In the 1600’s, the engaging study of botany and plants, really depended on only 3 sources: herbals (such as Gerard’s), collections of plants (pressed, dried, glued to sheets of paper and labelled), and excursions to countries where teachers were learning from living plants. The challenge-some plants were being studied by looking at dead plants glued to a page. It just wasn’t the same as learning by growing a living plant, nor very diverse. So a group called the Apothecaries set out to find land in London just after the great fire, where they could cultivate rare plants and sow seeds and slips from plants that were being brought in from other countries.
And so begins the garden intended for study and the advancement of botany and not just a garden to grow plants used for drugs. The reputation of a garden for medicine is steeped in history. Because truly medicine men and healers became the only teachers of botany. Early descriptions of plants were written by them. Even digging deeper into history, a wonderful old book I bought at a bookshop at Hay-On-Wye, The Romance of the Apothecaries Garden at Chelsea (1928) states: Primitive man crawled out of his cave and had to “discover that the roots and leaves of wild cabbage were wholesome, but that the plant monkshood nearby would stop his breath” …and so the cave man became, of necessity a field botanist–a better one than many a modern Londoner.”
Today, a walk through this 4-acre plot that is surrounded by brick walls and iron gates to keep out the hustle and bustle of London is still following its original intent. A place to study, learn and experience useful plants. For me, it was truly a reminder that seeing a plant, touching and smelling it are the best ways to learn about plants.