Boston’s Charles River Esplanade: An Urban Jewel


Several weeks ago, after one of our frequent storms, I decided to get up early on a Sunday morning to walk along the Esplanade. It’s a park I know well, having been the first executive director of The Esplanade Association.


Inspired by Elizabeth Hope Cushing’s recently published book, Arthur A. Shurcliff: Design, Preservation, and the Creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Landscape, I planned to write about the Esplanade, one of his major Boston projects. As is often the case, although I have spent endless hours in the park, I didn’t have any winter images. At the time I didn’t realize how much snow would fall and that I need not hurry.



Shurcliff has been very much in the news of late with Cushing’s book and a citation in the January 23rd Boston Globe op-ed piece, “Olympics can give Boston its overdue urban transit ring” by Alex Krieger. Described by Krieger as “Boston’s greatest transit ring dreamer” Shurcliff, who never drove an automobile, proposed a plan for a circumferential boulevard around the city that was never implemented. According to Krieger it remains a relevant concept and today “It’s hard to imagine a better line for creating social, economic, and transportation connectivity.”


While Shurcliff’s vision for Boston’s transportation system was not fully realized, his vision for the Charles River Esplanade, the three-mile long, 65-acre park that stretches from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge, was. Here he worked for more than twenty-five years, designing and redesigning the park to accommodate the construction of Storrow Drive in the early 1950’s.

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Charles Hassam, 1892. Charles River Basin and Beacon Hill.

The history of the Esplanade has been extensively documented. Made possible by the transformation of the Charles River from a tidal estuary to a fresh water river basin through the building of a dam, the park is a totally man-made creation, conceived as “the central court of honor” in a Metropolitan park system proposed by landscape architect Charles Eliot (1859-1897). His vision, for a waterfront park rivaling those of Europe, imagined the Esplanade as the “crown jewel.”


The Charles Eliot Monument, designed by Shurcliff, is the focal point of the recently restored Charles Eliot Memorial.

In it earliest iteration, the Esplanade was just that, a promenade along the water’s edge. Officially opened as the Boston Embankment in 1910, the 100-foot wide walkway provided a clearly defined, formal edge between the river and the public realm.


“Back Bay, Waterfront View: Looking Toward Longfellow Bridge,” June 3, 1916 by Leon Abdalian. BPL Print Department.

It was through possibly one of the most egregiously violated public gifts of all time, the $1,000,000 donation of Helen Osborne Storrow, “to carry out a comprehensive plan for the beautification and improvement of the Charles River Basin,” honoring her late husband, that the park as we know it today was created.



Following Storrow’s gift a Special Commission on the Charles River Basin recommended that recreational opportunities be expanded along the river by removing the embankment walls and widening the park, using fill pumped from the river bed.

Augmented by $2.3 million dollars of public funding, the project added more than 40 acres to the Esplanade, creating the first lagoon, boat landings, plazas, playgrounds and a music oval following Shurcliff’s plan.


Although in his later life Shurcliff lived in Ipswich, where he and his wife, Margaret Homer Nichols built a home on Argilla Road, he was born on West Cedar Street on Beacon Hill and both lived and maintained an office in the community throughout his lifetime. I like to imagine that his work on the Esplanade was for him the perfect project; the reclamation of the river that he knew as a child as a public space where formal and natural features combined to allow access for boating, fishing and swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

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Boys Fishing (approximately 1950). Copyright Leslie Jones, Courtesy of the BPL Leslie Jones Collection.

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Swimming at Charlesbank (1940). Copyright Leslie Jones. Courtesy of the Leslie Jones Collection, BPL.

In 1936, the Esplanade was formally dedicated as the “Storrow Memorial Embankment,” a name that never took hold. Four years later on July 2, 1940 the Hatch Shell, designed by architect Richard J. Shaw, was dedicated, replacing the temporary wooden shell seen in the image dated 1930, below.

