Botanic Gardens, Gardens, Landscape History, London

Chelsea Physic Garden

October 23, 2014


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 

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  • Reply Gallivanta October 25, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Absolutely delightful. Something we could emulate here, too.

  • Reply Jean November 12, 2014 at 12:55 am

    I remember what a thrill it was to stumble across the Chelsea Physic Garden during my first trip to England in 1998. Now that I understand more of the history behind it, I should return for the pleasure of a much deeper appreciation.

  • Reply Patrice Todisco November 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Do return as they have recently opened a new Garden of Medicinal Plants.

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