Gardens are weird entities, oddly historied. Some days, they’re the subject of a story, more often the background to navel-gazing human dramas. Each retelling, whether through stories or photographs or videos, gives a different impression to that which you’ll experience walking through the garden on any given day.
So, when you go to visit a garden that you’ve read about since you were an adolescent in sweatpants, there’s an aching fear that it won’t live up to your imaginings. After everything that I’d read about Chelsea Physic Garden - its historic significance and formative role in the lives of so many figures in European horticulture - how could the experience of the place live up to the weight of its history? A few weeks ago, I stifled that anxiety and twisted the brass handle on the 8-panel wooden door in a weathered brick wall.
As I stepped into the garden, my anxieties quickly slid away. I breathed in deeply the perfume of a massive Himalayan Musk Rose (Rosa brunoni), diverted my eyes from the weird rockery pond, and ducked through the intimate paths towards the rising plumes of a tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica).This garden isn’t just a scaffold for stories. There’s more to it than shreds of history and forgotten drama.
According to its website, The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second-oldest botanical garden in England. In the 1953 book Old London Gardens, Gladys Taylor writes of its founding: “It was not until 1673 that the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries (founded in James I’s reign) obtained the lease of a garden 3½ acres in extent from Charles (afterwards Lord) Cheyne."
"The ground lay in the remote village of Chelsea, and the rent was £5 per annum for a term of 61 years.” The apothecaries kept care of the garden over those years, building up significant collections of useful and medicinal plants. Taylor goes on, “By the time the lease of the Chelsea Gardens expired in 1722, Sir Hans Sloane was Lord of the Manor of Chelsea and owned the property. He granted the land to the Apothecaries forever for a yearly payment of £5, on condition that it should always be maintained as a Physic Garden. This arrangement lasted until 1899, when the Apothecaries gave it up, and the London Parochial Charities, supported by various smaller bodies, took it over.” Today, the Chelsea Physic Garden has the patronage of the Prince of Wales, as well as being overseen by a board of trustees (including the estimable landscape designer Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd) and a full-time staff. There’s an extensive archive of information about the history of Chelsea Physic Garden on their youtube channel.
Despite this lofty heritage, the spaces within the garden are intimate and charming. It feels like the kind of space where you’d set a mild British TV drama. Bits of the garden are broken up into different themed areas. Medicinal plants. Edible Plants. An Historical Walk. Global plant collections.
The bits of absurdity really engaged my imagination. The fuzzy blue towers of echium, straight from the Canary Islands. Tree ferns and fan palms shaking in confusion at the chilly breezes of the City. Absurdity is a quality that we don’t see enough in contemporary gardens. Given the pressures to create gardens that are cost-effective and high-performing, there’s an incredible tendency for garden designers to stick with ideas that are safe and proven. Fantasy is displaced by big data and evidence-based design practice. We’re all too apt to ignore Martin Asslin, “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” (Martin Esslin, Absurd Drama, 1965)
There are some elements of the Chelsea Physic Garden that seem startlingly fresh and almost modern. Wonderful bay standards are let to grow quite loosely, until their shaggy heads are nearly touching. Beneath a romping array of betony (Stachys officinalis) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). The exaggerated proportions feel like something that you’d find in a contemporary show garden.
Down by the glasshouses, a selection of salvias thrum with bees. Their flowers vibrate in grey light, all shades of purple and blue. Surprisingly to a North American, there are no hummingbirds here to enliven the collection with their frantic ballet.
As I walk back to that threshold to the mad city, past the clipped hedges and pelargoniums in ordered terracotta rows, I wonder - what will be the legacy of today’s public gardens? Will they continue to involve and influence gardens three-, four-, and more centuries out? Future historians will have these ridiculous treasure troves of public-access images from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, websites and blogs. Will the stories they tell about our gardens differ because they’re recorded in images rather than words? Will they be buried in the haze of electronic overload? Or will our legacy remain like that of the Chelsea Physic Garden, equally joyful and absurd?