Visiting Physic Gardens

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.

Chelsea Physic Garden (photo by Julie).

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.

I have to add that I like the spirit of their news releases! A recent offering (on 12 July) begins thus:

Nothing shouts summer like a rampant Herbaceous Border. In the Botanic Garden ours is looking fabulous.

Darling! I’ll be right over!

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has a similar history. It was founded in 1670 as a physic garden in Holyrood Park, and now encompasses four sites in Scotland (including Argyll, Borders and Galloway), each with its own speciality.

I was chuffed to see that one of the RBGE’s current website banners features a water lily, my chosen symbol for my novel.

And of course this article wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Chelsea Physic Garden, established in London in 1673, long associated with the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries – and indeed ‘jealously guarded’ by them! Unlike the gardens in Oxford and Edinburgh, the CPG has not expanded but remained focused on its original purpose. It was only opened to the general public in 1983.

Tobacco plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden (photo by Julie).

You can visit any of the above three gardens, but there are also smaller, more recently established physic gardens elsewhere in the country.

The Cowbridge Physic Garden can be found in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. It is relatively new, being founded in 2004 and opened to the public in 2008. The garden is only half an acre in size, and is located in the heart of this ancient market town.

Similarly, the Petersfield Physic Garden in Hampshire, England is also located right in the town centre. Adding interest is the fact that it occupies one of the town’s medieval ‘burgage’ plots – a long, narrow plot of land with a narrow street frontage.

Petersfield Physic Garden (photo by Julie).

Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland, England has a more countrified setting:

Wander up a country lane in a panoramic stretch of Northumberland to find a uniquely peaceful garden nestled on the banks of a winding river.

The DPG is a modern physic garden established in the early 1990s by Elaine Perry, a neuroscientist at the University of Newcastle, and opened to the public in 2005. The two acre site looks really delightful, with not only plants but artworks installed.

I was thrilled to see that the garden not only has a Botanist in Residence, but also Artists, a Musician, a Plant Historian and Folklorist, a Photographic Artist, and a Writer in Residence! (Perhaps it’s just as well that my Tom found Hilary before risking the many distractions of Dilston…)

Old estates may also feature physic gardens, such as Sudeley Castle and Gardens in Gloucestershire and The Priory of St Pancras Lewes in East Sussex.

I wanted to finish on a more modern note, however, with the Urban Physic Garden, a project run by Wayward, that began as a ‘pop-up’ in London and has since toured internationally. While the UPG is only temporary in terms of a site, Wayward is interested in the creative use of under-utilised land and ‘meanwhile spaces’, and transforming derelict spaces into green places which are ‘productive, meaningful and imaginative’.

It seems that physic gardens are truly alive and well – and Tom and Hilary’s garden in Wiltshire is in excellent company!

Chelsea Physic Garden (photo by Julie).

If you’re interested in reading my novel THE APOTHECARY’S GARDEN, you can find all the details on the Press website. And now is a good time to give it a try, as it is available on Smashwords at a 25% discount – as are all of the Press’s backlist titles!

2 thoughts on “Visiting Physic Gardens”

  1. Morgan and I spent many happy hours in the Oxford Botanical Garden on one of our recent trips – mostly in the Water Lily House inventing our very own episode of ‘Lewis’, IIRC …

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