Walled on all sides and with input from surrounding buildings, this is a microclimate to breed and maintain botanical treasures. Even a dull day was enlivened by the quality of the plants, the enthusiasm of the staff and the legacy of Sir Hans Sloane.
It wasn’t somewhere I had ever been though my wife had and we did once pass by when looking for somewhere else. The Royal Hospital of Pensioner and RHS Chelsea Flower Show fame is a short distance away and Cheyne Walk is almost next door. Once you know, it is easy to find: a bus from Victoria drops you at the exit and the entrance is a hundred yards away.
Admission isn’t cheap at £9 but we had a 2-for-1 offer from RHS membership: given the quality of work the garden did in Sloane’s day and its contribution to research, not to mention historical interest, since it has to be a deserving cause.
We started at the medicinal plants, its original raison d’etre, and found far more than we bargained for. They only grow mandrakes (Cleopatra’s “mandragora”) for historical interest but it was fascinating to see one. I have long owned a copy of Culpeper’s Herbal and knew the tradition that if you pulled up a plant, especially at night, it would scream like a human in agony. Like many of the medicinal plants it is poisonous unless subject to appropriate treatment.
Beside the plants there are examples of medicines in displays explaining their use in historical or folk medicine and their chemical derivatives or replacement in modern pharmaceuticals. No need of an explanation of the healthy qualities of lemons, growing in the garden on trees that would be difficult to protect in winter without the Chelsea microclimate.
As well as British remedies the garden illustrates traditional remedies from other continents, given that many of the plants are now common in our gardens. As well as these there are food plants, offering an interesting comparison with those we had seen in the new development at RHS Hyde Hall, in Essex. Many are native but as our tastes have changed in the last half-century and imports have expanded there are a good many from overseas.
It was encouraging to see a section of the garden devoted to woodland as part of a national campaign to persuade government that our woodlands are our life lands. Sir Hans Sloane and his inspiration Linnaeus have a small display on a vehicle of his time, an interesting presentation.
In keeping with all such institutions there is a cafe and of course a shop, offering some high quality products.
Next time we are in the Chelsea area we will return in hope of a brighter day and with more time to spend.