Funny what you can find beside a river; The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. The river proves a good transport route so by the 1700′s a growing botanic garden seed exchange system was established, putting the London Physic Garden on the map. The location was chosen to allow plants to survive harsh British winters and boasts the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain.
I visited at a time when the Chelsea Flower show was happening. By chance a local young florist who made a dress out of flowers had just taken a prestigious silver medal for her display. This, and the walk home, made me realise just how much flowers are used in decorating urban spaces. From the 1600s, physic gardens were used as outdoor laboratories, where apothecaries and physicians would experiment with plant-based cures. Since then flowers around London have blossomed wherever there is space (more recently this concept has been called Guerrilla Gardening).
A collective has built a modern Physic Garden on a derelict site in South London, nurturing a host of medicinal plants as well as sculptures. Greenery gets framed between decommissioned items on London’s Union Street. From an old ambulance surprise suppers made out of herbs are served. Moss is mounted on a wall in the shape of a pharmacy cross and ping pong tables are free to use.
A weekly visit from a herbalist informs visitors of how plants can heal ailments. The garden is divided by diagnosis around a structural frames inspired by this pharmacy cross, creating garden rooms or hospital wards with remedies designed to assist with gastroenterology, cardiology, dermatology and psychiatry. The Union Street garden is open to the public from June to August and is concerned with both conservation and education.
The new London Physic Garden has design elements similar to the older one. At the old Chelsea Physic Garden, environments for supporting different types of plants are built, including the pond rock garden, constructed from a variety of rock types, namely stones from the Tower of London, fused bricks and flint. In 1983 The Chelsea Physic Garden became a registered charity and opened to the general public for the first time.
As the nearby horticultural show draws to a close, punters can take home the remains at the end with people sat on the bus with aspidestra or cycling clutching small palms or fill the tubes with lillies. The flowers spill out all over the city thanks to obliging cab drivers. Everyone strives to get a jaw dropping specimen. It is an art that has eluded me but I notice the city is our oasis and I am glad that long stalks dug into foundations with petals bubbling to the surface are also on murals and now in the modern Physic Garden.
In looking back over the catalogue of the day there is information about winners and columns of plants I have enjoyed delighting over. There are lists within lists of a lot I did not see. Thankfully there is always next year. I will be back. Plant life is infectious.
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