Travel stories: Gardens in Europe, part 13a

Well, this is my final travel story about the wonderful trip my husband Bill and I took to Europe last month. Today's topic is the Chelsea Physic Garden in London's Chelsea borough. Since I have several photographs to share with you, this will be in two parts so be sure to check out the additional photos in the post directly above this one.

So what is a physic garden anyway? We didn't know either but after reading a rave review of it, we decided to check it out.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 (wow) by the Society of Apothecaries of London.

According to the garden's history, "the word 'physic' meant 'pertaining to things natural as distinct from metaphysical'. Now the New Oxford English Dictionary defines physic firstly as 'medicinal drugs', and secondly as 'the art of healing'."

OK, now we're getting somewhere. Members of the Society of Apothecaries of London were looking for a piece of land on which to grow plants that could have medicinal purposes and study how they would affect a person's health.

They found this 4-acre plot of land along the Thames River. It was ideal because it was quite sheltered and the river had a moderating effect to the extent that the property had its own micro-climate. That meant they could grow many types of plants that would otherwise have been too tender for the region.

Dr. Hans Sloane took over ownership of the manor house and the garden in 1712. He set up a deal with the Apothecaries so they could lease the land from him for 5 pounds annually, in perpetuity -- meaning that the lease rate has never increased, to this day! Not a bad deal, eh?

After purchasing our tickets to the garden, we learned the admission price also covered a guided tour which helped us better understand why we were seeing certain types of plants and how they would have been used. Our guide was wonderful! She related the fascinating history of the garden while interjecting a lot of humorous facts.

What did we see in this unusual yet intriguing garden? The oldest man-made rock garden in Europe; raised beds of blueberry plants and different types of vegetables; plants that were used for cancer, pain or digestive problems; a "fernarium" (fern house); water features; plants grown for their fragrances; herbs; glasshouses of tropical and sub-tropical plants; and plants used around the world for varying medicinal purposes.

One example of research on a plant in the garden that has had a big impact on medicine is Filipendula ulmaria, which is commonly known as Meadowsweet. In 1835, researchers extracted salicylic acid from it to eventually create aspirin to relieve pain... although the research must have gone on for years because aspirin didn't become available until 1899! (now that's some thorough research)

The tour lasted about an hour and half and gave me a whole new appreciation for the many uses of the plants around us. I tend to focus on the food production side of gardening but that's just a small part of what plants do for us.

Also on-site was a small gift shop and a cafe. Since our tour wrapped up at tea-time, Bill and I indulged in tea and a couple of delicious slices of cake there. Why not do as the natives do, eh?

Regarding the photos included in this post: the top one showed the statue of Hans Sloane and the water feature in the middle of the rock garden I mentioned above. The 2nd one is of woven willow fencing which I'm always intrigued with. I just love the look of that and it seems like such a practical use of natural materials. The 3rd photo is of young plants growing in a large cold frame.

To learn more about the Chelsea Physic Garden, go to