Something unsettling and incredibly exciting happens when you first set foot in a 350-year-old garden. Amazement at its grandeur. Fear and joyful anticipation of what you might uncover. Comfort in being surrounded by such diverse vegetal companions and passionate colleagues.

I joined the Garden a few months ago, after training as a biotechnologist and science historian, for an amazingly exciting mission: researching our living and non-living plant collection. This involves collating, investigating, and bringing to light the stories of the Garden’s 350 defining plants for our 350-year anniversary. I have been looking into the medicinal potential of plants and their ethnobotanical (a discipline which focuses on human interaction with plants) uses but also engaging with complex narratives such as the ex-situ conservation (the process of protecting endangered species by growing them outside of their natural habitat) of plants threatened by climate change and the various systems of social domination which underlie botanical knowledge.

You are probably asking yourself the following question: 350 years, so what, why do we care? We care because a lot has happened since the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London created this garden to teach plant science 350 years ago. Society changed tremendously and the Garden changed with it, accumulating stories and plants but also doing some self-introspection. One of the most complicated topics we came across is engaging with the simultaneity of defining our future while showcasing our past. More straightforwardly, and as formulated by our former curator Christopher Bailes: How should we achieve balance between conserving the historical relevance of the Garden while addressing contemporary social, environmental, and educational issues?

The Garden was once described as a surviving “living monument to medicine’s past” by British Medical Journal’s former sub editor Alison Green. The truth is that it hopes to be much more than that. Our mission is “to demonstrate the medicinal, economic, cultural, and environmental importance of plants to the survival and wellbeing of humankind” in a way that is relevant to contemporary society. “Living” means evolving. It means reflecting and engaging with our past and present. More than ever, it means existing as a potential and looking towards our future.

Chelsea Physic Garden is one of the rare places where people, plants and place resonate with so much strength. They resonate through time and space, across disciplines, in people’s memories and hearts. It is a very special experience to walk through this Garden, encountering the magnificent colours of the Salvia Walk, the smell of ripe Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo) fruits, beautiful tropical plants growing thanks to our microclimate, centenary Olea europea (olive tree) and Quercus suber (cork tree) and precious plants that, sadly, barely survive in the wild. Many of the plants at Chelsea Physic Garden have amazing stories to reveal and I believe that bringing them to light can make a difference, as painful and complicated or beautiful and simple they might be. Plants are alive and carry with them our stories. I am proud to have the opportunity to research and tell them and am looking forward to sharing them with you.

A lot of inspiring projects have taken place at the Garden including the first publication of Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary in 1731 and Elizabeth Blackwell’s beautifully illustrated herbal in 1737. More contemporarily, the Garden welcomed research from Imperial College London and Chelsea College and, most notably, hosted Mary Gibby’s amazing research on our Pelargoniums in the 2000s. The Garden also stands out as a space of consensual plant exchange. A good illustration of this are the Cedrus libani (cedars of Lebanon) that were gifted in 1683 by the botanical garden of Leiden, marking the beginning of a long relationship between the two gardens.

However, the Garden, as a socio-politically situated place, also embodies painful and dark stories and biases that it is our responsibility to acknowledge, highlight and learn from. For example, despite Sloane’s crucial importance in allowing the Garden to remain open to this day by buying it and dedicating it to the pursuit of knowledge in 1712, we cannot ignore his financial dependence on enslaved people and, consequently, Chelsea Physic Garden’s existence as a legacy of a multi-layered and violent past. This is only but one of the many stories which connect the Garden to dark stories of social oppression, starting with plants obtained through Atlantic slave trade networks and the appropriation of ancestral plant knowledge and plants for imperial and commercial purposes.

It can be uncomfortable to recognise the roots of one’s privilege, but it is only through a genuine commitment to this process that we can then do better and support others. The Garden tells many stories, its own, but also those of the world it exists in. As such, it has the responsibility to amplify stories which lack visibility and challenge those that, with time, we learn to deconstruct, demystify, and contextualise.

I love metaphors. I will let you contemplate this one: Plants are alive. They are amazingly beautiful channels of stories. They have a past, a present and a future. They are incredibly unique yet unbelievably entangled. They are constantly changing, multiplying, and hybridising. And so are we. And so is our relationship with them.

When the Garden was founded in 1673 the world was a very different place. Here we are, 350 years later, asking ourselves this seemingly simple but extremely complicated question: so what?
I hope, through these blog posts, to share with you stories that can enable us to start answering this question. Until then, I leave you with this little poem by Peter Garell, encountered among the many treasures that populate our wonderful library:

“An old iron gateway – spiked on top by ancient
Stands in an old brick wall – with bell in such a
funny cage.
If you tinkle it – quite gently – they’ll come – and
let you see
A wonderful old garden – a world of melody.
The beds are rather formal – but heaps of things
we know,
And in the water tanks we see – water-lilies grow.
Julep – persimmon and mulberry trees have been
here many a year
With a yew, that’s not so very young – three
hundred years we hear.
Queer feelings creeping all around, make us afraid
to stare,
And rare old-fashioned fragrance seems wafted
through the air,
We think the lying shadows – are cedars – in the
But they must be only a mirage – the cedar trees
are done.
Ghosts are about in the garden – one stands still
as stone
Grazing at old catalpa tree – the image of good
Hans Sloane,
Lord of the Manor of Chelsea – in the days that
used to be
When he gave this
Physic Garden
Old Chelsea.”
(Peter Garell, 1931)

Eve Barro is the Garden’s Assistant Project Curator.