Four acres of horticultural delights are to be found tucked away behind the Royal Hospital site (home to the famous Chelsea Flower Show) in Chelsea.  Founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London, the Chelsea Physic Garden offered the apprentices the opportunity to grow and study medicinal plants.  The site had previously been home to market gardens and orchards and its location, close to the River Thames, afforded a genial microclimate suitable for many of the more tender species collected on ‘herborising’ expeditions, free-draining soil and a southerly aspect.  The freehold to the land was purchased by Dr Hans Sloane in 1712, later President of the Royal Society, who leased it to the Apothecaries for sum of £5 per annum in perpetuity on condition that it remained a physic garden.  The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, famous for the binommial system of nomenclature of plants, visited the garden several times in the 1730’s and gave names to many of the species.  At the end of the 19th century, the Apothecaries handed over management of the garden to the City Parochial Foundation who continued to maintain it (although it was not open to the general public) until 1983 when a charitable trust was set up and it was finally opened to the public.

The garden consists of greenhouses  (a feature of the garden since at least 1685 when the diarist John Evelyn wrote of the innovative heated glasshouses), a range of buildings along the north side containing the offices, lecture rooms and superb cafe, and divided by gravel paths into quadrants each containing the narrow, rectangular beds which were an original design feature of the garden.  Trees break up the formal design, including ancient yews, Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum, Quercis coccifera – a spiny leaved evergreen oak from the Mediterrancean and the largest olive tree growing outside in Britain.

The oldest man-made rock garden in Europe is Grade II* listed and used in the construction were carved stones from the Tower of London and Basaltic lava.  A Historical Walk shows plants connected with the people who first introduced or named them.  The Pharmaceutical Garden beds are arranged according to the use of the drugs obtained from the plants, for example Filipendula ulmaria – the plant from which aspirin was derived and introduced in 1899. A garden of World Medicine shows plants used medicinally by indigenous peoples around the world while the Perfumery and Aromatherapy borders contain plants used in the making of perfume and also plants which yield aromatherapy oils such as Pelargonium odoratissimum (Geranium oil) and Aloysia triphylla (Lemon Verbena).  A visually pleasing and decorative vegetable plot, whose rectangular beds are neatly edged with box, includes herbs, soft fruits and edible flowers.

The work of the garden continues today with projects related to taxonomic research, work with medical herbalists, partnerships with other institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Eden Project and a thriving Education Department.

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