Three hundred and fifty years ago, a new medicinal garden was created in Chelsea. One hundred years ago, the garden gained a number of glasshouses for their plants. Zero years ago, the glasshouses reopened following a lot of restoration work.
This is the Chelsea Physic Garden, which opened in 1673, expanded massively in 1722, spent most of its time as a private medical and scientific research garden, and first opened to the public for the first time in 1987. Today, it’s still hidden away behind high walls, which helps to protect the plants and trap heat, with only a small door and sign outside as a hint that you can go inside.
Back in 2005, the gardens were only open a couple of days a week and that’s slowly expanded to the point where its now open six days a week, but curiously, it’s usually closed on Saturdays. Except for one Saturday later this month, when it will also be free to visit. More about that later.
Back to the glasshouses, which were built in the early 20th century, and were showing their age, a recent conservation project has restored and also improved them to make them not just fit for modern times, but done without overly changing their appearance.
Made from Burmese Teak, it wasn’t possible to use the same wood in the restoration, as that’s now a protected plant, so they’ve almost invisibly spliced UK sweet chestnut into the damaged wooden frames to repair them. The paths have also been improved to make it easier for people to walk around, and the tropical corridor is now much more tropical with the addition of water misting.
New interpretation signs finally explain what each glasshouse does, why, and the quirks of the plants in them.
It doesn’t really look possible, but the seven glasshouses are home to 1,200 plants, although as each plant is pretty much one pot each, that’s how they pack so many into the spaces.
I also learned that an edible plant, vanilla is a type of orchid, and the only one known to produce edible fruits. Makes me think about ice cream in a very different way. Talking of cream, the fernery gave me a bit of a shock when I learned the origins of the Custard Cream biscuit.
A tree that used to stand in the middle of the garden had to be chopped down because it was about to fall over, but growing around the tree was an old climbing rose, so look for the new metal sculpture which has been created that’ll one day be covered in the recovering rambling rose.
The rest of the gardens are laid out in zones, focused mainly on what use mankind has found for the plants, mostly as the origins of medical treatments. There’s one garden I liked more for the warning signs, and that’s the poisonous plants zone, with plenty of notices not to eat the plants.
If you’re a plant-a-holic, there’s a huge collection to see, and if you’re more of a “that looks nice, but I’d just kill it if I owned one” sort of plant person, then the gardens are large enough to spend a few hours wandering around.
There’s lots of seating, fortunately, and a cafe, because of course there is.
Entry to the gardens costs:
|Students & Young People (5-18):||£6.50*/£5|
|Family Ticket (Two adults & three children):||£40*/£37|
|Children under 5||Free|
*Includes a voluntary donation
Tickets can be bought on the day, or booked in advance from here.
However, later this month is also the Chelsea History Festival, and the Chelsea Physic Garden will be open for two days for free — and that includes a rare Saturday opening. To book a free ticket, go here.