Arthur Fiedler and Symphony Players 1930 BPL

Here, under the direction of noted conductor Arthur Fielder, the Boston Pops Orchestra performed summer concerts which have now been reduced to only one – the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July celebration. Fortunately the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, founded by the late Charles Ansbacher in 2001, has chosen the Hatch Shell as its principal home, returning the tradition of summer concerts to the park.

The quilt below, Esplanade on the Fourth, is by local fiber artist Sue Colozzi


The country’s first community boating program was begun on the Esplanade in the mid-1930’s and a boathouse, designed by Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley, constructed in 1941.


When Storrow Drive was built in the early 1950’s Shurcliff was retained to assist in both the layout of the road and replacement of parkland lost to the highway. According to Cushing he was at first opposed to the highway, which was highly contested by many, including his Beacon Hill neighbors.


“The beautiful driveway along the Esplanade running along Charles River to Charles Street connects traffic to all northern points and Boston through underpass of West Boston Bridge.”

The two postcards from my collection, above and below,show the transformation of the carriage drive to Storrow Drive. 


Charles River Basin from John Hancock Building, showing Storrow Drive and the Longfellow Bridge spanning the basin between Boston and Cambridge, Mass.

Shurcliff did, however, in collaboration with his son, Sidney, work to ameliorate the impacts of Storrow Drive on the park. According to Linda M. Cox in The Charles River Esplanade: Our Boston Treasure, he devised a “brilliant and simple solution to replace this lost parkland.” To do so he lengthened the outer barrier of the existing lagoon, created a new island connected to the original shoreline by footbridges, added a series of lagoons and added an undulating shoreline between the Harvard and BU Bridges. According to Cox, “trees, shrubs, and grass were planted everywhere.”


Shurcliff was deeply impacted by the New England landscape with an affinity for historic sites and structures  and is described by Cushing as “an appreciator of and by extension a preservation advocate for, old places and open spaces.” It is ironic that his masterpiece, the Esplanade, owned and managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, has throughout the years suffered from a lack of funding and maintenance, in need itself of preservation and ongoing restoration.

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During the last decade much of this work has been accomplished by The Esplanade Association, the non-profit friends group formed in 2001 to work to restore and enhance Boston’s Charles River Esplanade on behalf of the greater Boston community.


In 2010, in recognition of the Esplanade’s one hundredth anniversary, The Esplanade Assocation, launched Esplanade 2020, “to forge a shared vision for the park’s future—one rooted in its nineteenth century origins, but looking forward to address the needs of the broad contemporary public.”



It remains an interesting balance, weighing the restoration of historic park elements with the addition of new park features. Cushing quotes historian Karl Haglund author of Inventing the Charles River as describing Shurcliff’s plan for the Esplanade as superb,“grounded in simplicity and restraint.” These qualities are, for many, what continues to make the Esplanade a special place regardless of the season.  Hopefully they will not be lost or else, like the snowman on the river docks below, we will all be very grumpy.


For additional information read: The Esplanade Cultural Landscape Report by Shary Page Berg, FASLA

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays edited by Patricia J. Osmond


Perfect. Poetical. Sensual. A masterpiece of composition. Perched on a hillside in Settignano with a magnificent view of Florence, Villa Gamberaia has inspired writers, artists, historians and designers for generations. In the finely crafted book, Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, Patricia J. Osmond shares Gamberaia’s allure through a collection of eight classic essays accompanied by historic photographs, illustrations and plans.

Written by American and British authors the essays span more than seventy years, beginning in 1901 with Janet Ross’s depiction of the Gamberaia in Florentine Villas and concluding with Sir Harold Acton’s Tuscan Villas, published in 1973. Each essay provides a unique insight into the Gamberaia’s design evolution while providing an introduction to the discipline of landscape history.

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Villa Gamberaia’s garden is small, approximately three acres in size. Yet contained within is a collection of spaces so perfectly sited in relationship to the villa, surrounding agricultural landscape and each other that they compose one of the most harmonious ensembles in Tuscany. As Georgina Masson extols in an essay from Italian Gardens published in 1961, the garden is “at once the loveliest and most typically Tuscan” that she had seen. “In it the light, and air and breeze swept site, advocated by all the garden authors from Varro to Alberti, is exploited to perfection.”

