It’s the alternative Chelsea Flower Show. The permanent one on the banks (or at least literally used to be before the Embankment got in the way) of the Thames. A little bit of Kew gone upstream. Somewhere to learn the difference between dicotyledon and monocotyledon order beds. Permanent is the word. London’s oldest botanic garden was established by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries seven years after the Great Fire of London.
Its original purpose was to grow medicinal herbs as a training facility – the river provided handy transport for plants and people. In 1680 an Irish apprentice Hans Sloane (later knighted) began his studies at the Garden. Little did the Apothecaries realise he would become its saviour and set it on the path to 21st century survival. The Irishman would later found the nearby Cadogan Estate, lending his surname to golden real estate such as Sloane Square and Sloane Street. Oh, and there’s even an upper class caricature that borrows his surname: Sloane Ranger.
Horticultural historian Sue Minter relates his rise to fame and fortune: “After qualifying in 1687 Hans Sloane travelled to Jamaica to serve as private physician to the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Two years later, he returned to London armed with a special recipe for milk chocolate and the compound was quinine – a medicine capable of preventing and curing malaria.” He purchased the Manor of Chelsea (which included the Physic Garden) in 1772. As a thank you for his training, he rented the Garden to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for £5 a year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants.
Paths radiate from a centrally placed statue of Sir Hans Sloane. Despite the Garden’s relatively small size – 1.6 hectares – it is a cornucopia of historic delights from the 18th century Pond Rockery, the oldest in Europe, to glasshouses built in 1902 of Burmese teak. One of the glasshouses, The Cool Fernery, rejoices in Pteridomania, or fern madness. The Chelsea Physic Garden is now home to 5,000 different medicinal, herbal, useful and edible plants. On that note, anyone for Piedmontese peppers, aubergine caponata and braised artichoke in the restaurant marquee?