Part 2 Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians
At the south-eastern corner of The Regent’s Park stands a building quite unlike its elegant Regency neighbours. Designed in 1964 in modernist style by Denys Lasdun, architect of The National Theatre, this is The Royal College of Physicians. Its quarter acre garden is home to a large living collection of medicinal plants. My first visit was for a guided tour on 14 September, arranged by the WGFA, and when I returned with a friend in early November for a tour of the building and its collections of art and medical artefacts, we also strolled around the garden.
The September tour was led by a retired consultant dermatologist, Sue Burge, assisted by Anthony Dayan, Emeritus Professor of Toxicology at the University of London, both of whom shared a wealth of fascinating stories about the plants in the College’s garden. We learnt that nearly all plants have evolved to be poisonous to protect against animal predators, but that many poisons have been found to make useful medicines. This unique garden tells the story of plants once commonly used in the treatment of disease, those used in contemporary medicine and those with names commemorating early physicians. There are about 1,100 species represented, all of which are documented in a database. Each plant is clearly labelled, with those named after physicians having a brief biography on a blue label, and green labels denoting those used to produce modern medicines.
Tours start in the car park, where the raised bed opposite the main entrance is planted with specimens from the Americas and the three raised beds alongside the Outer Circle of the park form the World medicine area of the garden. In the small front gardens of the eight terraced buildings of St Andrew’s Place, opposite the College, the head gardener, Jane Knowles has incorporated plants whose flowers (house 1), roots (house 2), barks, fruits, leaves, seeds, sap, gums or resins were referred to by the College of Physicians in its Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618. Low box hedges in knot garden style frame much of the planting, evoking seventeenth century garden fashion.
You enter the main garden through gates at the end of St Andrew’s Place, near William Harvey House, with its classically inspired facade, a Grade I listed building designed and built in 1826 by the architect of much of Regency London, John Nash.
Plants from classical antiquity and arid zones are represented in beds alongside the house. The lawn of the main garden is dominated by an oriental plane tree, Platanus orientalis, grafted from the plane tree on the Aegean island of Cos under which the ‘Father of Medicine’ Hippocrates is said to have taught his students. The borders surrounding the lawn contain medicinal plants from the orient and southern hemisphere, Europe and the Middle East. A shady courtyard tucked into a corner of the college building shelters a pot garden of tender plants including a fine lemon tree, Citrus x limon. From 1795 lemons and later limes were used to prevent scurvy in the British navy. Nearby is a a handsome memorial the Latin inscription on which translates: Remembering the doctors who died while working in the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been unveiled by Sir Christopher Whitty only a week before my first visit to the college.
Here I’ve picked out here just a few of the numerous plants which our guides, Sue and Anthony highlighted during the tour.
Arnica chamissonis. Used for bruises by Native Americans.
Taxus baccata, the European yew, source of paclitaxel (‘Taxol’) which is used both as an anti-cancer drug and to prevent clogging up in the stents used to open up blocked coronary arteries.
Rheum palmatum, Chinese rhubarb. Used in traditional Chinese medicine as a laxative. See photo above.
Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. The coating of its seed capsules contain an extraordinary powerful poison, Ricin, which was used in the murder on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, where the KGB is alleged to have fired a pellet of the poison into his leg from the tip of an umbrella.
Pelargonium sidoides. This one intrigued me because it’s a plant I’ve grown for the last several years in a container, having been given a cutting at Osterley. In South African native medicine its tubers have been used in the treatment of acute bronchitis, coughs and colds.
Artemisia annua. Annual mugwort. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a female Chinese professor Tu Youyou ‘for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria’. She detected artemisinin in the plant and proved its antimalarial properties.
There can be few gardens which concentrate so many extraordinary stories into so small an area. The garden can be visited between 9am and 5pm on weekdays and from April to October tours of the Medicinal Garden are given by senior physicians from the RCP on the first Wednesday of the month at 2pm.