What is a Physic Garden?

Surely you have heard of a botanical garden, and maybe you’ve roamed around the sanctuary like place seeing and smelling the different flora and fauna carefully cared for and studied by public and botanists alike. Yet did you know that the first known botanical garden, in fact was a physic garden?

What is a physic garden? No, it has nothing to do with physics, but it does have an early role in medicine. “Physic” in this context is related to “healing.” That’s right a physic garden is a healing garden, or basically a giant herb garden, full of medicinal plants able to help the human body.

Chelsea Physic Garden London

One of the early notable physic gardens was grown at the Vatican in 1447. The pope at the time, Nicholas V, allocated part of their religious estate for medicinal plants. The space, apparently was used for education on the benefits and uses of each plant. In these days, the burgeoning study of botany was related to medicine since plants were the main medicinal sources of the time. This herb garden led another physic garden in a University at Padu and Pisa, Italy.

As the study of botany grew and moved away from medicine and more into classification studies, physic gardens morphed into botanical gardens, which lacked emphasis on the curative properties of the plant. In retrospect, it is unfortunate that the relationships between plants and people were not further developed. Instead herbalists continued to observe and pass down the knowledge we have today of medicinal plants, their cultivation, uses and beneficial effects.

While today botanical gardens proliferate the globe and are used widely as for preservation of plant species and education, physic gardens are relatively scarce and unknown. At best a ‘medicinal garden’ or ‘herb garden’ makes reference to them, but their history and concept is not widely known.

However a few physic gardens exist today. The Chelsea Physic Garden is the most renown and dates back to 1673, when it originated as the Apothecaries’ Garden in London. For the next hundred years it was the physical hub where plant knowledge and exchanges occurred. While peaceful and beautiful, this place still is a center of education today.

Starting your own “mini” physic garden is a simple process of selecting and cultivating the many medicinal plants that you already enjoy in teas or skin care products and expanding out into some of the less known medicinal herbs. The great boon about a herb garden is that they are relatively easy to grow because medicinal herbs tend to be very hearty plants (think dandelion, nettles, mint and catnip) and typically require low maintenance. -BEN TERRINGTON

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