Plants that cure: the world’s largest medicine chest

From a weed to treat skin cancer to a bean that fights Parkinson’s disease. Medicinal plants flourish in a fascinating new garden.
Welcome to the world’s largest medicine chest, the contents presented in their elemental and decidedly most attractive form. Up to a quarter of Western medicine is derived from plants, and many of these, from our native meadowsweet — the basis of aspirin — to Chinese star anise, used for treating bird flu, are gathered in a new and fascinating one-acre garden within the walls of the Chelsea Physic Garden.
 
“We wanted to make the collections that we had more accessible, as well as to greatly increase them,” explains head gardener Nick Bailey, who, with a supporting cast of eight staff and 25 volunteers, built the Garden of Medicinal Plants in a scant five months from last November to March. Sourcing seed from more than 300 global botanical gardens took rather longer.
 
“We wanted to tell the stories of these medicinal plants and how they have touched our lives, how many of them have made the transition from hand-me-down cures to today’s regulated medicines, and how they are inextricably woven into our survival and our future.”

Aware that he needed to capture the public’s imagination, Bailey designed a garden that is as beautiful as it is functional, with paving of soft clay bricks, drystone walls and hand-made wooden medicine cabinets, labelled with gold script, that open to reveal detailed information about the plants. In the centre of the garden, crafted in willow by one of the freelance gardeners, is the global medicinal symbol, the serpent on the staff, his eyes a pair of glass doorknobs.
 
Every plant here has a role in the world of medicine past, present — and even the future, as in the Future Medicines Bed, which displays plants that have either just been licensed, or are currently under investigation. Petty spurge, or Euphorbia peplus, the annual weed that frequents all London gardens, pops up here too, but its place is intentional, as it has just been given  the green light to treat skin cancers topically.
 
Banana and coconut palm add an exotic touch, and signify their important role in HIV/Aids research, while the hemp plant, Cannabis sativus, flourishes here because of its ability, via Sativex, a newly licensed product, to relieve symptoms of multiple  sclerosis.

Some plants only put in an occasional appearance, but an X — a label — marks the spot, such as colchicum, the autumn-flowering crocus, that pops up for three weeks in the Cardiology Bed, in the expansive Pharmaceuticals section, to remind us of its role in reducing inflammation around the heart.
 
Flowering in the same bed is humble foxglove Digitalis purpurea, making the point that many of our important synthesised drugs have their roots in ancient folk medicine. In the late 18th century, Dr William Withering was able to regulate a form of digoxin from the seeds and leaves of digitalis after being advised of its heart-stimulating properties by a local folk healer. Digoxin, albeit a synthesised form, is widely used in modern medicine, thanks to that folk healer, who was persecuted as a witch.
 
Other plants have more than one property, and it helps to be clear about which does what. For instance, Ricinus communis, its russet foliage making a decorative feature in the Indian bed where the ancient Ayurvedic system rules, has a seed from which castor oil is extracted. The outer spiky red husk, however, is the source of ricin, one of the deadliest poisons known to man.
 
Other plants look innocent enough, like the pretty oleander which graces the Mediterranean bed, but which has been known to be toxic ever since the Roman army discovered, due to a mass poisoning of its troops, that the stems of oleander do not make suitable skewers for cooking meat. The additions of some plants are plain puzzling — surely the broad bean, sprouting merrily over in Neurology, got in by mistake? But Bailey explains that the amino acid  L-dopa, found in the broad bean, is used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
 
The Herbal Remedies bed, revelling in a warm, sheltered corner between the UK’s largest olive tree and a magnificent fruiting grapefruit tree, deserves this pride of place. Bailey explains that 80 per cent of the world’s population relies mainly on herbal medicine as a source of primary health care because it is cheap, traditional and easily accessible.

We might access our herbal cure-alls from health stores in handy tincture or pill form, but the plants in this bed, which include ginkgo, the top-selling herbal extract in Europe, Echinacea purpurea, valerian and ginseng, have been used as effective folk remedies for centuries.

The familiar yellow-flowered shrub Hypericum perforatum, or St John’s wort, is included because of its track record in relieving depression, but the more beautiful passiflora — the passionflower — has since been proven to be more effective, says Bailey. 

Carrot’s feathery foliage appears here, too, because of its use as a skin tonic, but Bailey also adds that curiously, one of the most common admissions in British hospitals for plant poisoning is beta carotene poisoning, from eating too many carrots. Proof positive that all plants, and their extraordinary properties, need to be treated with reverence, caution and the utmost respect, as they are in this exceptional garden.
 
READERS EVENING AT THE CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN
Join a private tour of the Garden of Medicinal Plants and hear how it was built from its creator, the Chelsea Physic Garden’s head gardener, Nick Bailey. Our exclusive evening is on Thursday September 18 and starts at 6pm with a glass of Prosecco or elderflower cordial and a selection of canapes from Tangerine Dream.
 
At 6.30pm Bailey will give an introductory talk and at 7pm you will be taken on a tour of the different areas. The evening will finish at 8pm.
 
Tickets cost £12. To book your place, visit www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/homesandproperty or call 020 7349 6468.

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