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Chelsea Physic Garden

Nick Bailey

An illustrated talk by Nick Bailey, Saturday March 11th at 2pm

Plantsman, garden designer and former Head Gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, Nick Bailey delivered this years Tate Talk to a full house of around 150 members. He provided an informative, fascinating and humorous look at London’s oldest botanic garden. Covering the Gardens creation and original purpose up to its modern day role in a busy, ( and expensive!) part of Central London, we learned that it’s ongoing existence is largely due to a complex and ingenious trust set up by its primary benefactor, Sir Hans Sloane, in 1721, preventing its further sale.

Originally established by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673, the four acre site benefits from a microclimate. Walled, south facing, sheltered and with free draining soil (and now with extra heat from the surrounding city,) the Garden is able to grow plants out of doors other botanic gardens in the UK can only dream of, including the most northerly outdoor fruiting grapefruit.

The Gardens original purpose was for growing medicinal plants, and it has been central to the exchange of seeds and knowledge with other botanic gardens across the world since 1683, through the Index Seminum. Nick talked through the reasons for the Garden’s decline in fortunes, including the progress of modern medicine away from the Apothecaries, resulting in the focus on medicinal plants being lost through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chelsea Physic Garden charity was established in 1983 and took over the running of the Garden, opening its gates to the public for the first time in 1987.

We were then treated to a fascinating look at some of the key developments in the garden in more recent years, including the master plan developed by Nick (on a napkin) which transformed the way the garden was structured and interpreted for visitors. Bringing the Garden back to its former role as both a physic and teaching garden, Nick refocused spaces on showcasing edible and useful plants, while further pushing the boundaries on the plants being grown there, such as growing cardamom outside.

We learned many interesting facts about the history of a range of plants that we take for granted today, as well as those with surprising uses, including Canna seeds in maracas. The Garden has been reconnected with its original purpose of growing medicinal plants with an area devoted to plants linked to modern medicine. Examples being grown include broad beans (Vicia Faba) which contain a compound useful in the treatment of Parkinsons disease, and petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus) which has been shown to treat some skin cancers. This helps visitors to understand the long standing and vital connection between plants and advancements in medical treatments.

Everyone in attendance thoroughly enjoyed Nick’s fascinating and entertaining talk.

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