Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

Staying in Chelsea, after my visit to Green & Stone, I went to see the Chelsea Physic Garden which lies in between the River Thames and the Chelsea Embankment and Royal Hospital Road.

It's a real haven of peace as well as being a wonderful garden for artists interested in botanical art.
The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1673 in order to promote the study of botany in relation to medicine, then known as the "physic" or healing arts. As the second oldest botanic garden in England it still fulfils the traditional functions of scientific research and plant conservation and undertakes to educate and inform as well as to provide the amenity of a walled "secret" garden in the heart of London.
You can read about more about the Workshipful Society of Apothecaries on their website.
The word 'apothecary' is derived from apotheca, meaning a place where wine, spices and herbs were stored. During the thirteenth century it came into use in this country to describe a person who kept a stock of these commodities, which he sold from his shop or street stall....By the mid-sixteenth century apothecaries had become the equivalent of today's community pharmacists, dealing mainly with the preparation and sale of substances for medicinal purposes.
Origins and History of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries
The emphasis of the garden was and is very much on plants and health. Latterly the renewed interest in natural' remedies means that there is more interest in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Besides the order beds found in botanic gardens, the garden has also developed
  • a pharmaceutical garden which has a display of plants which yield therapeutic compounds of proven value in current medicinal practice and are in world-wide use today.
  • a Garden of World Medicine. This is when I found out what an ethnobotanical display means . Basically it means a display of plants used for medicinal and healing purposes by a wide variety of peoples.
The Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society was formed by a small groups of botanical artists in 1995, with the primary aim of recording in paintings and drawings, the plants growing in the Physic Garden.

More than 5,000 plants are listed in the Garden's collection which makes it an extremely challenging project to portray the Garden's entire collection. Over 200 watercolours and 120 drawings have currently been accepted and in effect the work to complete the Florilegiun and has only just started.

The Florilegium Society started from a small groups of students who had just completed the first ever botanical illustration course run by the English Gardening School, which is linked to the Chelsea Physic Garden. Most of the classes at The English Gardening School are held at the Chelsea Physic Garden. The School provides:
  • short courses in botanical painting - including drawing with pen and ink
  • a diploma course in botanical painting. The course leans towards the artistic recording of plants rather than the strictly scientific and is open to all those who are interested in learning to paint plants botanically. Fay Ballard, whose work I very much admire and who has contributed work to the Highgrove Florilegium, has completed this diploma course.
I was very struck by the number of 'spike' plants in the garden - hence the theme of my photos. What I was also struck by was how many different plants were contained in what is a relatively small space compared to most botanical gardens. It seemed as if there was something new to look at with every step around the garden.

Visiting times: The Garden is open on Wednesdays, Thursday, Fridays, Sundays and Bank Holidays from noon between 19 March - 31 October and has an entrance charge. It's open later in the evening on Wednesdays during July and August. The main entrance, which is a little difficult to spot, is at 66 Royal Hospital Road.

The area around the Physic Garden is ripe with other buildings which have topical and/or historical associations - so if you plan on visiting make sure to allow time for loitering, and maybe having lunch...........
Next time I visit I think I might do the Chelsea Walk as detailed in the Virtual Museum created by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I'm currently thinking of revisiting the garden next week before I go to the Chelsea Flower Show - I've got my ticket for next Wednesday!

(L) Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house in Cheyne Walk
(R) John Singer Sargent's home and studio in Tite Street



  1. As a herbalist, I loved the Physic Garden. Here there are a couple of pockets of healing gardens starting to grow, one at the University's Botanical Garden,which I will do a piece on soon.

  2. Apotheca - sounds like our kitchen: a place where wine, spices and herbs are stored.

    What a fantastic day you had, Katherine. I'd love to have been along for that walk and what a wonderful botanical art course that would be to take.


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