Despite being founded in 1673 and claiming the title of London’s oldest botanic garden, this Chelsea spot has remained one of London’s best-kept secrets. Among its aficionados is Dame Judi Dench and Sir Mick Jagger. The latter reportedly used this place for a party to mark his eightieth birthday. The garden itself celebrates its 350-year anniversary this year and visitors have the chance to explore the recently reopened historic glasshouses which Manolo Blahnik, the legendary shoe designer, adores.
The garden was founded by the Society of Apothecaries of London to provide apprentices with an opportunity to grow medicinal plants and study their uses. It’s 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.
The historic glasshouses
The Chelsea Physic Garden has long been a refuge and healing space. Overall, it has 4,000 plants. One of the garden’s distinctions is its range of greenhouses. Designed by the famous manufacturer Foster & Pearson in 1902, greenhouses at the garden have just undergone a full restoration and are home to 1,200 plant species.
During the First World War, plants, such as, Atropa Belladonna were harvested in the garden and used to treat soldiers.
The art of nature
Today, the collection is maintained to help guests and researchers understand the important role that plants play in our everyday lives, especially in the production and research of medicines. Along with medicinal plants there are beds of fruit and vegetables; plants that provide fabric, dyes, perfumes and alcohol.
Proudly overseeing the garden, you’ll find a statue of Sir Hans Sloane, an early benefactor. It’s thanks to him that the recipe for milk chocolate came to Britain. He brought it back from Jamaica where he’d worked as the physician to the Island Governor.
Agatha Christie’s mystery
You can also learn about the famous crime writer Agatha Christie who closely studied plants and completed pharmaceutical training in 1917. In many of the 60 novels written by Christie, plants are used to poison and kill characters.
Reading about the poisonous plants grown in the garden might well send a shiver down your spine, but they can be cheered by other plants that offer antidotes. Growing there, for example, is Nandina Domestica, better known as Heavenly Bamboo, which is being investigated by scientists who think it offers a chance to offset an overdose of ecstasy.
Perfect prelude to alfresco dining
A visit to Chelsea Physic Garden isn’t complete without dropping by the café. It’s a favourite amongst locals for good reason. It isn’t your average park eatery but more of a tranquil place with an ambience of relaxation and escapism.
The garden is also a popular lunch spot – dishes on the menu are made using fresh seasonal produce. All you need is a sunny day, a table on the terrace and a glass of rosé.