Chelsea Physic Garden – Summer 2013

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The garden & it's history

Between the venerable houses of Chelsea and the bustle of the Thames Embankment lies the Chelsea Physic Garden. Walled and secluded, it is easy to miss – especially as the entrance is hidden down Swan Walk. Once inside, the glories of the garden are revealed and, like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, it holds much more than you would expect. There are areas for Medicinal, Edible and Useful plants, botanical beds arranged by family, a fernery, possibly the oldest rockery in Europe and an extremely good cafe, overlooking the lawn and ornamental beds.

'The garden was founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London, so their apprentices could study medicinal plants. The site was chosen because the area was already well-known for market gardens and orchards and its proximity to the Thames meant transport to and from the garden was easy on the Apothecaries’ gaily painted barge. In 1712 Dr. Hans Sloane took over the freehold of the garden and granted a lease in perpetuity, in exchange for £5 per annum, on the condition that it was maintained as a physic garden and gave fifty plants a year to the Royal Society. The £5 rent is still paid annually to the doctor’s heirs. In 1983 it was established as an independent charity and, for the first time, was opened to the public.


The pharmaceutical & order beds

Much of the garden is laid out with rectangular beds divided by gravel paths. The plants are arranged according to their uses or botanical families, each clearly labelled with their name and country of origin. Seeds are collected, so the flowers tend not to be deadheaded which can lead to parts of the garden looking a bit scruffy by mid August. What one has to remember is that this is a working botanical garden, not a purely decorative one. That said, most of the garden is incredibly attractive, partly because all the plants are such good specimens. It is almost as if they know they are in an important garden and are doing their very best to grow well. Everything seems to be bigger and better than you see in many other gardens.

There are lots of wonderful trees, many of which date from the original planting of the garden. There is also the largest olive tree in Britain, an amazing cork oak and a mulberry which was grown from a cutting from a tree planted as part of King James I’s attempt in the seventeenth century to make us self-sufficient in silk. Unfortunately he planted black mulberries instead of white ones, but at least we get the fruit, even if our silk industry got nowhere.

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Decorative beds, the lawn & rockery

Beside the lawn is a large double-sided bed crammed with flowers. Spidery white cleomes and giant Cynara scolymus dominate the centre, with powder blue Phlox drummondii, lime green Nicotiana and deep crimson cosmos below. At the edge I discovered Anagallis monellii – a completely perfect blue flower. Originally from the Mediterranean, it is, according to the RHS encyclopaedia, ‘easily cultivated’ as long as one’s garden isn’t too cold – I want it!

The Rockery is the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. It has pieces of carved stone which were once part of the Tower of London and basaltic lava which was used as ballast on Sir Joseph Banks’ ship on a voyage from Iceland in 1772. In amongst the rocks are a host of tiny gems, but I’m afraid I didn’t look very hard as plants that small tend to get trampled on by other things in my garden.


The Tangerine Dream Cafe

I don’t just judge a garden by its cafe, but a pleasant place to eat is always an added draw. The cafe here is very good, if a little chaotic, and while not particularly cheap, the food is delicious. Tables can be booked in advance if you are a Friend of the Garden, but we sat happily on the lawn with Salmon en Croute, followed by Vanilla Cheesecake with homemade lemonade. The shop is also good, and an excellent source of Christmas presents later in the year. Their website is:-


The opening times are slightly quirky (they are closed on Saturdays), expanding if you are a Friend of the Garden when you can visit all year round. RHS members can get in free on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during most of the summer. See for details.