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The Chelsea Physic

by Melanie Dawe
photographs by Melanie Dawe

For the full text of this article see The Mediterranean Garden No 52, April 2008

The Chelsea Physic Garden, originally called the Apothecaries’ Garden, was founded in 1673 in order to give apprentice apothecaries practical training in the identification of plants. In the days when all medicine was plant-based, it was essential to learn the difference between poisonous plants and ones with medicinal uses. In the early 18th century Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a leading physician and scientist, was the Garden’s great patron and benefactor. He purchased the Manor of Chelsea and in 1712 leased its four acres to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity. His statue now looks out over the Garden.

The one plant that unfailingly produces gasps of amazement among visitors to the Garden is the grapefruit tree. Fruiting away happily in a sheltered corner under the beneficent protection of a large olive tree, this fortunate member of the citrus tribe was grown from seed and after 50 years produces a regular crop of large yellow fruits that hang for months on its obliging branches.

The Mediterranean glasshouses contain collections of flowering plants from the Canary Islands, Greece, Crete and the southern Mediterranean. Its proximity to the River Thames gives Chelsea Physic Garden a mild microclimate and rare plants from the Canaries also flourish outside against the protection of a warm wall. In the foreground is a tender Echium.

Beside the glasshouses, a robust specimen of Acacia dealbata is a glorious mass of golden flowers in early spring. This acacia, however, is now casting too much shade on the aromatherapy beds. A. dealbata  has become a popular tree in London gardens, yet not so many years ago the florists’ sprays of ‘mimosa’ arriving from the South of France in January were regarded as exotic treats.

The kitchen garden is planted with lesser known vegetables, culinary herbs and aromatherapy plants. 

Snowdrops flower in very early spring.
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