11 November 2013

Herbs and their uses: The Physic Garden

By Michelle Styles

If someone was training to be an apothecary or indeed wanting to work with plants as medicine, one of the most important parts of  their training was learning to identify plants — which could harm you, which could help you and why.  Many plants look similar but their uses in medicine are very different. The question is how to learn. Herbals would have pictures of such plants. Some apothecaries might have saved pressed examples but nothing really beat seeing the plants in situ and seeing what they looked like when growing.

The name for such a place these days is a botanical garden but in earlier times, particularly in the 17th century,  they were called physic gardens. A physic garden  is a square set with beds that are dedicated to medicine rather than being dedicated to another purpose. The plants tended to be grouped according to their properties and characteristics.

The Chinese were the first to understand that plants ought to be collected for their medicinal value. It is the Emperor Shen Nong in the 28th century BC who is credited with creating the first botanical garden and causing plants to be collected, classified and studied with the major purpose being the advancement of medicine. The Egyptians and the Greeks were also interested in plants and their uses in medicine.  In the New World, it is said that Montezuma had a garden which was also dedicated it the study of plants and their uses in medicine.

Charlemagne is credited with having the first physic gardens established in the 9th century at St Gall. Other monastery herbal gardens followed but it is not until the 16th century that physic gardens  are established in Italian universities with the major purpose being to further the advancement of medicine. From Italy and its universities, the idea was taken to elsewhere in Europe. For example William Turner (1508 – 1568) was an early English herbalist as well as being an early Puritan who studied in Italy. He published a number of tracts on herbs and recommended that a physic garden be established. He had a herbal garden at Wells Cathedral until he had to flee with the advent of Mary to the English throne. He also published the first ever book dedicated to ornithology. he argued that England should have more physic gardens. But the religious upheavals prevented this from happening.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, originally known as the Apothecaries Garden was not established until the late 17th century but it remains an example of how a physic garden was set out.  It also still does important work today.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of these gardens in allowing modern medicine to become established as the gardens were places where the plants could be gathered and  studied.  Botanic gardens still do have an important function, particularly as we learn more about how plants can be used as medicine.

You can learn more about the history of the botanic garden by reading the Arthur Hill article on The History and Functions of the Botanic Garden in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden which can be found here.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance. Her latest Paying the Viking's Price is out now. Her next book Return of the Viking Warrior will be out in May 2014. You can learn more about Michelle and her book on www.michellestyles.co.uk.