Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Medicinal Garden

The Medicinal Garden at the Royal College of Physicians, close to Regent's Park, has to be one of the world’s most interesting and intriguing cultivated spaces. Recently, on a bright winter morning, Duck Island Cottage was very lucky to have been given a tour by the college’s Garden Fellow, Dr Henry Oakeley and the Head Gardener, Jane Knowles.

The College building itself is the RCP’s fifth home, and was completed in 1965. It is still thrillingly modern and provides a brilliant contrast with the nearby formal Regency terrace of St Andrew’s Place. The Garden is not one single space, rather a collection of growing areas: each of the eight Regency houses has its own small garden square, there is another garden at the end of the terrace and more flower beds lie close to the College buildings.

One of the small gardens on St Andrew’s Place 
photo: Sarah Jackson 

The Medicinal Garden in full bloom
during Open Garden Squares Weekend 2010
Photo: Gavin Gardiner
 The Garden’s focus is on its individual plants, around 1,280 different species in total, all of which have been used in medicine over the past two thousand years or still are, and plants named after physicians. The fascination here lies in the plants’ uses and dangers, the history and the folklore surrounding them and the influence they have had on the English language.

The eight small and beautifully laid-out terrace gardens each contain plants from the writings of Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654); for example, the seed heads of the English corn poppy were brewed in a tea as a sedative for children, its effectiveness due to its opiate content. And carnation flowers were used against the plague, and also to ‘strengthen the heart, liver and stomach’.

It would take many years as well as a lot of care and passion to match Dr Oakeley’s great understanding and knowledge of medicinal plants. However, in a few minutes he opened my eyes to the dual nature of medicine, that it can be potentially poisonous and also curative. He stressed that herbs can contain useful chemicals for science, but they are just one of many medical resources, and they invariably have to be toned down and adapted.

At this time of the year, the Garden is at its most quiet, but, come early June, it will be full and rich with its varied and fascinating medicinal plants and herbs. There will be tours over the weekend, and for me this is one garden I cannot wait to see again.

Duck Island Cottage will be back next month with another one of our super gardens!