Medicinal Garden (RCP)

Posted on October 14, 2016 by Metro Blog

Royal College of Physicians
St Andrew’s Place, NW1 4LE
With its origins stretching back to the reign of Henry VIII, the Royal College of Physicians is the oldest medical college in England.  Housed in suitably distinguished quarters – an elegant, Grade I-listed Modernist slab by Sir Denys Lasdun and a collection of adjacent white stucco Regency houses – this venerable institution also has a well-endowed garden.
Although a garden has been in place here since 1965, it was replanted with a medicinal theme in 2005.  Its seven distinct zones offer a fascinating rummage through the global medicine cabinet, from the ‘muthi’ plants of traditional South African medicine to the herbal remedies used by native North Americans, as well as modern plant-derived drugs like Tamiflu and Taxol (the former from the star anise shrub, the latter from yew).

Laid out primarily as an ornamental garden, rather than the beds in the geometric order you might expect from a traditional physic garden, the College garden nevertheless packs in the medically relevant specimens and contains over 1,000 different plants, all clearly labelled.  The Arid Zone beds feature medicinal plants from dry climates such as yellow flowered Senna corymbosa (the source of the purgative Senakot) and the architectural Aloe vera, whose soothing juice can be used as a treatment for burns.  In the Far Eastern bed the Chinese fan palm, Livistona chinensis is another elegant plant that is used as herbal medicine by the Chinese and valued in western medicine as a tumour inhibitor.  

At the front of the college, the World Medicine beds feature a selection of medically valued plants from around the globe, including apparently humble specimens like Vinca major, the blue-flowered greater periwinkle, which turns out to have a medical application reducing blood pressure.  Over in the European and Mediterranean beds one can find the blues-beating Hypericum perforatum (known to many as St John’s Wort), and plants from the Classical world such as the sedative Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and the pomegranate (Punica granata).  The pomegranate tree is frequently featured in classical mythology and widely revered for its medicinal properties; its fruit appears on the College’s coat of arms.  Not all the plants are entirely beneficial to human health – the leaves of the cycads in the Arid Zone beds cause Parkinson’s and dementia if eaten, while the toxic alkaloid derived from Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii) has a deadly application when used as an arrow poison.

As well as showcasing medical plants, the garden is also liberally stocked with plants whose names honour famous physicians, including mythological ones such as Paeon, doctor to the ancient Greek gods, whose name lives on in the peony.  Pedanius Dioscorides, the first century Greek author of De Materia Medica, a medical encyclopedia that was used as a reference until the middle ages, is immortalised in Acanthus dioscoridis.  Appropriately, many of the illustrious doctors memorialised in plant names were also pioneering botanists: the Lobelia is named for the botanist Mathias de L’Obel, who was also James I’s physician while Nicholas Monardes, the Sevillian physician-cum-botanist, gave his name to Monarda, or bergamot.  Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, is honoured here by a magnificent plane tree, Platanus orientalis subsp. Insularis which dominates the main lawn.  This flourishing specimen is supposedly a descendant of the very plane tree under which Hippocrates taught his students on the island of Cos.

The eight parterre gardens in front of the Regency terraced houses of St Andrew’s Place take their cue from the Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, a medical book published by the RCP in 1618.  The Pharmacopoeia laid the foundations for the Culpeper’s famous Herbal of 1652 (originally published as The English Physician) and cemented London’s role as the centre of plant-based medicine.  Each of the gardens contains plants authorised for use by the Pharmacopoeia – some, like roses and marigolds, were valued for the medicinal properties of their flowers, others for their bark, seeds, roots or fruit.  The gardens are planted accordingly, thus House 5 (the Pepys Garden) contains plants such as sedum and yarrow whose leaves were used medically, while House 3 contains plants like peony, marshmallow and angelica whose roots had a medical application.  This appealing octet of gardens shows that charm and utility can be achieved in the urban front garden, as well as harking back to the College’s Tudor days, when it rented a garden by its premises in the City for the purpose of growing medical herbs.

this in an excerpt from our forthcoming book:
the London Garden Book A-Z
by Abigail Willis

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