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RCP reveals medical life of plants to London's top garden owners

Londoners who open their private gardens for the National Gardens Scheme know a great deal about trees and plants – but even so they learned many surprising new things when they visited the Royal College of Physicians recently.

The 200 garden owners of the London division of the NGS held their annual party at the RCP in June. The event centred on the RCP’s unique medicinal garden, itself part of the scheme and home to some 1300 different medicinal plants, the biggest collection of its kind anywhere in Europe. The RCP’s Garden Fellow, Dr Henry Oakeley was on hand to open their eyes to an unfamiliar and dramatic new world.

The garden includes traditional medicinal plants from various cultures, labelled and arranged according to their geographical origins from regions such as North America, the Orient, Central Asia and the southern hemisphere. They tell the stories of the widely varying systems of medicine practised by different civilisations and cultures, going right back to the humoural system used by the ancient Greeks and up to the present day.

There is a massive oriental plane tree that is actually a descendant of the famous tree on the Greek island of Cos, under which Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have taught his students. There are plants that are survivors from before the extinction of the dinosaurs and even a tree that commemorates the 18th century curate from Twickenham who first measured blood pressure.

Dr. Oakeley entertained and astounded his guests with numerous anecdotes and stories. For example, they were particularly intrigued by the garden’s Drimys winteri tree and its formative role in saving Britain’s Elizabethan sailors from death by scurvy. One of Sir Francis Drake’s fleet of ships on his global journey was commanded by Captain Winter, who discovered the tree in South America and found that its bark contained a substance - later defined as vitamin C - which would help them fight off the disease. So he made them drink a soup made from the bark in Tierra del Fuego, ensuring their health and being rewarded when his name was enshrined in the tree’s formal identity.

Every exhibit in the medicinal garden has a fascinating story to tell, with many of them entrenched in medical folklore for hundreds of years. They include the ‘Chinese lanterns’ plant, which could help develop new drugs against leukaemia and lung cancer; the ‘blood root’ plant, whose sap was once used by American Indian men to find a squaw – which is why it is also called ‘Indian paint’; and the ‘Japanese star anise’, which is not a culinary spice, but a plant whose seed pods contain the acid used in the manufacture of Tamiflu, the treatment for swine flu. There are some other wonderfully exotic and intriguing plants on display, such as the Dragon tree, the Madagascar periwinkle, the fever bush, plumbago, the castor oil plant and ‘society garlic’.

The RCP is an internationally successful conference and meetings venue, and guests at the party were able to experience one of its most popular offerings – an outdoor reception in the garden itself. The NGS members arrived in the early evening for al fresco tea, cakes and sandwiches, with a farewell drink following the tour.

“It was sensational evening, which our garden owners adored,” said Penny Snell, Chairman of the National Gardens Scheme: “We could not have had a better party and they all loved the tour of the garden.”   NGS committee member Susan Whittington added: “It was quite the best London NGS party I can remember, and Dr Oakeley’s talk was stimulating and entertaining.” 

“It was a pleasure not only to show the group our garden, but also to help them understand the superb facilities and the professional support that the RCP can offer for events such as meetings, receptions and dinners,” said Dr. Oakeley: “With such an influential and distinguished group of gardeners, we were also particularly pleased that the garden not only looked immaculate, but had so much that excited them.”

Dr. Oakeley conducts tours for the general public on the first Wednesday of each month from March to November: tours for individual organisations can be booked at other times by prior arrangement.  He has written three fascinating books, available from the RCP, about the plants in the garden. One takes the form of a year’s journey through some of the plants as they come into flower week by week; another describes the plants named after doctors, with an account of their lives and works; and a third is a fully illustrated guide to the garden.

More information about holding events in the medicinal garden can be found on the Royal College of Physicians Meeting & Events website www.rcpevents.co.uk. The Meeting & Events office can be contacted on 020 7034 4900, email events@rcplondon.ac.uk.