How We Began

Dilston Physic Garden began in the early 1990’s to grow plants for scientific research. First opening for group and university visits, it then opened to the public in 2005, and established as a charity for educational and research purposes in 2007. Dilston now has a great deal to offer both to visitors from near and far, and to the local community.

The following article contains extracts written by the curator of Dilston Physic Garden, emeritus Professor Elaine Perry.

Discover how the Dilston Physic Garden has evolved from the original medical research interests of the current curator Professor Elaine Perry, to interactions with local medical herbalists, volunteers and to new developments with a pharmacognosist Dr Nicolette Perry.  It describes what the physic garden offers in the way of scientific research, education, public interest and its varied courses, workshops and events aimed at improving our health and wellbeing.

Books on the physic garden give more information and include ‘Botanical Brain Balms: Plants For Memory, Mood And Mind‘,  ‘Grow Your Own Physic Garden‘, ‘Magical Botanical‘, ‘21 Medicinal Plants For Memory‘ and for children ‘Good Plant Bad Plant‘.

Origins, non traditional and neuroscientific

This physic garden has its origins in science. It was created by a professor of Neurochemical Pathology at Newcastle University, an outstanding UK neuroscientist researching disorders of the human brain for 30 years. This research includes understanding mechanisms involved in cognitive decline and memory loss associated with age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and equally importantly neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The overall aim is to discover new treatments for such disorders with the view that, of all disorders, those of the brain/ mind are the most devastating, depriving the individual of the power of reason and clear thinking, and consciousness itself.

Original medical research back in the 1970’s and 80’s, conducted together with a team of neuroscientists and clinicians at the University of Newcastle, contributed to the use of new drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. While most drugs are synthetic chemicals, one was originally derived from a medicinal plant. This is galantamine (acquiring the U.S. spelling) found in the bulbs of snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and daffodil (Narcissus). One of the main themes of a physic garden is that all the plants growing have been used as medicines at some time. It is intriguing to learn that the snowdrop was used by men in ancient Greece to protect themselves against poisons administered by women who wanted to control their male companions. Such toxic plants as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) block a chemical system in the brain called cholinergic, and induce loss of memory, hallucinations and even loss of consciousness. Galantamine acts by increasing activity of this system. The cholinergic is the same system that is affected in Alzheimer’s, and the drug helps restore brain function to some degree. The ancients clearly knew a thing or two about useful plant chemicals!

This physic garden was created in the early 1990’s and inspired by one European medicinal plant. After an unexpected life change, Professor Perry had an invitation from a medical colleague to a meeting on consciousness in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. At this meeting, they discussed the science of consciousness, and why most scientists were so constrained by conventional thinking and academic pressures. A year later, three unsuspecting students (one of them now the physic garden director) volunteered for summer work in the labs. A meditation spell in the Yucatan had led to the idea of having the students work on medicinal plants that were used for memory in the past. 15 years ago, when there were still no prescription drug treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and in parallel with a growing interest in the medicinal properties of plants, we looked for evidence of plants traditionally and historically used for memory and cognition enhancement. Students harvested the medicinal plants growing in the physic garden and checked the crude plant extracts for brain bioactivities. To everyone’s surprise, certain traditional medicinal plants like sage (Salvia officinalis and S. lavandulaefolia) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), reputed to improve memory in history, had relevant biological actions in vitro (in lab tests). These plants worked by actions such as blocking an enzyme that controls the level of the cholinergic ‘memory’ signal in the brain (see above). One of students who made the discovery went on to do a PhD in pharmacognosy at King’s College London with professors of pharmacognosy and neuroscience, Peter Houghton and Peter Jenners, looking at the effects of European sage for Alzheimer’s disease.

The exciting new findings attracted interest among colleagues, especially the Newcastle University Moor Bank garden. This led to establishing in 1996 the Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) in Newcastle of which the Elaine Perry was director, now co-director. The centre continues to conduct lab studies on plant extracts and also research trials in both normal healthy volunteers and those with brain diseases, alongside Dilston Physic Garden’s own research.

Research discoveries from the MPRC group include finding cognitive enhancing effects, in controlled trials in normal volunteers, of sage (Salvia sp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginseng (Panax ginseng), and tea (Camellia sinensis) – especially the green variety, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha piperita). Only five grow outside in Northumberland – melissa and peppermint thrive, as do some species of rosemary and sage such as the broad leafed variety and the gingko trees only just survive the wet winters. Further lab based studies have shown that some of these plant extracts interact with other brain enzyme and receptor molecules relevant to attention and memory. A controlled clinical trial of melissa aromatherapy in people with Alzheimer’s found that this essential oil (made up in a skin lotion) reduced agitation, increased social interaction and constructive activities.

The idea behind research such as this is to help bridge the gap between traditional plant medicine, on the one hand, and general medicine and clinical practice, on the other. Papers published recently by the MPRC group in scientific or medical journals are listed at the end of this article. Together with increasing numbers of publications from other groups (many from India, Japan, South Korea and a few Arabian countries), these promote acceptance of plant medicine by scientists and practicing clinicians in the West. Following the new results of our pilot study in 2016, showing a plant medicine containing sage, rosemary and melissa boosts memory by 50 percent in under 63 year olds (conducted with medical herbalists) we carrying out a follow-on study.

Professor Perry's small culinary herb garden in the lower walled area (now the Sage Garden), existed before all these scientific developments. It soon became clear following reading the old British herbals (Gerard and Culpepper for example, and the wonderful Mrs Grieve) that there were many more medicinal plants for health than for cooking. It was compulsory to grow and get to know these medicinal plants and to accommodate the hundreds of interesting medicinal species listed in the old herbals and encyclopedias and which now have science to show how they work to produce their effects in mind and body. In the early 1990’s, the need to have more space for growing medicinal plants to carrying out research on them, seemed as important as carrying on with the more conventional neuroscience research. New land, then pasture for sheep grazing, was purchased and a wind-break planted with hedgerow medicinal shrubs and trees. The area is subject to strong prevailing westerly winds, and though this was a challenge, the herbs seemed to rise as if united in determination, and most have since flourished in abundance.

Different areas for all the medicinal plants that could be found in local outlets were soon established. A landscape gardener employed who suggested an central avenue feature. This became the Bamboo Avenue and leads from the steps from the original Sage Garden (constructed from stone from the local Slaley quarry) up to the new physic garden. The bamboo turned out to be an invasive kind, and threatened to take over the whole physic garden until, in 2006 they all flowered and seemed to die. But to everyone’s amazement they threw up new shoots after a friend who practices shamanism (contacting the plant spirit) performed a drumming ceremony in the summer of 2007. So much for the scientific method!

A lawn provides empty space, and croquet, alongside the Bamboo Avenue, and blooms with buttercups in the spring. It is a ‘feng shui’ respite from the crowded medicinal plant collections. Tree structures were planted for architecture in the far corners of the garden, one for fruit and the other for nuts. Since then, many more medicinal trees have been planted throughout, including willow (Salix alba, the archetypal tree medicine from which aspirin was derived), dogwood (Cornus alba), maple (Acer), eucalyptus, berberis, rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), elder (Sambucus nigra), and vibernum. These trees provide architecture, especially in the winter when most of the medicinal plants disappear. Contrary to expectations, medicinal plants can thrive under tree leaf canopy, and this may even help reduce water loss as global warming reaches Northumberland. However some pollarding has been required, together with removing the leaves that drop as they can stop some of the plants growing – an effective antibiotic!

Opening initially to groups, a particular open day, following an article in ‘The Times’, attracted a record 300 people on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As a result, due to parking limitations, it was decided that group size needed to be small and many specialist interest, club and society groups began to visit by appointment, from medical and nursing students to gardening and walking groups.

At the same time as the garden opened, there appeared as if by magic the first qualified practicing Medical Herbalist in the local area, who was interested in the idea of a local Physic Garden and incredibly supportive, offering to run courses on medical herbalism. The range of workshops and courses grew over the years, though all related to the healing properties of plants, and including the development of our Foundation in Plant Medicine diploma course.

The need for information for the plants soon became obvious, not only to identify each species, but to list their traditional use and evidence of efficacy based on controlled clinical trials. Together with the scientific facts on active chemicals and biological mechanisms, this information underpins this physic garden. An inspired university colleague devised a system to display the common and Latin plant names, the traditional medicinal uses, and whether they have been verified by ‘gold standard’ trials. These trials are the hallmark for modern medicines, and if known, the main chemicals and how they work to treat or prevent disease provide essential mechanistic information. Information was verified by expert botanical groups, two practicing medical herbalists, and two biologists. Sacred and ‘magical’ qualities were also included, to uplift and inspire the visitor. Dilston signs thus amalgamate knowledge from traditional/ethnic sources, with modern science and medicine, and are probably the most unique aspect of the Dilston, compared to the other few, Physic Gardens in the UK.

Northumberland County Council Social Enterprise helped gain a substantial grant in 2007 from Awards-For-All, and a local sign-maker, together with the garden team, designed a new form of sign with a frame that was tilted for easy reading and moveability. Many medicinal plants are travellers or ‘gypsies’  and do not like to stay in one place for long. The different plant collections are thus divided by moveable timbers and tree branches (all from the trees growing in the garden) so these and the signs can be moved around to follow the wandering plant habits.

With increasing members of the public visiting, the garden was necessarily labour intensive. Two wonderful assistants recruited, not only enthusiastically cared for the plants, but also had numerous new ideas about moving forward, managing miraculously to raise funds with the help of Northumberland Council social enterprise for long overdue road signs, brochures and advertising. An artist devised an original logo with intertwining leaves of European sage (the first plant to be researched in the MPRC) and one of its key brain active chemicals called 1,8-cineole.

The garden gradually became known in the area, and visitor numbers continued to double each year. Further developments helped such as the introduction of new courses – not only medical herbalism, but roman herbal medicine, aromatherapy, flower essences, skin lotions, shamanic plants (‘plants of the gods’), aphrodisiacs, to name some. The garden is now directed by one of that original team, with the help of part-time gardeners and a wonderful team of dedicated volunteers. All of these people give so much to this physic garden, not only time tending the plants but also much enthusiasm and all kinds of suggestions for new developments.

Specialist interest collections such as the Chamomile Lawn, Culinary, ‘Heart and Mind’, ‘Flower Power’ ‘Happy’ ‘Opium Den’ are constantly being added to and more recently a ‘Wilderness’, ‘Herb Smudging’ and ‘Magic Bean’ area. The Spirit Henge, Labyrinth and Tranquility Pool add a dimension that moves the concept of healing from physical into the mind and spirit.

Creative arts were introduced in the physic garden – there is a replica gate to Japanese Shinto shrines at the entrance constructed by a local artist, a wind sculpture, bamboo flutes and other sculptures such as Green Man and Flying Goddess (constructed from recycled copper) and the Belladonna Witch and St John’s Wort Demon, all made locally, are an endless source of fascination.

Is a physic garden psychic? Not many people have heard of a Physic Garden or know what the word “physic” means in this context, and the word “psychic” keeps cropping up. The two words are almost anagrams, just one more ‘c’ for psychic, a word that originally meant ‘of the soul’. Some misread the road sign, and assume it means psychic, and still others insist on calling it psychic even if they have been ‘corrected’! Perhaps they know more about the venture than we do.

There are, as may be apparent from some of the above, several of those curious so called ‘cosmic coincidences’. The medicinal plant scientific research and the physic garden only came into being because of a personal transformation encountered by the curator, definitely not sought after! One or two plants have behaved rather mysteriously. In one corner of the physic garden are plants that are associated with magic, for example used by witches, werewolves and shamans. They induce hallucinations at high doses, alter consciousness and change perceptions, and for those who believe in a ‘spirit’ world they allow people to visit this world in their mind. In our ‘Plant Magic’ collection, an unusual weed arrived and now grows vigorously. Called enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), it was used as a love charm by Circe, the Greek goddess who controlled her male visitors with various herbs, hence its name.

A popular course here, ‘Plants of the Gods’, explores the shamanic uses of such plants. Many ‘shamanic herbs’ are however subject to slug and snail destruction as if the molluscs are on some kind of ‘trip’. So out ‘opium den’ collection, that is filled with Papaver somniferum and other poppy species, struggles to exist. Preparing for one of the courses on Plants of the Gods, it was intriguing to discover a shamanic plant that is immune from the molluscs. Called sweet flag (Acorus calamus), it is used to induce hallucinations. While picking the long needle-like leaves to demonstrate on the course, cutting them into small pieces and scattering them around the teaching area suddenly seemed a good idea. Looking up information on the plant, it later became clear that the leaves were customarily used in churches strewn over the floors to keep them fresh. Another plant that grows and spreads readily is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). It has a sharp and invigorating aroma that many find refreshing .This plant did not receive much attention until an ‘Astral Aspects’ course leader explained it is a wonderful pant for ‘clearing obstructions’ or ‘opening chakras’. It was great to learn we had a vigorous mollusc resistant plant with spiritual properties thriving in the garden, as it does around the wayside in Northumberland. The original seedling which has given rise to one of the largest medicinal plant collections in the garden, was obtained from the roadside beyond the bridge over the Devil’s water. The arrival of the much more aromatic, equally vigorous species, Chinese mugwort (Artemisia argyi) that we use to prepare our Mugwort Tincture for our Dream Club studies, was a mystery – we still don’t know how it arrived here.

Another thriving plant that has consistently been shown to be effective in medicinal plant research, is lemon balm or melissa. This has a range of cognitive effects from attention enhancing, mood calming, stress-reducing and also anti-addictive. It is, like mugwort, one of the most vigorous spreading plants growing in the physic garden, free from infection and persistently spreading to far corners, as if seeking attention! A clinical trial across several UK centres tested the effects of the essential oil from this plant against conventional therapy for people with Alzheimer’s. This research, funded by the UK Alzheimer Society, was part of the MPRG activities and parallel lab work was conducted at Durham, King’s College London and Otago University in New Zealand.

Apart from such interesting plant behaviour, there is apparently a ‘light’ spot in the garden which was discovered by a visitor. This is just beside the large Thai Buddha at the top of the Bamboo Avenue, and some say they can feel the light energy. It is just the right size for a seat which now provides a base from which to experience this. There is no doubt that as science progresses, with quantum physicists claiming that matter is no more than energy, and alternative healers talking of vibrational energy, the role of light and other energy forms will be given more credence in medical practices. The recently publicised observation that water can alter its structure, forming different ice crystal forms according human thought, and that water blessed by a monk produces better seedling development, opens up new lines of thinking, the human body is like most living things made up of 90% water. Hopefully, Dilston Physic Garden will continue explore such fascinating, if still mysterious, phenomena. A strange phenomenon noted by those working in the garden, and by other medicinal gardeners, is that of an after-image of plants that stays in the mind’s eye long after a session working with them such as weeding. Not exactly an experience common to supermarket shopping, it might be tempting to speculate on plant spirit communication! This is a standard concept in shamanism.

The physic garden does its best to follow organically managed principles. Thus all the weeding of the hundreds of medicinal plant beds is carried out by hoeing or by hand. No insecticides or fungicides are used on the plant collections. One of our volunteers has concocted an extract of rhubarb and other herbs which succeeded in getting rid of black fly afflicting the wormwood. Natural slug pellets are however used and these confuse visitors as they are blue but, unlike the conventional pellets, are made of ferric phosphate and do no harm to birds, frogs, or even children. Not officially organic to add chemicals, this is the nearest strategy to organic that is compatible with survival of many of the medicinal plants that would be totally destroyed by an overactive mollusc population. That pond is alive with frogs and a host of diverse birds and butterflies flit around the whole garden is, we hope, a testimony to the validity of this strategy.

Compost is continuously made but not enough to provide for all needs so this is supplemented by deliveries from the local council recycling centre and they are not provided as organic. Our small collection of pots of medicinal plants for sale come from the physic garden and used come from Dilston College, where students with learning disabilities helped prepare them from organically produced herb seeds.

Edited from information composed by Elaine Perry

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