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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 May 2014 by Tim Ingram

A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

A Visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

The London AGS/RHS Alpine Show held last Sunday in Vincent Square provided the opportunity to also visit the Chelsea Physic Garden alongside the Embankment. A touch of 'Monet' goes a long way and this picture shows a fine example at the CPG, a garden which I have visited over many years and always found enthralling.

A Visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

Nature is even more artistic and the bark of this Plane tree in Battersea Park, just across the river, is equally stimulating and reminds me of a row of trees alongside the Afon Glaslyn at Beddgelert in Snowdonia exquisitely encrusted with lichens (see 'The Plant Life of Snowdonia', ed. Peter Rhind and David Evans, for a comprehensive chapter on lichens of the region - fascinating partnerships between algae and fungi). The days of Arthur Conan Doyle's 'pea-soupers' are long gone!

The real strength of the Chelsea Physic Garden though is its collection of plants and very mild location next to the Thames which moderates the (winter) climate even more and allows an extraordinary variety of tender plants from the Mediterranean and Macaronesian islands, especially the Canaries, to be grown. This is a nice specimen of Cercis siliquastrum, which can make an excellent garden tree and remarkable in flower.

Compared with much larger gardens like Kew and Wisley, it is on a much more personal scale, only three and a half acres or so, and yet includes within this space a microcosm of the Plant World arranged in ways which clarify and educate, as much as enthrall. In the past, when Fiona Crumley was head gardener - and not long after the garden was opened generally to the public - we attended Plant Fairs and exchanged plants (in particular I remember a large specimen of Musschia wollastonii, a Madeiran 'campanula' to rival the giant echiums, which I grew from seed from Nicholas Turland, as well as the Cretan legume Ebenus cretica, nothing so much as a cross between a tree lupin and a clover). The garden also has a fine collection of umbellifers and this is where we first obtained seed of Athamanta turbith, a favourite member of the family in our garden. The first picture shows it at the CPG followed by flowering on a raised bed with us in combination with Matthiola scapifera and Androsace sarmentosa 'Sherriffii' (a legacy from Joe Elliott's nursery at Broadwell in the Cotswalds). I have described it as a 'symphony in green and white', and the small silvery-grey seedheads only add to the impression.

Since then exchange between individual growers and Botanic Gardens has become more guarded and plant collections associated with Universities (like the Bristol Botanic Garden, once just across the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and which I also visited as much as I could) less supported. The ethos of gardens like this though is fundamentally to do with education and the exchange of information, ideas and plants (and seed), and the Chelsea Physic Garden does this as well or better than larger more prestigious establishments which lack the same intimacy.

Alpines may not be a great feature of the garden but it does have the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe, famously using basaltic lava from Iceland donated by Joseph Banks. I'm not sure that rock gardeners would rave about this construction, which is hardly very natural, but it does grow some wonderful and interesting plants, and many of particular appeal to gardeners like myself in the drier and warmer south-east of England.

(to be continued... )

Hypericum aegypticum is on the borderline of hardiness in our garden, but a lovely and distinctive small shrublet for warm rock gardens - here at Chelsea is a fine specimen with those small typically whorled flowers. These small alpine hypericums have an appeal which I have written about elsewhere on the website  and we steadily collecting more of them to compare and contrast.

Two Bealearic Isle plants, one very well known, Paeonia cambessedesii, and the second probably only in botanical collections, Globularia cambessedesii, grow here too. A rare white form of the former has recently been described on the SRGC Forum, an extremely exciting new form of what is one of the most beautiful species of a beautiful genus, even if it is also only suitable for mild gardens.

Silver foliage is such a feature of plants from the hot and dry Mediterranean climate and equally striking in the garden where it can provide excellent contrast to other plants. Another Balearic endemic, Helichrysum ambiguum, makes a good plant with us - neater in habit and not curry scented like the much better known H. italicum. Even nicer at the CPG is H. fontanesii which we haven't grown (in the second picture). Mrs Desmond Underwood, who ran the famous Ramparts Nursery, specialising in grey and silver leaved plants, and not far from Beth Chatto's in Colchester, wrote of this that it 'makes a big effort to retain its foliage throughout the winter but it must be admitted tht the result is not very attractive'. A garden near the Thames is obviously the answer!

There are many very showy Mediterranean verbascums and this one, V. arcturus from Crete, is small and neat enough to be included amongst alpines in the mild garden. Just as an aside I have added pictures of V. acaule in one of the Czech gardens last May and V. dumulosum, a plant exhibited by Jim McGregor at the London AGS Show on Sunday, both good plants for hot and dry gardens in poor gravelly soil.

These plants have always been of especial interest to us gardening as we do in the warmest and driest part of the British Isles and regularly experiencing quite severe summer drought. Unfortunately we also at times catch something of the cold continental winter climate, despite proximity to the North Sea, so many Mediterranean species can be tricky to keep from year to year. This new bed (actually a revamp of a much older alpine bed) is planted with smaller plants from these regions and allows them to be easily protected over winter, and to provide propagating material for the nursery. I am loath to remove the wonderful specimen of Sophora tetraptera which grows over this bed but at the moment this is steadily dropping thousands of old flowers and all the previous year's leaves prior to growing away again this spring! An old netting seed frame cover has overcome the problem, and this is a particularly warm and protected spot in the garden, ideal in most other ways. The other very notable plant flowering here is the New Zealand 'Wire Netting Bush', Corokia cotoneaster, which has never been damaged in our coldest winters and has to be one of the most intriguing plants in the whole garden (and even though we grow quite a few that could rival it).

(At each end of this bed are two self-sown plants of Daphne retusa, one probably now 20 years old, certainly the most reliable and long lived daphne we have grown and a must for any garden).

The Macaronesian islands really do have an extraordinary flora all of their very own, but closely related to plants from the nearby Mediterranean - it is easy to see why they have fascinated botanists like Joseph Hooker and others ever since. We have grown of all of the following with protection, not always very well, but they can be astonishing plants given their head... Echium wildpretii, Isoplexis isabelliana, Nauplius sericeus, Melanoselinum decipiens (plants of this can grow several metres high, and there are examples still to come into flower at the CPG for anyone visiting later this month), and Geranium maderense (which makes a stunning specimen in a large pot for the patio). This 'gigantism' of more familiar plants is found in other ecologically isolated environments too, such as the equatorial mountains of Africa and S. America, the megaherbs of the Chatham Islands, and in New Zealand itself - and makes the Chelsea Physic Garden unique amongst those I have visited (apart from Tresco in the Scilly Isles and Logan in SW. Scotland, both of which are virtually frost free).

There are very much less notable plants from these regions too, such as Cneorum tricoccon, which I mentioned earlier in these diary entries, which we have grown from AGS seed and associates modestly amongst cistus and coronillas, only noticeable to the inquiring eye.

I have to finish though with a combination of plants just down the road from the Chelsea Physic Garden, a wisteria climbing high up into Ginkgo biloba. Really quite an inspired pairing and one which I would like to repeat in our garden, which has plants of both but not together!

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