-century Quaker physician and plant collector (Fothergilla gardenii).  The garden is free to visit with tours being held once a month led by the garden fellows; additionally, this summer the RCP is hosting a series of public lectures on Plants and Medicine, with speakers to include Jane Knowles, the RCP head gardener.

RCP features

The RCP’s own place in the history of plant medicine is told via the eight formal front gardens outside in nearby St Andrew’s Place. A living translation of the RCP’s influential 17th-century publication Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, these gardens feature plants authorized for use by the RCP such as sedum, marigold, corn poppy and carnation.

Barber-Surgeons’ Hall Gardens

The Pharmacopoeia was published in 1618, but London was already an important centre for plant-based medicine, thanks in part to the surgeon and plantsman John Gerard.  Gerard’s own garden in Holborn was renowned for its plant collection and his 1597 publication The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes became the most widely circulated book on botany of its day.  Gerard’s contribution to plant medicine is celebrated in the ‘mini physic garden’ at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall Gardens in the City of London (http://www.barberscompany.org).  The garden – picturesquely sited within the remains of a Roman bastion – contains 45 beds showing the use of medicinal plants from Dioscorides to medically-proven, modern, synthesized compounds.  ‘Gerard’ plants feature prominently, and include disarmingly ordinary herbs such as parsley and golden marjoram (which Gerard recommended for dental problems) and Bellis perennis, the common daisy- a Gerardian remedy for bruises and swellings.

University of Bristol Botanic Garden

Bristol western

Botanic gardens historically were attached to universities, and the University of Bristol Botanic Garden (www.bris.ac.uk/botanic-garden) became the first such to be created in the UK for nearly 40 years when it moved to its Stoke Bishop site in 2006.  Its ‘useful plants’ collection contains two medicinal herb gardens, one dedicated to the western tradition, the other to the Chinese.  A circular garden set within a rustling beech hedge, the Western Herb Garden is inspired by the physic garden at Padua (founded 1545) and features thirteen use categories – with plants such as Achillea millefolium in the Urinary section and Hyssopus officinalis in Respiration.  Entered through a bamboo moon gate, the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden by comparison takes its cue from the classical gardens of Suzhou, and holds the largest collection of Chinese medicinal herbs in the country.  Plants here are laid out according to traditional use, reflecting the guiding principles of yin, yang and chi of Traditional Chinese Medicine.   As well as more familiar oriental specimens such as bamboo and ginkgo, the garden is home to unusual plants such as the cinnabar root Salvia miltiorrhiza and sacred lotus Nelumbo nucifera cultivars.

Bristol Chinese

National Botanic Garden of Wales

Over the border, the National Botanic Garden of Wales (www.gardenofwales.org.uk) celebrates the, perhaps less well known, Welsh herbal tradition of this part of Carmarthenshire. Its Apothecaries’ Garden was created in 2003 with twelve themed beds which explore everything from Graeco-Roman medicine to homeopathy and aromatherapy as well as the renowned 12th century ‘Physicians of Myddfai’.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (www.kew.org) aren’t missing out on the healing magic either; their Plantasia festival invites visitors to experience the ‘stimulating and transformative power of plants’ this summer. The Queen’s Garden behind Kew Palace has been redesigned to provide a chronological journey through medicinal plants, complete with a perfumed parterre of aromatherapy plants, and a medicinal kitchen garden. Medicinal trees throughout the gardens will also get a share of the limelight, while the Palm House showcases some of the Rainforest Remedies developed by indigenous peoples. The Healing Giant installation offers an organ-by-organ horticultural tour of the effects of plants on different parts of the body. And, just to prove that a little bit of herbal hedonism never goes amiss, Kew are also offering ‘medicinal’ cocktails in their Gin and Tonics Garden.



Images courtesy of Dylan Collard and Michael Smythe

On the other side of town, far from leafy west London, an altogether more urban take on the physic garden has opened its doors for the summer. Based within the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, Phytology (www.phytology.org.uk) brings a multi-disciplinary approach to the whole business of plant medicine, having been instigated by arts organisation group Nomad (www.nomad.org.uk), in association with Cape Farewell and the Teesdale & Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association.The project invites artists and botanists to reappraise the medicinal properties of 32 varieties of indigenous wild plants commonly found on the streets of London and usually regarded as weeds, such as dandelion, nettle, cleavers, and ribwort plantain.

The Nature Reserve, on the bombed-out site of St Jude’s Church, already had a rich biodiversity thanks to having been enclosed as an anti-fly-tipping measure in the 1980’s but its medicinal meadow, devised by Kew ethno-botanist Dr Peter Giovannini, aims to engage the wider human community. Visitors are encouraged to harvest herbs (with advice and support from the project’s gardeners), brew themselves a healing tisane in the ‘plant hide’, and invited to adopt a ‘weed’ to take home and nurture. Numerous arts events are embedded in the project, ranging from botanical illustrations by Talya Baldwin to a site-specific sculpture by graffiti artist Vhils, music and story-telling, and talks by experts such as Monique Simmonds from the Kew Innovation Unit and herbalist Melissa Ronaldson.

Michael Smythe Creative Director of Nomad perhaps helps explain how interest in the contemporary physic garden has come about:

“As society becomes more urbanised we must re-imagine, occupy and sustain ourselves in alternative ways within these urban landscapes. The resurgence of medicinal gardens is part of this wider conversation. I believe contemporary society is becoming more aware of the limitations of conventional medicine, such as antibiotics, simultaneously we are becoming more attuned to the ongoing value of traditional plant-based remedies. Medicinal gardens provide an important bridge to accessing this information.”

© Abigail Willis May 2014



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