A guest post
by Julie Bozza
I don’t have green thumbs, alas! But I do appreciate a good garden, and I’ve long been fascinated by medieval physic gardens.
Physic gardens (as we know them) date back to the time of Charlemagne (742-814). Sections of a garden would be set aside for growing plants used for medicinal purposes, and for teaching apothecaries about their trade.
This makes physic gardens sound very practical – and they were! – but there is also an element of beauty within them. Many of the medicinal plants were in themselves beautiful. For example, certain irises were grown in such gardens, as their rhizomes (known as orris root) were used in both perfume and medicine. Irises are utterly gorgeous and my favourite flower, so that decisively proves my point, at least to myself!
With all those herbs and flowers growing, you can imagine how beautiful such gardens were for the nose as well as the eye! It was common practice for a bench to be installed in a physic garden so that convalescents could sit for a while and soak up not only the sun but the healthful scents.
The idea of physic gardens evolved into our modern-day botanic gardens, which have a broader interest in all plants – though of course most botanic gardens specialise in particular areas, or are shaped by their location and climate.
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden embodies this history, as it was founded in 1621 as a physic garden, and now has a wider remit with over 8,000 different plant species across a four-and-a-half acre site. True to its origins, however, the garden includes medicinal beds growing plants used in modern medicine.