Beloved by Edith Wharton for its “perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale,” the garden is described by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as the most thoughtful domestic landscape the world has ever known. Its individual features include a grotto, nymphaeum, gabinetto rustico, limonaia and bowling green as well as formal water parterres encircled by a cypress arcade.


Gamberaia Plan from Italian Gardens of the Renaissance by Geoffrey Jellicoe and John C. Shepherd, 1925.

In the introduction to Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, Osmond shares the context in which the essays were written, providing a brief overview of Florence’s cultural environment at the turn of the twentieth century, when writers, artists, diplomats and intellectuals were exploring the gardens and villas of the region and buying or renting properties outside of Florence. Biographical notes provide background information about the individuals who have influenced the Gamberaia’s design.

Villa Gamberaia passed through successive owners, including the elusive Princess Ghyka and the American heiress, Maud Cass Ledyard (Baroness Von Ketteler) before being acquired by the Marchi Family in 1954. Dedicated to restoring the gardens and villa (both of which were destroyed by the Germans during World War ll) the Marchis are passionate stewards of the property and painstakingly continue its restoration.


In an era in which garden images proliferate on the internet and technology allows one to “visit” gardens virtually, Revisiting the Gamberaia: An Anthology of Essays, reminds us that there is no substitute for physically experiencing a place, supporting, as Osmond beautifully expresses, the reality that one ”can never exhaust the potential for meaning that a great garden, like a great work of literature or painting, continues to elect.”

I had the good fortune to visit Villa Gamberaia in early November on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. At that time I had not read the essays in Osmond’s anthology, but had studied the garden in graduate school. As I passed through the entry avenue of cypress onto the grassy terrace with sweeping views over the Arno valley and into the garden, the “sensual, practical, contemplative, mystical, childish and ordered grandeur of the individual,” described by Sir Geoffrey in The Studies of a Landscape Designer over 80 years, both delighted and humbled me, as only a great work of art can do.


This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, January, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Gentle Acts of Nature, Time and Man: Three Japanese Gardens


“…there are those who, attracted by grass, flowers, mountains and waters, flow into the Buddha Way.” (Dogen)

At the end of each year I am provided with an analysis of my blog by WordPress. Included is information about what day of the week I most often post (Friday), which pieces were the most popular (Kensington Gardens, UNESCO’s Garden of Peace, Two Boston Rose Gardens), number of viewers (enough to fill eight sold out performances of the Sydney Opera House) and in what countries those viewers reside (to date 150 out of a total of 196, with the notable absence of Greenland so should you know anyone who lives there please send them my way).


You might be wondering how such analysis leads to a piece about three Japanese Gardens located in three very different places (Montreal, Canada, Saint Louis, Missouri and Tallinn, Estonia). Encouraged by WordPress to review my 2014 literary output (while being duly reflective with the advent of a new year) I spent an evening viewing images from my travels.  There, embedded in other places, were three Japanese Gardens, visited in three different seasons.

It is a garden style about which I know very little.  Many years ago, I had the opportunity to observe the construction of the 10,000 foot Tenshin-en Garden, a contemplative viewing garden designed by Professor  Kinsaku for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. An urban sanctuary, this compact space contains many of the elements found in larger gardens, including 200 rocks and 1,750 specimen plantings. To the best of my knowledge it is the only Japanese Garden in the city.


Unlike Tenshin-en, the three Japanese Gardens I visited are stroll gardens meant to be experienced by entering and walking in them. Two are described as tea gardens, while the largest, located at the Missouri Botanical Garden, contains elements of both styles. Ranging in size from six to fourteen acres each garden represents a journey revealing life’s mysteries while illuminating the expressive and sacred qualities of nature.  As such they present the perfect metaphor in which to begin a new year.

Seiwa-en, the “Garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” was dedicated at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1977. Designed by Professor Koichi Kawana, the garden encourages personal exploration and interpretation with a lake as a main feature, following a style popular among the Japanese feudal lords of the 17th and 18th centuries.


