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
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