5 minutes with the RCP’s garden team

With the summer months upon us, we take a closer look at our venue’s Medicinal Garden and the people behind it. This wonderfully calm space in the centre of London has been beautifully designed, but its real joy is in its unique and bespoke collections of over 1,100 plants that offer living examples of the history of medicine from the era of the pyramids of Egypt to today’s life-saving prescription drugs.

At the heart of our garden operation is Jane Knowles, the Head Gardener, overseeing all facets of our green space. Assisted by Dan Lea, who not only tends to the plants but also manages social media, tour logistics, and general upkeep while covering for absent team members. Skilled gardener Angela Tunstall also holds a crucial role as the Plant Record Officer, meticulously maintaining our extensive database, ensuring the accuracy and accessibility of information for visitors. Alongside them are a dedicated team of fellow gardeners and volunteers, each contributing their expertise and passion.

We sat down with our gardeners responsible for its maintenance and development to share some insights into this stunning space. 

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind creating the Medicinal Garden?

Jane: “The inception of our Medicinal Garden traces back to the early 2000s, emerging from a rich history dating back 500 years when the College initially lacked such a dedicated space.

“Dr. Arthur Hollman, a cardiologist, spearheaded the initial efforts in the 1980s, introducing medicinal plants relevant to the institution's heritage. However, it wasn't until 2005, under the initiative of Sir Richard Thompson, then Treasurer and later President of the RCP, along with Dr. Henry Oakley, that a comprehensive redevelopment plan took shape. Their vision aimed to intertwine the garden with medicine, honoring its historical significance.”

With the guidance of a designer, the garden underwent transformation, evolving into a space where each plant holds significance in the realm of medicine, whether directly applicable or symbolically linked. Since 2006, under Jane's stewardship, this ethos has persisted, with every addition to the garden contributing to the narrative of medicine's evolution and the College's legacy.

How do you incorporate the medicinal aspect of the plants into the overall aesthetic and design of the garden?

Jane: “Incorporating the medicinal aspect of plants into our garden's aesthetic and design is a meticulous process, guided by a broad spectrum of choices rather than limitations. Our aim is to create an attractive and inviting space for both staff and visitors, where the beauty of the plants coexists harmoniously with their medicinal significance.

“We curate communities of plants that complement each other, paying attention to their natural aesthetics while ensuring they feel cohesive within their geographical backgrounds. Particularly at the front of the garden, we pay homage to the 17th century by exclusively featuring plants documented in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of May 1618, the College's first official list of authorised medicinal ingredients.”

These gardens, created in 2007 by Jane herself, meticulously follow the categories outlined in the Pharmacopoeia, with each garden representing a different plant part: flower, root, leaf, or seed. Despite space and climate constraints, our dedication to preserving this historical legacy ensures that the garden remains a living representation of 17th-century medicine, as documented by Culpeper's Herbal and other early herbals housed in the RCP's collection.

What are some of the challenges you face in maintaining a diverse range of plants within a central London environment?

RCP Medicinal Garden spotlight

Jane: “Maintaining a diverse range of plants within a central London environment poses several challenges, primarily centered around the unpredictable climate and urban surroundings. The heat, drought and debris accumulation, exacerbated by buildings trapping heat, are significant obstacles. Additionally, factors such as traffic, footfall, and litter further impact plant health and aesthetics.”

Dan: “To mitigate these challenges, we implement seasonal and regional procedures to protect plants and continually propagate new specimens. Despite these obstacles, our garden serves as an oasis amidst the urban landscape, providing a haven for diverse plant life.”

Could you share some insights into the process of selecting and sourcing plants for the garden?

Jane: “Selecting and sourcing plants for our garden involves a careful consideration of both species and cultivated varieties. While we prioritise the inclusion of species, reflecting the plant in its natural state, we also embrace cultivated varieties that enhance their garden appeal. Given the rarity of some species and their limited availability, our collection becomes particularly precious. We meticulously source these plants to ensure the diversity and uniqueness of our garden are maintained.”

