06 October, 2016

Chelsea Physic Garden and London

- gardening for biodiversity
in Cape Town, South Africa

When I worked at the University of Cape Town I read about the Chelsea Physic Garden opening to the public. In 1987 the day we flew back to Zurich from a London holiday, utterly exhausted we lay on the lawns in the garden. Fast forward to this July. We walked wrong to the Thames entrance, before we reached the Swan Walk Gate.

Sir Hans Sloane

On my father's side I am distantly related to Sir Hans Sloane. (Daniel Watkins, who was the first doctor to go to New Zealand, married Julia Maria Sloane in 1827) Sir Hans was an apothecary apprentice from Ireland. In 1687 he returned from Jamaica with two treasures. Quinine against malaria sourced from the Cinchona tree. And chocolate! Used as a drink by Jamaican mothers for children with colic. He was graciously able to leave his garden to the apothecaries, for the proverbial peppercorn rent, of five pounds a year.


The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673. London's oldest botanical garden. Four acres of Chelsea which the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries used to grow their medicinal herbs and train their apprentices (what is it and what does it do??) South-facing, good soil from a former market garden, and access to the Thames for botanising expeditions.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the Wardian case, to move living plants across the sea - leading to tea farming in India and rubber plantations in SE Asia.

Wardian case

I would love time to explore the monocot and dicot beds laid out by families. For example the tomato family gives us hyoscine (travel sickness).

They have renamed it again ... 464 of the 565 traditional plant families have been confirmed by DNA. Lotus is related to the London plane tree, not water lilies. Roses are closer to buckthorn, nettles and figs than saxifrages.

About plant names at Chelsea Physic Garden

I was charmed by the affectionate gathering at jovial Sir Hans' feet in July with Rosa Munstead Wood and Lilium Bracelet in his circle. Huge white daisy Arctotis grandis (renamed venusta) a dry summer rainfall surprise from my home. Softly salmon Lavatera, hibiscus family from the Canary Islands. Sculptural cardoon or artichoke? Gentle lime yellow Cephalaria, teasel family from Central Europe. Huge bizarre leaves on Amicia, pea family from Mexico. Mauve Agrostemma, carnation family from SW Asia.

Sir Hans with July flowers at Chelsea Physic Garden

We ate at Amico Bio - vegetarian and Italian! And Food Heddon at Tibits. Imagine - a vegetarian hot and cold buffet, 40 dishes with many changing daily. And a dessert buffet with 20 choices. Double sigh!!

At the Imperial War Museum I understood why my mother never did learn to like rice, or pasta, preferring a little bread with her Cornish butter! We are exploring millet, as more nutritious than rice.

Amico Bio, at the Imperial War Museum
Regent Street

We walked to Postman's Park and read all the tributes.

At Postman's Park

Grateful to my blogs for virtual visits to distant exhibitions. At the Foundling Museum I longed to see Threads of Feeling (a 2010 gem that hooked me into the joy of blogging!) - when desperate women brought their children they took a piece cut from the baby's clothes as proof one fine day that THIS child is mine. Inspiring Tracey Emin's sculpture on the fence outside. Coram was appalled by abandoned babies as he walked in London. Handel and Hogarth were original supporters. Today they provide social services for the most vulnerable children. Coram's Fields was being happily used - 'adults may only enter if accompanied by a child.'

Tracey Emin - Mitten - at the Foundling Museum

I went to the Imperial War Museum hoping to find information about my grandfather and kite balloons. Without an appointment I couldn't access the books - but I did see this small proof.

Imperial War Museum - balloons!

To the Sky Garden and the Olympic Park next.

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Pictures by Jurg and Diana Studer
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  1. I learned so much from your post Diana. When we visited London I was much more interested in the main tourist spots and not much of a gardener at the time either. Traveling to places with family connections makes the trip even more special and meaningful. I followed your links and a few more. During the Cold War years I heard the phrase "when the balloon goes up" and never knew the origin or meaning. Now I do, with thanks to your post for leading me there.

    1. that phrase is new to me - and I in turn have been Googling and learning.

  2. I love Chelsea Physic Garden, such a haven of peace from London's bustle. Postman's Park is special too.

  3. What a gorgeous garden. My daughters and grandchildren are in London right now and I am so jealous. xo Laura

  4. Another fascinating posting, Diana. I knew about the Wardian case and own a modern day version in which I planted a terrarium garden. P. x

    1. but I only discovered on the guided walk that I have Ward to thank for my tea ;~)

  5. Thanks for a deeper look at the sights of London, Diana. I've yet to visit the UK but hope to get there one day.

  6. What a fantastic trip, Diana! Great you took me to that fabolous place! These English Gardens .... ohhhh!
    To answer your question. No, it doesn't but olive soap and olive (or in that case lavernder) oil is good for renovating old wood.
    All my best and happy days

  7. Thank you for a most interesting and informative post Diana, you could write a book on this post! I was interested to know that Quinine came from the Cinchona tree as my parents lived in the north of Zambia and could not have survived without quinine. What would we have done without Botanic gardens and experiments with medicinal herbs and plants? I'll enjoy looking at some of the links you have to other blogs, as you say, the joys of blogging!

  8. It's been almost twenty years since I visited Chelsea Physic Garden, and this post made me want to go back. I was so ignorant about botany then that I didn't really appreciate what I was seeing. (I love the cartoons about changing plant names.) Time to plan another trip to England!
    Wow -- a relative of Sir Hans Sloane -- great gardening genes. :-)

  9. Lovely informative post Diana; I'm ashamed to say that the Chelsea Physic Garden is still on my to see list - I don't know how it is possible that I've never visited.

    1. Next time I'm in London (if ever) I'll be there! The guided walk was a perfect way to whisk around and get a first impression.

  10. What an interesting post, thank you. Sadly I haven't got around to visiting the garden, was due to go several years ago when we were staying in the area but torrential rain put paid to it. I love Tibits, I wish there was one in Cornwall, at least we have the Cornish butter. I also love Tracey Emins work and hadn't seen this though heard about it.