The garden offers the world in microcosm with thoughtfully designed waterfalls, islands, subtle landforms and both open and enclosed spaces.  Raked dry gravel beds, minimally planted, contrast with broad lawns and specimen plantings.


The contemporary Japanese garden at Montréal Jardin Botanique was designed by Ken Nakajima as a  tea garden.  Its pure and simple environment is framed by sinuous lines that reinforce a spirit of serenity and harmony.  These are balanced by vistas providing opportunities for discovery. It opened in 1988.

According to their website, “a visit to the Japanese Garden requires an open mind and spirit. Visitors should go right to its heart; to meditate, to collect their thoughts, to feel and touch the beauty of the stone, water, plants and various architectural elements which make up the garden.”


In 2011 the first authentic Japanese Garden opened in Tallinn, Estonia.  Like Montreal’s Japanese Garden it is a tea garden whose “story” replicates the road that people take through life.  One is encouraged to enter at the same location one departs.

The garden is located in Kadriorg Park and is still in development. As such it provides an opportunity to view the plantings (1,192 trees and 928 shrubs) before they mature.  Its designer, Masao Stone, is said to have been inspired by Tallinn’s roof-line.


According to the Japanese American Museum, Japanese Gardens were introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Their popularity has been constant and today there are 250 throughout the country. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is the oldest formal Japanese Garden open to the public within the United States.

The North American Japanese Garden Association lists 53 countries throughout the world containing Japanese-style gardens.


While the traditional Japanese Garden combines characteristics developed over many centuries, reflecting differing influences that prevailed during distinct historical periods, many contain key common elements which include:

Water: Found in many forms, water contributes to the expression of nature and symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity in the hereafter.   Occupying a place of choice within the garden, water features are precisely oriented with respect to the sun to enhance reflection.


Stones: Symbolizing duration and the omnipresence of natural forces, stones anchor the garden to the ground and give it a specific personality. Laid out according to strict rules, defined by their shape and size, stones are often intertwined as gender specific pairs.  Each stone is believed to have a soul and the best gardeners know how to understand and set each stone to express its soul. The type of stone used within the garden is the most important element in the design.



The Lantern: Originally intended to guide visitors during nocturnal celebrations, lanterns became a leading element in the Japanese garden with the advent of the tea ceremony. Their light is considered the light of knowledge which clears away ignorance.


Bridges: Privileged sites within the garden, bridges may be built of wood, bamboo, earth or stone. Designed in harmony with the surrounding landscape, bridges offer the visitor a prospect upon which to linger and absorb the beauty of the landscape.



Plants: Associated with moving thoughts and the universal forms of life, plants are imbued with deep symbolism and nurtured to assume the physical form needed to express their meaning.  Trees are pruned to their essence and the leaves of autumn prized.  Plants articulate seasonality and are carefully chosen and situated to highlight the rhythms of nature.



Carp: Considered “living flowers” carp have been cross-bred in Japan for more than 100 years and are highly valued.  Their symbolism is linked to positive qualities related to courage, overcoming adversity, the ability to attain the highest goals, and strong character.


The Japanese Garden encourages an open mind and spirit and each season, like each time of day, provides moments of intense beauty waiting to be captured by lovers of art and nature. Each visit provides an opportunity for introspection and the prospect of a new beginning.


Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs by Emma Reuss


The qualities that create a memorable garden are universal and transcend time and space.

While one often feels on an intuitive level that a garden is pleasing, it is not always easy to articulate why. A well designed garden provides both tangible and intangible pleasures that reveal its genus loci – the spirit of the place.

Thus is the premise of Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs, by London-based garden writer and designer Emma Reuss. Using a portfolio of 100 gardens from throughout the world as a guide, Reuss sets out to share, in orderly fashion, how good garden design is based upon seven key principles; composition, genius loci, unity, simplicity, balance, proportion, rhythm and repetition, and focal points. When combined successfully an aesthetically pleasing, harmonious and balanced composition emerges that both inspires and serves as a practical guide for the home gardener.



The Getty Center in Los Angeles designed by Robert Irwin in 1997.

Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs includes a diverse and eclectic collection of properties chosen by Reuss to “demonstrate with ease the thinking behind the garden.” A wide range of styles and situations are represented and organized in ten thematic chapters – Art, Landscape, World, Plants, Composition Lifestyle, Color, Urban, Environment and Atmosphere. From urban rooftop to forest retreat, the gardens showcase the work of both well known designers (an appendix lists contact information for 54) and “gifted amateurs” reinforcing the democratic nature of good design.

Each garden is presented in a four page spread as a case study complete with introduction, an exploration of design intent and an analysis of key design elements (called ingredients by Reuss) that detail how each supports the project as a whole. Sidebars provide additional insight into key ideas and themes represented within the garden.



“Vertical Garden” by botanist Patrick Blanc at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.

Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs is beautifully illustrated with more than 500 color photographs. While the text is thoughtful and clear the book would benefit from a table of contents listing the names and locations of the gardens featured within each chapter and information regarding which (if any) are open to the public. The inclusion of garden plans would also be a helpful feature to provide context and scale.

As a resource for garden designers, Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs is a comprehensive reference guide that is both practical and inspiring. By including information about basic design considerations as diverse as options for children to designing knot gardens, Reuss delivers an “every person’s guide” to contemporary garden design.

Gardens in Detail: 100 Contemporary Designs
by Emma Reuss
The Monacelli Press:New York, 2014

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, December 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Villa Gamberaia


I have just spent a week in Florence attending the 18th General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The theme, Heritage and Landscape as Human Values, represents an increased focus on the role that landscape (a broadly defined term at best) plays within the heritage agenda. Florence provided an opportune venue in which to conduct this dialogue for here gardens and landscapes are interwoven within an historic urban framework that coherently integrates them with built form.


So it can be no surprise that I had a difficult time staying indoors when there are so many famous gardens and landscapes to explore. Many of these were created by the Medici family. However, it was visiting the Villa Gamberaia, included by Edith Wharton in the 1904 book Italian Villas and Their Gardens and studied by aspiring landscape architects (at least when I went to school) that was my priority.

Published in 1904, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, Italian Villas and Their Gardens extols the magic that the combined forces of nature and art bestow upon the Italian garden.  Wharton designed her garden at the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts based upon principles derived from Italian gardens where, as part of a harmonious composition noting, “the garden must be studied in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape.”


Located on a hillside in Settignano overlooking Florence and the surrounding Arno Valley, Villa Gamberia is one of the most famous gardens in the world. Among other qualities it seamlessly integrates built and natural forms with a series of spaces that are both intimate and grand, providing a complement to the surrounding multi-hued landscape.


The design of Villa Gamberia is attributed to a series of owners who modified its plan while retaining the property’s design integrity. Merchant Zanobi Lapi is credited with building an imposing villa on the site as early as 1610 employing his nephews to lay out the main areas of the garden in the “Tuscan style,”  combining design elements found in both urban palazzos and suburban villas.


The detailed estate map (cabreo) seen above dates from the first half of the 18th century and combines with etchings by Giuseppe Zocchi (seen below) from 1744 to provide a detailed record of the villa, gardens and surrounding agricultural land during this period.  Many of these recorded additions and improvements were made to the property by Marchesi Capponi between 1718 and 1725.


Features highlighted that remain today include the formal Cyprus allée leading to the villa’s entrance, the nymphaeum of Neptune, the Gabinetto rustico and the upper lemon terrace and limonaia.


Gabinetto rustico


Giardino Limonaia

Princess Giovanna (Jeanne) Ghyka acquired the property in 1896 and began an ambitious restoration of the gardens converting the parterre de broderie into a parterre d’eau.  According to Wharton, “this garden, an oblong piece of ground, a few years ago had at its centre a round fish-pond surrounded by symmetrical plots planted with roses and vegetables, and in general design had probably been little changed since the construction of the villa.  It has now been remodeled on an elaborate plan, which has the disadvantage of being unrelated in style to its surroundings; but fortunately no other change has been made in the plan and planting of the grounds.”