Angela: “This includes two very productive and enjoyable days at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows choosing tulips for our spring displays and buying plants that we need.”

What role do sustainability and environmental considerations play in the maintenance and development of the garden?

Jane: “Sustainability and environmental considerations are integral to both maintaining and developing the garden. It serves as a holistic ecosystem beyond just plant life. Efforts to nurture this ecosystem include fostering biodiversity, such as encouraging bird nesting and supporting insect populations. We also have a wild garden area where we grow plants beneficial to insects, such as nettles, which also happen to be important medicinally. Rainwater collected from greenhouse gutter systems is utilised for greenhouse irrigation, reducing water waste. In terms of pest management, the garden adopts a pesticide-free approach and employs biological control methods which involve introducing and encouraging the pest’s natural predators.”

Dan: “Additionally, a composting system with eight bins ensures minimal waste, with all organic matter recycled back into the garden. This circular system reflects a commitment to sustainability, distinguishing the garden's approach from others and minimising its environmental footprint.”

How do you ensure that the garden remains a tranquil and beautiful event space amidst the hustle and bustle of central London?

Jane: “To maintain the garden's tranquillity and beauty as an event space amidst central London's bustling environment, we employ several strategies. Priority is given to lawn care, as footfall can significantly impact its health. Measures include regular feeding and watering, with specialised attention from a lawn specialist. During events, furniture rearrangement is coordinated with the events team to minimise damage to the lawn. These efforts ensure that the garden remains a serene and aesthetically pleasing space for visitors, despite the urban surroundings.

Angela: “It is a whole team effort which includes our valuable volunteers who help with all sorts of tasks behind the scenes.”

Can you highlight any particular plant species or garden features that hold special significance in terms of their medicinal properties or historical importance?

Jane: ”A notable feature of the garden with historical significance are the beds in front of the houses, which hold relevance to the college's heritage.”

Dan: “To me, the aspirin plant (Salix purpurea) stands out for its widespread medicinal use - everybody uses it! Derived from willow trees, aspirin contains salicin, an active compound recognised for its therapeutic properties since ancient times. Aspirin's benefits include reducing inflammation, fevers, and pain, as well as preventing blood clots when taken in low doses. Topical salicylic acid derived from aspirin also aids in skin conditions such as corns, callosities, and warts. This plant serves as a testament to the enduring importance of natural remedies in medicine.”

Anglea: “I particularly love the story of the discovery that vincristine, isolated from the Madagascar periwinkle Catharanthus roseus radically improved the outcome in childhood  leukaemia.”

What kind of educational opportunities or programmes do you offer to visitors who are interested in learning more about the medicinal plants in the garden?

Jane: “Educational opportunities for visitors interested in learning about medicinal plants in the garden include free monthly garden tours led by fellows, accessible to all.

“Additionally, visitors can book garden tours during the week and the garden collaborates with various RCP teams and RCP London Events to offer workshops and additional tours.

“Educational materials, such as the Shakespeare trail, are available for pickup at the garden gate. Events like London Open Gardens in June and participation in the National Garden Scheme Charity provide further avenues for learning.”

Dan: “In addition to tours, the garden hosts three lecture afternoons per year, combined with garden tours, focusing on plant-related topics. These lectures are open to the public and offered both online and in person, providing diverse educational opportunities for all interested visitors.”

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring gardeners who are looking to create their own tranquil and beautiful spaces, especially in urban environments?

Jane: “Simply planting a seed or a plant and observing its growth can be a rewarding starting point, with nature often providing unexpected surprises. Understanding natural processes and observing how plants grow in their native habitats can offer valuable insights.”

Dan: “My advice is to look at how nature does it first. Overall, embracing the journey of gardening with curiosity and an open mind can lead to the creation of flourishing and serene urban oasis.”

Angela: “Try to fill your garden with herbs and scented plants. A lot of our most familiar herbs including sage and rosemary for example are suited to dry hot climate and being grown in pots.”

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RCP London

RCP London Events is situated 5 minutes from Regent’s Park Station and Great Portland Street Station.