Royal College of Physicians Medicinal Garden.

The Royal College of Physicians of London was founded in the City of London in 1518 and whilst the vision and desire for a medicinal garden existed throughout the history of the College it was not fully realised for almost another 450 years.

The RCP had four changes of address in the city during the four and a half centuries before it was established at its current location. In 1964 the architecturally award winning building was opened – and this time it included a garden of equally exceptional design and importance. The garden has subsequently been redesigned and expanded so that is now includes in excess of 1,000 species of plants – all with a link to medicine. The flora originates from all corners of the globe and tells the stories of traditional botanical therapies from a myriad of cultures and epochs.

Given Nutraceuticals continued passion and commitment to offering a professional, scientific and informed service, we relish opportunities to connect with the most prestigious institutions within our community and to continually educate our staff. This initiative guarantees that we can provide our customers with the most broad-ranging and well-founded product knowledge available. 

So when the chance to gain an insider’s view of the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians arose, we all were ‘blooming’ excited! The Royal Society of Physicians claim that their NW1 garden offers ‘living examples of the history of medicine from the era of the pyramids of Egypt to today’s life saving prescription drugs’.

On a stunning summer morning, members of the Nutraceuticals team skirted the edge of Regent’s Park in favour of – arguably – an even more remarkable botanical site. With our colleagues’ backgrounds naturally ranging from of course Food Science, Sports Science, Engineering, Chemistry, Phytochemistry, History of Medicine and contemporary medicine, with interests in botany, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and food, they were particularly keen to get up close to vital, growing versions of some of the products in which Nutraceuticals specialise. Leading them on their exploration of the college’s hidden botanical treasures was the utterly charming and eminently knowledgeable Dr Henry Oakeley.

The garden is by no means solely a historic reference or academic tool. It is as aesthetically appealing as it is informative. In their full summer verdancy, the bedding, trees and lawn of the garden are idyllic.  So it is no surprise that the Fellows and staff of the college make the most of the space to meet, lunch and relax. The landscape is dominated by a monumental Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis) tree. This specimen was included in the planting to recognise the importance of Hippocrates, the father of medicine who is believed to have taught his pupils under just such a tree on the island of Cos. The massive canopy that shades the RCP lawn and courtyard is the result of the growth of a seed taken from Cos and grown at Kew.

Tales which trace from the Ancient world through the Middle ages and the early development of the disciplines of science and medicine are abundant in the garden. Dr Oakeley was a wealth of fantastic anecdotes. His visual illustration of the doctrine of signatures – which originated in the Medieval period – was memorable. The doctrine was established in the belief that plants or parts of plants that resembled a body part would be effective in treating associated afflictions. Herbalists in both Christian and Muslim societies subscribed to this concept. Dr Oakeley identified many leaves, flowers and roots within the garden – for example Ginkgo Biloba and Eyebright – which due to their form or colourations have been intrinsically associated with therapy for particular systems within the human body.

Theories such as the doctrine of signatures and also the establishment of the efficacy of traditional plant usage over history, came to inform and advance the progression of modern medicine, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals. Dr Oakeley expanded upon this concept during the progression around the garden. He told how, until the late 19th century, health care was almost entirely reliant on plant-based therapies.

We are all aware that during the 20th and 21st centuries, the incidence and spectrum of synthetic pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals has massively increased. However, many of the therapeutic agents which we currently rely upon have their origin in botanical sources. Dr Oakeley identified that there are currently over 70 plants in the garden which are still used as the sources for medicines that we might be prescribed today. The poppies growing in the RCP garden are the same variety as those that would be commercially harvested for the production of the opiate, Morphine. And that staple of the floral English country garden- Digitalis purpurea – is responsible for the production of the life saving cardiac drug, Digoxin.

In addition to plants which are the source material for contemporary therapies, manufacturers now synthesise chemicals to mirror the active elements of traditional botanical therapies. The leaf parts of Yew trees were originally used to develop the chemotherapy drugs, Docetaxel and Paclitaxel. Now in the interest of efficiency and sustainability, both drugs can be made synthetically in the laboratory. The needles, however, are still collected and used as part of the synthetic process.

The source material for many Nutraceuticals Group products was also evident during the tour. Included in the garden are fantastic specimens of plants, such as the Theobroma cacao, which makes our Raw Cacao Powder; Camellia sinensis, which is the origin of our many Green Tea products; Equisetum arvense, which is the raw form of our Horsetail Extracts and Powders; and gorgeously coloured Echinacea purpurea, the botanical responsible for our Echinacea Purpurea Extracts and Powder – also not forgetting such kitchen garden staples such as Sage Salvia officinalisPeppermint Mentha piperita, Thyme Thymus vulgaris l. And those we see every day such as Nettle Urtica dioica to name just a few!

This unique botanical treasure and educational resource has so much to offer horticulturalists, herbalists, designers and health professionals – thanks to the knowledge and skills of Dr Henry Oakeley, the Garden Fellows and Head Gardener, Jane Knowles. Garden tours by the Garden Fellows are held on the first Wednesday of each month at 2pm from March to October.   

For more information or to book your own tour please contact the Royal College of Physicians or phone 0203 075 1200.

If you are interested in our products featured in this blog and also grown in the prestigious Royal College of Physicians Medicinal Garden, we would love to discuss them with you, so leaf us a message in the contact box.