A decade on from its com­ple­tion, de­scribes his re­mak­ing of the medic­i­nal gar­den for Eng­land’s old­est med­i­cal col­lege, on the edge of Re­gent’s Park

Grif­fiths Mark

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The gar­den of the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians, Lon­don NW1

On novem­ber 5, 2003, I was shown around the gar­den of the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians (RCP) on the east­ern perime­ter of Lon­don’s Re­gent’s Park. My guide was Sir Richard Thomp­son, at that time physi­cian to The Queen and newly in­stalled Trea­surer of the Col­lege, and its Pres­i­dent from 2010 to 2014. I was struck by sev­eral spec­i­mens that flour­ished on this site of just un­der an acre—a mag­nif­i­cent plane (Pla­tanus ori­en­talis) from Cos, where Hip­pocrates taught in the shade of this same species; tow­er­ing Drimys win­teri, the South Amer­i­can ever­green whose bark, col­lected by John Win­ter in the late 1570s, was used against scurvy; and a boun­ti­ful pome­gran­ate, the fruit fea­tured in the RCP’S coat of arms.

Th­ese were sur­vivors from plant­ings made years be­fore, mainly by the col­lege’s then Gar­den Fel­low Dr Arthur Holl­man. For the most part, how­ever, the grounds il­lus­trated sur­vival of the fittest rather than medicine, thick with Anemone hu­pe­hen­sis, Brachy­glot­tis Sun­shine and other in­glo­ri­ous in­vin­ci­bles. It seemed a sorry set­ting for the Mod­ernist mas­ter­piece, opened in 1964, that is Sir Denys Las­dun’s pur­pose-de­signed RCP build­ing, the col­lege’s fifth head­quar­ters since its found­ing by Royal Char­ter from Henry VIII in 1518.

A gifted gar­dener, Sir Richard was well aware of this and seek­ing a rem­edy. He asked what I would pre­scribe. The chal­lenge was ir­re­sistible: med­i­cal botany and eth­nob­otany, the study of hu­mankind’s re­la­tion­ship with plants, are long­stand­ing in­ter­ests of mine. Two days later, I wrote to him out­lin­ing the ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity’ that the RCP had for cre­at­ing an ‘im­por­tant ed­u­ca­tional and his­tor­i­cal plant col­lec­tion—a physic gar­den for the new cen­tury’.

Un­til well into the 19th cen­tury, plants pro­vided the ma­jor­ity of sub­stances

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