The Society of Apothecaries originally leased the land as a boathouse. It soon became apparent that it was an ideal site for a herb garden. High walls to enclose the area and protect the fragile plants were erected. In 1676 the transfer of plant specimens began. The intention was to discover, cultivate and study plants for scientific and medical purposes, a practice which continues up to today.
Sir Hans Sloane, whose statue stands in the centre of the garden, was to be the garden's saviour. In 1722 he presented the Society with the freehold and was instrumental in appointing Philip Miller as Curator.
Miller held the post for nearly 50 years and is acknowledged as one of the most renowned botanists of the age. He also taught plant names to the young Joseph Banks, who lived Turret House next to the garden. A favour that was returned when Banks donated to the garden many new specimens discovered during his travels with Captain Cook.
Miller's successors include William Forsyth (Forsythia is named after him), William Curtis and Robert Fortune.
The achievements are legendary. On the plan opposite the famous Cedars of Lebanon can be seen. Imported in 1683 they were the first specimens to be grown in England. In the conservatory, heated stoves were installed under the floors, another first.
Cotton seeds from Chelsea were sent to Georgia thus giving birth to the American cotton industry.
The ‘magical’ Chinchona Tree, notoriously difficult to cultivate, also thrived in the garden. The powdered bark contained quinine, an invaluable and expensive cure for fevers.
The pond rock garden, constructed from various rock types including Icelandic lava, is Grade II* listed. Completed on 16 August 1773 it is the oldest rock garden in England.
At the end of the 19th century the garden's association with the Apothecaries came to an end and in 1983 it became a registered charity and for the first time opened its gates to the public. Today the garden has a leading educational role especially in the field of natural medicine.
Directions: On leaving the garden retrace your steps down Swan Walk and turn left into Dilke Street. Turn left into Tite Street and walk northwards.
An accurate survey of the Physic Garden in 1751 by John Haynes
View of the Physic Garden circa 1910