The Pleasure of Physic

One of the great pleasures of a warm summer is to be had in visiting some of the physic gardens dotted around the UK, or indeed elsewhere in Europe. Many people know the fine examples at Oxford (see photo above) and Chelsea, while Padua is probably one of the most visited in Italy; but there are also some charming smaller ones which are well worth visiting.

Physic gardens have a long and distinguished history. They can be traced back to the medieval medicinal and herb gardens, which were often attached to monasteries. However, those we visit today tend to be associated with the Renaissance rediscovery of the natural world. The best examples date from between the later fifteenth century and the end of the seventeenth. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth the general study of botany and the taxonomy of newly discovered plants grew in importance, so the traditional physic garden, with its emphasis on the medicinal properties of the plants, gave way to the great botanical gardens we have today such as those at Kew and Cambridge.

The most important physic gardens were consequently founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the continent Pisa, Padua and Bologna were established in the 1540s; Zurich in 1560 and Paris, Leyden, Leipzig and Montpelier during the remainder of the sixteenth century. In the UK the surviving garden at Oxford was founded in 1632, while that at Chelsea dates to 1673 and Edinburgh was established by 1676. However, the now disappeared gardens at Kew, Wells and of course John Gerard’s private physic garden at Holborn were significantly earlier. It is generally believed that Gerard’s famous Herball was based on the collections of the physic gardens of Europe, as well as listing his own plants.

Cosmos, Phlox and Ipheion at Chelsea Physic Garden 2013-5Advances in science, botany and medicine, and geographical exploration provided the impetus for donors and seats of learning to establish gardens where medicinal plants could be cultivated and studied in a single purpose-made site. They also had a symbolic purpose in glorifying nature and hence the God who had created all therein, in the manner of Genesis. Like almost any designed garden of the period they may well also have recalled the Garden of Eden in the imaginations of those who used them.

The most important ingredients for a successful physic garden consisted of knowledge (often in the form of a distinguished plantsman or botanist as the keeper – for example Jacob Bobart the Elder at Oxford and Philip Miller at Chelsea), money (Oxford was financed and created by Henry Danvers, first Earl of Danby) and a supporting institution (the Universities at Oxford and Edinburgh and the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea).

Despite their grand beginnings, the progress of the early botanic gardens was often erratic, with inadequate funds for maintenance and staff salaries, and notwithstanding the noble aspirations of their founders. The University of Oxford website offers an example, stating: “The Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 when Sir Henry Danvers, gave five thousand pounds (equivalent to £3.5 million today) to set up a physic garden for “the glorification of God and for the furtherance of learning”. but continues: “The walls and arches were built on such a grand scale that by the time they were finished in 1633 all the money had been spent and there was nothing left to pay for the running of the Garden… In 1642 the Garden gained its first Curator, Jacob Bobart. For the first seven years the University failed to pay his salary. During this time he helped to make ends meet by selling fruit grown in the Garden. Among these fruits was the medlar (Mespilus germanica) that is listed in the Garden’s first catalogue of plants that was published in 1648.”

Their layout and architecture are almost always interesting, often distinguished and give great pleasure to present-day visitors. Many examples are walled, for reasons of both prestige and practicality. The theft of plants was a common hazard. The preventive walls also tended to control winds and retain heat to provide a beneficial microclimate. Additionally, they provided a suitable support for climbing plants. Walls need entrances. The gates of the gardens of Padua and Oxford certainly have an artistic merit that is generally recognised. At Oxford, Nicolas Stone’s Grade One listed Danby Gateway of 1633 is almost baroque in feel.

For many years after the eighteenth century physic gardens were seen as rather dry and neglected curiosities, preserved by the founding institutions by force of habit, or as quaint and romantic locations for the leisured classes, slightly dubious assignations and interesting literary settings.

Oxford in particular seems to have inspired writers. These include Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel; the Waterlily House appears in the background of Tenniel’s illustration of the Queen’s Croquet Ground. Tolkein often sat beneath his favourite tree, a gigantic Pinus nigra, that seems to have inspired the idea of the walking and talking tree Ents in the Lord of the Rings series. Evelyn Waugh used the Danby Gateway as the setting for an early and important meeting between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder at the beginning of Brideshead Revisited; while Philip Pullman located an interface between Will and Lyra’s  parallel worlds at a bench in the Garden in His Dark Materials. When they finally have to return to their respective worlds, they agree to both sit there for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s Day, in the hopes of sensing each other’s presence. In each case the author has clearly been inspired by, or chosen the setting, for its symbolic and transitional potential between different worlds (social, imaginative or cosmological).

Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden

Recently, physic gardens have come back into fashion, albeit for reasons quite separate from those for which they were created. Oxford and Chelsea continue to carry out research, but this needs money, and Chelsea, surrounded by an ultra rich neighbourhood, has very effectively marketed itself as a meeting place for those with time to spare; there is an excellent cafe. The Oxford garden, always a haunt of students and visitors, is now deeply trendy and extremely popular.

New physic gardens are still occasionally created today, and although they inevitably lack the spirit of exploration that drove their predecessors forwards in the great period of botanical expansion, they are still delightful to visit. At Petersfield in Hampshire the medieval burgage plot, donated by Major John Bowen in 1988, has been turned into a small physic garden using only plants that would have been familiar to two distinguished local botanists of the seventeenth century, John Goodyer and John Worlidge. It is supported by volunteer gardeners and a Friends organisation and is interesting as well as very popular with the local workforce as a relaxing place to spend a lunch break and with visitors. In South Wales the Cowbridge Physic Garden was opened by the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust in 2004 in part of the 18th century walled garden of Old Hall. It’s good to see that some of the old physic gardens are thriving and that new ones are being created. Chris

Image Danby Gateway, Oxford Physic Garden: credit

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