Alternative herbal medicine features prominently in my latest book, Legacy. The hero, Ruy, is a conventional doctor who heads up a cancer-treatment clinic. He is also part-gypsy, and through learning the ways of his people he has come to know a lot about herbal medicine, which he blends into his medical practice at the Institute for the Research of Natural Remedies.
The heroine, Luna, is a scientific journalist who is commissioned by her boss to write an article on the Institute’s ‘cutting-edge, although possibly questionable, use of some rather wacky herbal treatments’. Before she even arrives Luna has an agenda to expose what she sees as Ruy ‘peddling false hope’; her cousin Angelina recently died after putting her faith in a treatment centre like Ruy’s.
Over the course of the book, however, Luna is forced to reassess her opinions about herbal medicine when she sees Ruy’s work in action and learns some of the background of how he came to know about herbs and how he grows them in his own herb garden.
Hot-headed, presumptuous Luna would should have done her homework before blazing in! While researching Legacy, I took a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, and learned all about the history of such gardens.
A physic garden is a herb garden whose plants are grown for medicinal use. This kind of garden was the processor of the botanic garden, and was predominantly established during the sixteenth century (although the very first was established in Venice in the 1330s, and Vatican had one in the fifteenth century). Early gardens of this type thrived at Pisa, Padua, Bologna, Zurich, Paris, Leyden, Leipzig and Montpelier.
While there was considerable interest in botany, the physic gardens were designed to help those in the medical profession explore remedies for ailments and illnesses. All kinds of plants were grown; in 1597, when herbalist John Gerard catalogued the plants at the Holborn garden he counted more than a thousand different types.
The Chelsea garden, where I spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon, was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and to this day its aim is to ‘demonstrate the medicinal, economic, cultural and environmental importance of plants to the survival and well-being of humankind’ (source). Over the centuries the garden has contributed extensively to cultural developments through its provision and exchange of seeds, playing a part in the introduction of rubber to Malaysia, cotton to the American South and tea to India.
Here’s a brief video tour of the garden:
It is the medicinal plants – the physic element of the garden – that are most fascinating to me and many others. Today, the garden has some five thousand plants, of which I was most interested by the Pharmaceutical Garden, organised by ailment the plants treat, and the Garden of World Medicine, which is laid out according to which culture uses the plants medicinally. So many plants! So many people, for so many centuries, putting their faith in plants to energise, nurture and heal.
Standing in these gardens, in this quiet and beautiful sanctuary in the middle of a bustling city, it was impossible not to be impressed by the quiet power of these plants, some of which have been here for hundreds of years, and to know that they are not at all ‘wacky herbal treatments’, but have natural and essential healing properties.
Have you ever visited a physic garden? If so, I would love to hear about your visit. Did it inspire you to try a new herbal tea or remedy – or to develop your own herb garden?
If you are interested in the Chelsea Physic Garden, I highly recommend this book: