What is a physic garden?
A physic (pronounced ‘fizz-ic’) garden is a garden where each plant growing has the power to heal as a medicine or to keep you healthy. Generations ago plants were the only medicines people had (and this is still the case in 60% of the world!). Doctors – PHYSICians – would grow plants for the medicines they prepared based on knowledge handed down for generations and which they then prescribed for their patients.
Now there’s a lot of scientific research into medicinal plants going on around the world. Every day new science data helps verify century long traditional use, just as our ancestors said. And scientists are also telling us how the plants work – which chemical ingredients in the plant act on which body system, including different functions in the brain.
Modern plant (herbal) medicine is used by many people across the world and is now becoming popular in the UK. A number of plant medicines now have scientific research to show how they work and what they do in our body. Dilston Physic Garden grows plants that are used by medical herbalists in the North East of England. They pick the fresh plants and prepare them to make effective medicines such as tinctures, ointments and other preparations and effectively treat many common everyday ailments, just like the doctors used to do!
This physic garden has a wild look. Plants are allowed to seed naturally and run through their cycle because wild herbs are more potent medicinally than cultivated ones. The dead stems are often left for wildlife, to regenerate the soil and because some are very beautiful!
Read more about physic gardens in our book Grow Your Own Physic Garden.
What so special about plant medicine?
The amazing potential that plants have to maintain and improve human health is due to the chemical ingredients they contain. Plants make many of these chemicals to protect themselves – from predators and fungi, bacteria, viruses, oxidation, UV rays and even cancers. They also produce them to attract propagators insects and birds.
At the correct dose, it is exactly these chemicals that can work as medicines and also to maintain and boost health in humans. Many medicinal plants (over 30 in fact) that you see at Dilston have given us cutting edge modern drugs like aspirin, atropine, morphine, digoxin and tamoxifen or are used by doctors today.
How people discovered which plant improved which part of health (and what plant part to use and how to prepare it and at what dose!) is still a bit of a mystery (we offer life membership for best answers!).
Most believe humans figured out which plant for what illness by simple trial (and error!). Though considering how many plant species there are around the world and that some are extremely toxic at the wrong dose this must have been fraught with hazard.
Others think that discovery depended on intuition and observation of animals – since some animals know what to eat when they are sick such as apes in parts of Africa self-selecting plants to de-worm themselves.
Whatever the process, it must have involved a kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ Darwin-like plant selection procedure, in terms of finding that fine balance between getting it to work, and safety.
We have around us in our gardens an invaluable chemical database for medicine today. Many people do not realise that familiar drugs like aspirin and morphine for pain management and digoxin for the heart come from plants. There are many more drugs used clinically and many still to be discovered – new discoveries of effective medicines are being made today based on their traditional use knowledge. The cutting edge cancer drug paclitaxel is derived from chemicals from the Yew tree. Paclitaxel is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, a list of the most important medication needed in a basic health system.
In some cases, plant medicine can have the same efficacy as single drugs, with fewer, if any, side-effects like addiction.
At The Physic Garden
Our signboards have the latest information gathered from different sources. You can discover the plants use in traditional herbal medicine to modern plant medicine, the latest studies on chemistry and biology, to the folklore behind each plants use.
The physic garden is separated into plant beds and gravel paths and we have developed specific areas of interest. Many on focused on our favourite plants, those for the brain and mind.
But we have others such as the Magic & Medicine, where you’ll have heard of the mandrake root from Harry Potter, and you can discover others like belladonna and henbane, the original source of other essential medical drugs.
Other Collections of plants you’ll come across as you wander are Woodland, Culinary, Orchard, Hundred Willow Coppice, Opium Den, Medical Meadow, Sage Garden, or the Time Space Zone, medicinal plants used through history and across the world.
When you want to learn more you can join one of our workshops. They are run independently to the physic garden on a range of subjects all relating to the healing properties of plants such as safe home remedy making to workshops for wellbeing such as writing and art. Our Foundation in Plant Medicine course is an easy inspiring way to bring plants for health into your life.
We always have projects on the go, from research and science to our in residences, and we’re fund raising in several areas. If you would like to donate, you would make a big difference, just visit our donation page.