Apothecary Gardens: Combining Botany and Beauty

Apothecary Gardens: Combining Botany and Beauty


by Sterling Vernon

In a time before there were pharmacies on nearly every street corner, medicinal remedies often came from the garden, perhaps from the local apothecary. The apothecary was a critical role – part botanist, part alchemist/chemist, and part herbalist and gardener. The English society of apothecaries (called the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded in 1617) went on to practice medicine and were the forerunners of present-day general practitioners and family physicians.

In order to best grow the plants that served as the basis for their medicines, The Society founded the Chelsea Physic Garden in London

in 1673–one of Europe's oldest botanical gardens. The four-acre garden became the richest collection of medicinal plants in Europe. Its seed exchange program, begun in the 1700s and continuing to this day, is said to have led to cotton being planted for the first time in the Colony of Georgia.

Their Garden of Medicinal Plants has quite an array of plants used for thousands of years by healers, shamans, witch doctors, herbalists, botanists, pharmacies/officinas, apothecaries, and even current day oncologists and dermatologists. Their Pharmaceutical Plants garden contains 60 plants which are “vital to modern medicine.” The garden is divided into areas that cover oncology, anaesthesia, analgesia, rheumatology, cardiology and ophthalmology. On the lighter side, they also grow Cananga odorata or ylang-ylang, which is the scent for Chanel No 5.

'Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris' by John Parkinson, 1629 is considered one of the greatest English books on herbs and plants ever published

You might be surprised to find that the plants typically found in an apothecary garden are not wildly exotic. You may already be growing many of them as herbs for cooking. The usual suspects include: basil, calendula, cayenne pepper, chamomile, garlic, lemon balm, horehound, mint, rosemary, sage, St. John’s wort, and thyme. Add roses and you have a great start. Yarrow, valerian, and mullein could be added if you have more space. Call it a kitchen garden, a cottage garden, or an apothecary garden – they are all great for your health.

Nick Bailey, head gardener for the Chelsea Physic proves an amusing analysis of his original medicinal garden plant array from 1673: “Interestingly, a good 50 per cent will kill you, 25 per cent do absolutely nothing, and there is about 10 per cent and a few oddities in between that have made it through to modern pharmaceuticals today.”

The 'Poison Gardens' at Blarney Castle in Ireland have plants grown in Medieval times that were used as herbal remedies. Many of them such as Wolfsbane, Mandrake, Ricin, Opium and Cannabis are either toxic or hallucinogens.

When working with herbs in creating remedies, please be sure you have identified the plants correctly and follow the recipes or instructions in accredited books and publications.


Alchemy of Herbs will show you how to transform common ingredients into foods and remedies that heal. What were once everyday flavorings will become your personal kitchen apothecary. 

The Apothcaries' Garden, a History of the Chelsea Physic Garden documents the Society of Apothecaries, which was founded in 1673.  The Chelsea Physic Garden led the world for over 300 years in the research and classification of new plants. Sue Minter examines its history and many notable achievements.

You don't need to buy hundreds of hard-to-find herbs to start your journey with herbal medicine. Herbal Medicine for Beginners shows you how to use a few important herbs to promote the body’s ability to fight infection and heal naturally..

Some Interesting Books, Places & Links

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