The photographs of the water garden below, by Charles Latham, appeared in a nine page spread in  “Country Life Magazine” on May 26th 1906, two years after Villa Gamberaia was featured in Wharton’s book.

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From 1919 to 1920, Rome Prize winner Edward Lawson measured and drew a plan of the gardens.  Lawson, a first fellow in landscape architecture, is featured in the piece Edward Godfrey Lawson, “Our First Fellow,” by James O’Day on the American Society of Landscape Architecture’s blog, The Field.  Planting plans drawn by Lawson have been used to guide the garden’s restoration.

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Several years later, Susan and Geoffrey Jellicoe surveyed the garden as part of the field work for Italian Gardens of the Renaissance, published in 1925.  The popular book, a partnership of Jellicoe and Jock Shepherd includes illustrations, plans and photographs of twenty-eight villas and has been reissued eight times.

In 1925, Villa Gamberaia was purchased by the widowed, American born Baroness von Ketteler who added both formal and architectonic elements to the garden, including the wide box borders.



The villa and its garden were severely damaged in 1944 as the German army retreated from Italy.  In 1954 the property was purchased by Marcello Marchi and he and his family have devoted the past 50 years to its restoration.  Several smaller houses on the property have been renovated and these, along with main villa, are available for rental.


In Norman Newton’s 1971 book, Design on the Land, Villa Gamberaia is described as embodying many of the admirable qualities that contribute to the Tuscan Villa’s “characteristic serenity….. it is simple, direct, uncomplicated.”

Newton (who was a fixture in my studio class) provides an evocative description of the villa and gardens beginning with the approach from the village of Settignano where one passes through a tunnel in the narrow roadway leading to the villa’s recessed gateway.



Upon entering, a hedge bordered roadway leads to the villa, its forecourt and a wide side terrace lined with sculptures (including the canine below) providing a dramatic view of the countryside and the city of Florence.


According to Newton, “the serenity of the villa ….rests upon the calm simplicity of the house….and gentle harmony between warm stucco walls and reddish brown stone trim at openings and corners.”


On the villa’s eastern side is a turf viale, a lawn that extends the length of the property and serves as a central axis connecting the cool and shaded cypress enclosed nymphaeum to a sweeping, balustraded overlook.


The Viale


The Nymphaeum

In Italian Villas and Their Gardens Wharton concluded that Villa Gamberaia is “Probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale… because it combines in an astonishingly small space, yet without the least sense of overcrowding, almost every typical excellence of the old Italian garden: free circulation of sunlight and air about the house; abundance of water; easy access to dense shade; sheltered walks with different points of view; variety of effect produced by the skilful use of different levels; and, finally, breadth and simplicity of composition… ”



As mentioned earlier the Villa has guest houses available for rent.  In addition plans are being developed for a Gamberaia Cultural Association which will offer an annual program of guided tours, conferences and seminars conducted by specialists in landscape architecture and they are in the process of developing a series of cultural events linked in the study of landscapes and gardens.

Villa Gamberaia
Via del Rossellino, 72 50135 Settignano – FIRENZE
Tel: +39 055697205 – +39 055697090 Fax : +39 055697090 E-mail:


Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Chelsea Physic Garden


While I have never considered the connection between gardens and the quality of masters degree programs, I recently received and shared a list of the 50 most stunning University Gardens and Arboretums developed by a site professing to be “Your online Guide to the Best (however defined) Masters Degree Programs.” After wondering how I might obtain a job where I was required to compile such a list and checking to see how many of the 50 I have had the pleasure of visiting (a paltry seven), I returned my focus to writing about the Chelsea Physic Garden, which as a center for horticultural research for more than 350 years is, despite its lack of affiliation to a university, stunning. I visited the garden in early September.


Founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries of London to provide apprentices with an opportunity to grow medicinal plants and study their uses, the walled garden is sited on four acres of land contiguous to the River Thames where market gardens, orchards and “great houses” belonging to King Henry VIII, his Chancellor Sir Thomas More and Sir John Danvers once flourished. Try as I might to uncover why the sign above, located near the garden’s entry on Swan Walk is dated 1686, I was unable to do so.

