Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Physic Garden Delights

Week 5

The day dawned bright and blustery after stormy winter night. Wading through great drifts of russet, ochre and yellow leaves collecting in every corner, I rumbled down the hill to the welcoming gates of the RBGE.

Great treats awaited in the form of our official RBGE Student t-shirts, sweatshirts and boots. Suitably attired we sat down to a quick lesson from Catherine on the history of Physic Gardens in ancient through to Medieval times.  As they were essential to maintaining the health and well-being of any community, strict laws were laid down governing their layout, design and planting schemes. Indeed even kings got involved starting with Charlemagne, who in 800 a.d. issued an proclamation to every abbey and monastery in his realm listing the plants that should be held within their walls, separated by place and purpose: vegetables by the kitchen doors, the physic garden within the cloisters at the heart of the abbey, with fruit and nut orchards to spread and cover the cemeteries.

A few hundred years later, not much had changed except that the lists had been extended to include Mediterranean, African and even North American species and now science was getting involved.  In 1683 in Edinburgh, James Sutherland published his Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis – or ‘A Catalogue of the Plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh’, a comprehensive listing in both Latin and English of the plants collected and planted at the original gardens.  Pre-Linnaeus and just before John Culpepper, the tiny tome lists 1000’s of plants by their then known genus, species and common name following the rules laid down by Messrs John Gerard and John Parkinson.

Oh what a garden it must have been!  We found the following:
Sea Mugwort
Dragon’s Wort
Stinky beans
Aloe Vera

Pondering the wealth of previous generations, we left the warmth of the Library and headed off to see what still remained. Sadly the demonstration Herb Garden, flushed with ripe seed heads last week, had been seared to the ground. So we wrested a few pods from the reluctant Belladonna, snipped some Elderberries and a scoured up handfuls of Agapanthus and brought them back to the lab for an enjoyable hour of discussion and dissection.

In the afternoon we re-visited the practical beds of last year’s course to collect some more seeds and this time found a great harvest of

Marjoram Officinalis
Calendula Officinalis
Borage(white and blue)
Milk Thistle

Running from the sudden rains we carried our horde deep into the Potting Sheds, a massive warehouse located the end of a pot-holed lane off Arboretum Row.  Great sacks of compost, mountains of boots, bins of forks, spades and shovels all flourish here.  Deep in the heart of this elemental space we were treated to a professional seed sorting and planting session and set to filling, sowing, sieving and tamping trays with our new harvest. Next year’s crop to come.

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