A Horticultural Don’t-Miss: The Chelsea Physic Garden


Dscn1636 Paid a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden, a London garden dating back to 1673.  It was founded by apothecaries who needed access to medicinal plants for research and to create medicines.  Plant explorers like Joseph Banks were known to drop by when they were in town and plunk a few of their discoveries in the ground.  Today it continues its mission as an educational and research facility. 

This is a photo of what they call the "order beds"–beds in which plants are grouped according to the taxonomic order to which they belong.  It is here, for instance,that you’ll see salvia, lavender,mint, and phlomis in one bed together, and reseda, cabbages, and papayas in another.  You can’t learn taxonomy from a chart, and you can’t learn botany from a book.  But you can learn both in this fascinating garden.

I was also surprised by how seedy the garden looked in late summer.  It was fine by me; a garden’s supposed to be a little past its prime this time of year.  But they deliberately don’t tidy up:  they let every plant go to seed so they can save seed for their collection.  (Oh, and in addition to the order beds, the garden features plants that are useful to humans in every way:  as food, as medicine, as dyes, and so  on, all arranged by function rather than aesthetics.)

The free tours are well worth it:  no matter which tour guide you get, he or she is likely to be very funny in a very dry, British, horticulturalish sort of way.  Our guide, pointing out an indigo bush in the order beds, said, "We had another one in the dye bed, but it died.  But that’s gardening, isn’t it?"

Indeed.  Also spotted:  Massive compost bins with holes in them like this:

Dscn1649 and  if you put your hands inside, they’d be in heavy rubber gloves, like this: Dscn1650  Now, what is this about?  Any ideas? Really, I’d like to know.  It couldn’t possibly be for turning the compost, because you’d only be able to reach a foot or two of the stuff.  I’m mystified, and by the time I noticed it, there was no one around to ask.


  1. Could it be to check the temperature of the pile? Even that’s not a completely satisfactory answer, as a small hole and a thermometer would work better. But at a garden with a focus on education, one might want to give the visitors some “hands on” experience with compost.

  2. I totally agree with the comment about how you can’t learn taxonomy from charts or botany from books, but you can learn from gardens. I think you do have to experience plants in person to truly understand them.

    I have no idea why the gloves on the compost, but agree with Peter’s comment, maybe it is to give people the experience of feeling how hot compost can get, without them actually having to touch the compost?

  3. Well, is there a sign there saying “Please put on the gloves before touching the compost”?

    If so, perhaps there are rats and really slimy bits inside.

    If not, I’d say the holes are for drainage, and any gloves lying around were just … you know, just left lying around.

    But I could be wrong.

    I love this blog – just saw it for the first time today!

    My garden is pretty messy. *You* can come visit any time. Any one I have to apologize to for it, may as well stay away.

Comments are closed.