While the riverside location provides a microclimate suitable for cultivating tender species (including the largest olive tree growing outside in Britain) it also provided an important transportation corridor where, according to their website, the apothecaries housed “the gaily painted barge” used for royal pageants and processions, conveying members to and from the Physic Garden and for their celebrated ‘herborising’ (the Society’s term for educational, botanical field trips). It is London’s oldest botanic garden.

The garden is visible in Cary’s New and Accurate Plan of London and Westminster, 1795, seen below.

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In 1712, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) acquired the Manor of Chelsea which included the freehold of the Garden. He granted the Apothecaries a lease on the land for a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity on the condition it be for ever kept up and maintained as a physic garden. And for more than 300 years, it has.

IMG_1626The image below,  An Accurate Survey of the Physic Garden in 1751 by John Haynes, includes elevations of the green houses and the layout of planting beds.   (Copyright: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries (RBKC, Libraries).


Upon his death at 93 years of age, Sloane’s collections and library formed the nucleus of the British Museum. He also appointed Phillip Miller (1691-1771) as head gardener, who, in a 50 year tenure, nurtured great talents and expanded the reach of the garden’s influence.


Sir Hans Sloane

A replica of a statue of Sir Hans Sloane created by Michael Rysbrack in 1733 keeps watch over the garden. Close by is the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe, built with pieces of stone from the Tower of London and basaltic lava used as ballast on the ship that transported Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland in 1772.


Pond Rockery

Among other notable botanists, in the 1730‘s, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) made several visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden where he made important contacts that influenced his research and growth as a scientist. The garden is one of thirteen sites in eight countries in Europe and North America connected to Linnaeus that have been tentatively nominated by the UNESCO World Heritage Program in a proposal titled “The Rise of Systematic Biology.” Other sites I have visited and written about include Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia and the Linnaeus Botanical Garden and Museum in Uppsala, Sweden.


In 1983, an independent charity was created to support the garden and, for the first time in 300 years, it was opened to the public. Today the Chelsea Physic Garden remains dedicated to promoting education, conservation, and scientific research and is a partner in the joint initiative, the Ethnomedica Project, with medical herbalists at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the Eden Project, the Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, and the Natural History Museum in London.


Glass Houses and Tropical Corridor

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Together, they collect data about herbal remedies used over the years in Britain. While a modest in size, the garden contains a collection of approximately 5000 taxa, focusing on medicinal plants and those of ethnobotanical interest, as well as rare and endangered species.


Systematic Order Beds

Plants introduced into cultivation by garden curators and notable botanists associated with the garden, including William Hudson, William Curtis and botanist, naturalist and patron of the sciences, Sir Joseph Banks are planted along a historical walk.


The herb and medicinal collections include gardens showcasing edible and useful plants as well as those used for pharmaceutical purposes.


The Garden of Useful Plants


Garden of Edible Plants

In April a newly designed 3/4 acre garden of medicinal plants opened showcasing an ethnobotanical display of plants from every region of the world and their key medicinal uses.


Garden of Medicinal Plants


The mandrake, a plant that, according to legend, screamed when pulled from the ground.

A peaceful oasis of living history in the heart of the London and home to a unique collection of medicinal and rare plants, the Chelsea Botanic Garden is an independent self-supporting charity with two main goals: to conserve a ‘living history’ of medicinal herbs and plant introductions and help children understand more about the environment.  The map below, complete with an ominous warning about poisonous plants has been designed for them.

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In 2014, Scottish artist and poet Alec Finlay, installed a series of bee libraries, collections of bee-related books converted into nests for bees in the garden.  The nests are constructed with books, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, and provide shelter for solitary bees, whose numbers are in steep decline.


As in many of London’s parks, gardens and green spaces, Chelsea Physic Garden has a café, an attraction in and of itself. The Tangerine Dream Café, listed as one of London’s Best Park Cafés, is open from April through October serving a seasonal menu of “attractively presented British, Italian and European style dishes” and renowned “own-made cakes, desserts and lavender scones” prefect for afternoon tea.  It’s a busy spot and on a sunny Sunday the overflow crowd ate on the benches and lawn adjoining the café.



