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Friday, 27 December 2013

The Apothecaries' Garden

The Apothcaries' Garden at Chelsea was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673, and renamed the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1875. The Society was itself founded by Royal Charter in 1617 as a trade association for those whom today we would call pharmacists. Apothecaries, as well as dispensing medicine, were involved in the gathering and processing of medicinal plants. It was important, therefore, that they had somewhere to study and grow the plants they would one day prepare.

Dutch Tulips, Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands -...
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The four acre plot, within the Manor of Chelsea, belonged to one Charles Cheyne. He allowed the Society to lease the land and develop it into a medicinal garden, making it the second oldest botanical garden in Britain. The area was doubtlessly chosen for its south facing aspect and proximity to the river, both conducive to the temperate microclimate which it still enjoys today. In addition, they were able to build a boathouse for their ceremonial barge.

One of the first Curators was John Watts, and it was he who in 1682 devised the seed exchange programme with other leading botanists, an exchange which still goes on today. Possibly the most celebrated of all these transactions was the sending of the first long-strand cotton seeds to the British Colony of Georgia in 1733, laying the foundation of the American cotton industry.

Another landmark year was 1722 when the then owner, Dr Hans Sloane (later Baronet Sloane, President of the Royal College of Physicians), arranged that the lease be permanently fixed at five pounds per annum for as long as the Society wished to maintain it. This five pounds is still paid to his heirs today! His other major contribution of that year was to appoint Philip Miller Curator.

Renowned botanist Philip Miller, author of the hugely popular Gardener's Dictionary, shepherded the Garden into its Golden Age. As well as enhancing the seed exchange programme, cultivating many plants that had never before been seen in the UK, he also shared his expertise with other botanists and students.

One such student was Joseph Banks, naturalist and explorer, who later brought back to Chelsea the ballast of Icelandic lava that was used on his ship, the St Lawrence. This helped build the famous rock garden, first of its kind in Europe, that was completed in 1773. Many of the plant specimens collected on his voyage of discovery with James Cook on the Endeavour were also donated to the Physic Garden.

When Botany was dropped from the medical curriculum at the end of the 19th century, the Society of Apothecaries gave up the running of the Garden and the lease was taken up by the City Parochial Foundation. It was still a resource for scientific research, but not in the same way of old. In 1983 it became a registered charity, opening its gates up to the public for the first time.

The Chelsea Physic Garden now receives, on average, around 50,000 visitors a year who, as well as learning about medicinal and edible plants, discover the wonderful botanists who made the Garden what it is today.

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