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Volunteers at the Chelsea Physic Garden

Update by Nike Rullman, Volunteer Coordinator at the Garden Museum

Last weekend the Garden Museum Volunteers went out to one of our monthly visits as part of the Volunteer Programme. This time we went to the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is only a bus-ride away from the Museum and both places find a lot of their visitors coming to both places on the same day. As such it was a great place for our volunteers to visit and in future recommend visitors to also come and see.

Our guide’s name was Cathy and she was absolutely amazing. She was extremely knowledgeable about the different ways in which many of the plants were used medicinally, including their effectiveness, the things to keep an eye out for when foraging plants, and the general history of the actual Chelsea Physic Garden itself.


For instance, she told us about Mr Sloane, the gentleman who bought the estate the garden was in and when he died ensured the garden was able to survive for as long as it would continue on as an educational institution or as a charity – which is how it is operating at the moment.



Among other things we looked at the poisons where she introduced us to the dangers of Hemlock, the plant that killed Socrates. She set it next to Sweet Cicely, a plant that looks incredibly similar and is not lethal but great in sandwiches! The main difference: it is not marked by Socrates’ blood on its stem. Moral of the story: look closely at what you are eating and when in doubt, add some wine!

The Cork Tree

We also took a closer look at the beautiful cork tree that is near the poisonous plants. It was here Cathy explained about the plight of the cork trees. These are trees that sustain quite a lot of wildlife – bugs, birds, and others. The only type of maintenance these trees really cannot do without is bark stripping, which needs to be done about every years. Unfortunately, each year more trees are being chopped down while even fewer are being planted new, as cork is used less in the wine industry and the use of cork has become unpopular. This means a great loss of wildlife habitat, tradition and industry. Cathy’s message to us: please buy more cork! Luckily one of our volunteers coincidentally had brought a very lovely handbag made from cork! Imagine the odds.



In the medicinal part of the garden we looked at plants that are no longer being used in medicine but traditionally were, and plants that are still being investigated by researchers. In there we were very lucky to see the bright red poppies that are only in bloom briefly, and were told some very moving stories of ways in which continued research in plants and medicine still make a massive difference in peoples lives.



Unfortunately, the garden has also been victim to quite a number of robberies. One of the saddest being the case of the rockery. The rockery is now protected by English Heritage and has strong links to the history of the Tower of London as well as vulcanos abroad. In the centre of the pond, however, are two beautiful seashells that are replicas of two that had originally adorned the place. One of the originals was stolen and in an effort to save the other, the two current ones are replicas. They still look amazing, as did the entire Garden on the beautiful sunny day.

We want to thank the Chelsea Physic Garden for the lovely opportunity given to our volunteers to see the garden, and to Cathy for showing us around. We would definitely recommend you to have a look yourself as well as they do run regular free tours.

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