The garden is accessed off of Swan’s Way and is located adjacent to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Home of the Chelsea Pensioners and site of the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Chelsea Flower show to be held from the 19th through the 23rd of May.

As I was finishing this post I received notification that the Chelsea Physic Garden had been nominated as Britain’s Favorite Garden in Land Love magazine.  While Land Love celebrates the very best things about the countryside (and the garden is in the city) to cast a vote visit: However, in a small sense this juxtaposition encapsulates what I love most about London and wish most that the city I have lived and worked in for a very long time, Boston, could emulate.

To learn more about the Chelsea Physic Garden visit:


 Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved 

Book Review: André Le Nôtre in Perspective: Edited by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin and Georges Farhat      

9780300199390 Published to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth, André Le Nôtre in Perspective celebrates the life and legacy of France’s famous royal gardener through an exploration of his achievements as a designer, engineer and collector of fine art. Containing forty essays written by academics, curators, landscape architects, gardeners and hydraulic engineers, the book provides fresh insights into Le Nôtre’s extraordinary genius and enduring influence on landscape and garden design. The essays consider, in parallel, Le Nôtre’s position in society, the material conditions in which his art and work developed and the role his work played in shaping the design profession. It is divided into three sections; Le Nôtre and His Times, Le Nôtre’s Art and Work and Elsewhere and After. IMG_5724 Impeccably researched and lavishly illustrated, André Le Nôtre in Perspective, is a work of art, in and of itself, combining scholarship with exquisite illustrations, photographs and plans as well as designs and drawings from Le Nôtre’s notebooks. The essays present new research culled from documents unavailable in previous studies and provide a fresh perspective on Le Nôtre’s origins, family relations, social standing and clientele, reducing the aura of mystery surrounding the “famous and obscure” gardener to King Louis XIV. Le Nôtre’s multi-faceted relationship with Louis XIV is explored within the context of his role as architect of the king’s gardens, a responsibility that included providing designs for all of the royal establishments.  For forty-three years Le Nôtre served as Contrôleur general, overseeing finances for construction projects and monitoring their progress.  However, he maintained his passion for horticulture and never “were the spade and the rake completely replaced by the ledger and the pen”. IMG_5743 While André Le Nôtre in Perspective pays homage to Versailles, it fully explores other facets of his work, including that at the Tuileries Gardens (seen above), where recent historical and archaeological research have revealed his skill as a “master craftsman working in soil”. Chapters are devoted to individual elements of his designs, including vistas, sculptures, hydraulics, parterres, trees and groves, and each is placed within its historical context.

The formal French garden, as defined through Le Nôtre’s vision, has been extensively copied and adapted and is at once both historic and modern. While vilified by proponents of the picturesque, his work inspired the avant garde, providing inspiration for twentieth and twenty-first century designers as diverse as Fletcher Steele and Le Corbusier.  Versailles, Marly and the Champs- Elysees were the spatial models used by L’Enfant when he designed Washington, DC in 1791. In Landscapes of Clarity – Dan Kiley’s Modernist Origins in Seventeenth Century France, a recent post written by Charles Birnbaum, President of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Le Nôtre’s influence on the  landscape architect Dan Kiley was revealed in a 1982 lecture at the University of Virginia, when he shared, “the person who inspired me the most is Le Nôtre.”


Vaux-le-Vicomte: 17th Century Engraving

This is not a book to be taken lightly.  With a shipping weight of 6.6 pounds, it contains 440 pages, 180 color images and 170 black-&-white illustrations (all of the highest quality). Despite its heft, André Le Nôtre in Perspective will not languish on your bookshelf (dusty or not) but will instead be read and reread, a rare treat to savor.

André Le Nôtre in Perspective
Edited by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin and Georges Farhat
Editions Hazan: 2013

This review appeared in Leaflet: A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, September, 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved 


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