For anyone who doesn’t know it, Chelsea Physic Garden is a real ‘secret garden’ tucked away behind a giant old wall in a backwater of Chelsea, squished in between the imposing can-only-afford-if-you-are-a-banker-or-rock-star properties. It is the oldest botanic garden in London, having been started in 1673 so trainee apothecaries could grow their own medicinal plants, older even than its grander sister at Kew (1759).
Today it’s a calm oasis of greenery where you can get a quick hit of botanic inspiration, buy rare and unusual plants propagated in its nursery or currently, discover some stonkingly large butterflies and look at a bit of garden art. If the world gets a bit too much or I need to recharge my batteries and I’m close by, a quick visit works wonders, the borders are planted with edible, perfumed and medicinal plants rather than blowsy showy ones and the botany department does much work trying to link ‘remembered remedies ‘ of old with the science of today.
Last week I went to see the Pertaining to Things Natural installations of art sculptures scattered amongst the plants. My favourites were the small bell jar pieces The Heist, by Tessa Farmer tucked away in the prettiest greenhouse ever. You had to look really hard to see the tiny venus fly trap plant inside one of the jars was chomping on a feast of ants, dragonflies and other half-eaten specimens, not real, as it turned out but mighty convincing. I also loved the realistic fern lead sculpture Deep Impression by Joe Coupe, which tantalisingly said it “don’t touch, poisonous’ on it, hinting at the garden’s medicinal origins.
The below sculpture might look like butternut squash but it’s Parting Company II by Peter Randall-Page
I enviously covet the fernery in the garden, it looks like the sort of place Charles Darwin might have hung out and indeed has an example of a Wardian plant travelling case, used in the mid 1800s to transport fragile plants around the world ( I could JUST see a little Louis Vuitton branding working on this).
The atmosphere inside magical, damp, earthily pungent and quiet.
Tucked in one of the fern beds was the tiny Deep Impression sculpture of an emerging fern by Joe Coupe. I’m sure I’ve seen this fernery used in fashion shoots, the garden is often hired out for weddings and small receptions as it’s so pretty.
Here’s that Wardian travel box for plants (below) and a giant size butterfly with the most beautiful sapphire blue wings, you can just see a hint of them showing. I thought this must be an escapee from a butterfly farm but in fact it’s part of the Butterflies in the Garden project, where tropical butterflies are being introduced to live in some of the more exotic plantings. I got quite a thrill from seeing it up close.
The gardens are open -with sculptures and butterflies- until the 31st October, when it closes for the winter months. Get yourself along now if you haven’t been, it’s small-ish, you could be around it in an hour and the cake at the coffee shop is excellent. Website for opening times etc