I spent a lovely day off in London on Friday and, perhaps surprisingly, it was filled with wildness and greenery. In the morning I met my friend Martina for an urban herb walk and in the afternoon my sister and I visited Chelsea Physic Garden.
It’s great to remind myself of how many herbal gems there are to be found, even in a sprawling city like London, when you go a little off the beaten track and start exploring.
Martina took me off down a little walkway near her house to show me that Pan, God of all that is wild and green, can still be found, shrouded in Elderflowers, in the unlikeliest of places- in this case erupting out of a wall underneath an old railway bridge.
Along the walk we found nettle seed almost ripe for picking. It was a shock to remember its only the first week of June, everything is so early this year.
Ribwort plantain flowered freely by our feet as we walked past the skate ramps and on towards Finsbury Park.
Martina was just telling me about a book she is reading on old magical uses of plants when we passed this little gathering of trees, Hawthorn, Oak and Ash. Oak, Ash and Thorn were sacred trees of the Druids and where they grow together it is thought to be a particularly magical place.
Honeysuckle was in full flower in the hedgerows.
And the Lime blossom is out already! This made me panic slightly as I’ll need to get out harvesting sooner than I expected.
By the time my sister and I arrived at Chelsea Physic garden it was baking hot. I forget how much hotter it gets in London than here on the coast with its clear, cool breezes.
Chelsea Physic garden was founded in 1673 by none other than The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries.
According to the information leaflet, ‘The location was chosen as the proximity to the river created a warmer microclimate allowing the survival of many non-native plants – such as the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain – and more importantly, to allow plants to survive harsh British winters.’ There are certainly lots of fascinating exotic plants in the gardens alongside our more common native and introduced culinary and medicinal herbs.
I found my eye was particularly caught by the wide variety of Solanaceae family plants in the garden. There was Thorn Apple, Datura stramonium, well known in herbal medicine, though its use is highly restricted due to potential toxicity.
As well as the beautiful Solanum quitoense, which produces a fruit eaten in Ecuador and Columbia known as naranjilla, or little orange.
Then there was the fabulous Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum. Few plants can have such a rich folklore attributed to them, featuring in everything from early books of leechcraft to Harry Potter.
Finally this splendidly savage Solanum pyracanthum, a native of Madagascar and apparently also known as porcupine tomato.
I am happy to say the wildlife was also out enjoying the wide range of plants and brilliant sunshine.
It’s so heartening to find havens for plants, people and wildlife, all in the midst of such a large and polluted city.