London is blessed with a fantastic variety of gardens and parks, ranging from the formal grandeur of Hampton Court and Kensington Gardens to the contained wilds of Richmond Park and Hampstead Heath, from squares such as Gray’s Inn or St Paul’s Covent Garden, where I ate many a sandwich lunch with colleagues, to increasing numbers of roof gardens. And let’s not forget the everyday magic of all those suburban gardens as well as the random street corners and numerous roundabouts where guerrilla gardeners work their tricks.
Kew Gardens is an obvious destination for any botanically inclined visitor (though please forgive the planes descending towards Heathrow), but a new place has jumped to the top of my list of recommendations: the Chelsea Physic Garden. http://chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/
I’m embarrassed to say I’d never been until last Friday, but I’ll certainly be back, and often, especially to experience its many wonders at different times of year (though it seems it’s only open from April to October – should love to see it in winter).
Founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1673, the word ‘physic’ in its name refers to the art of healing. Its Garden of Medicinal Plants includes the Pharmaceutical Garden as well as the ethnobotanical displays of the Garden of World Medicine. Many of the specimens have obvious medicinal properties – valerian, echinaceas, specially licensed marijuana, and many other plants used to treat conditions ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s disease. But the plantly wealth extends to numerous points of reference dating back to the golden age of exploration (and exploitation): botanical rarities, great careers, professional rivalries, commerce, art, gastronomy, architecture, the age of enlightenment and an empire at its most powerful.
Some of the beds are laid out according to taxonomic orders, and there’s also a Garden of Edible and Useful Plants, and many other random treasures are crammed into four acres of walled garden that are their own microclimate (it’s usefully close to the river). Single specimens, or maybe at most just a few, are placed in long rectangular beds laid in even longer swathes of mown grass, intersected by gravel paths; it makes a refreshing change from the meadow madness of mass plantings in vogue in so many public spaces right now. A Mexican sunflower of the most startling orange. A rich purple amaranth. A male and female gingko in a ménage with a vine. William Forsyth, who gave his name to Forsythia, trained here in the eighteenth century. The oldest manmade rock garden in Europe includes not only stones from the Tower of London but also basaltic lava used as ballast by Sir Joseph Banks on a voyage to Iceland in 1772. Many sedums. Many poisons. A hothouse of scented geraniums elegantly presented on little stacks of red house bricks. That’s just a smattering.
I felt a bit smug about my own growing horticultural knowledge when I identified a Woodwardia unigemmata in the fern house, where I envied many other species and wondered if we too could set up a Wardian case or two indoors. Maybe just a little terrarium? Or could we convert the bathroom into a Wardian case when we finally get the shower fixed?
It was a perfect day out. We arrived at 11 and must have left at 4.30, having too eaten in its super restaurant (called Tangerine Dream), and gossiped, and shopped; like all the best destinations the Chelsea Physic Garden has a fantastic gift shop, where any excesses of consumption are justified by profits for good causes, and stocking up on birthday cards, and plants of fine provenance getting added to one’s own garden; I’m now the proud owner of a Rosa odorata Bengal Crimson, which we’re told flowers 365 days of the year. Couldn’t resist a pretty white clematis either. Or a black-leafed geranium. Or an ajuga. Or a herb we decided tasted a bit cucumbery. And that was as much as I could carry back on the Tube.