This colourful contemporary physic garden appeals to all visitors and ages.
Plants, herbs and trees with properties for health and medicine grow in abundant quantities, clearly labelled with easy to read signboards of folklore, traditional medicinal use as well as the latest science behind what the plant does.
Dilston is also a sensory garden of wild natural beauty, full of intoxicating scents, winding paths and unexpected elements from sculptures to a croquet lawn and labyrinth.
Special features of the physic garden
Enter this unique garden through its imposing, full-size Torii gate, a Japanese concept linked to the Shinto religion. The gate is a wooden structure, painted in sacred red, and here it acts a spiritual and physical portal into the garden. It encourages reflection and introspection on the part of visitors, compelling the eyes and spirit to move through into the garden itself.
This is a highly unusual two acre garden, divided into two levels. The upper level has a bamboo walk, formed by alternating box shrubs and bamboo, which gives added height, and is guarded by serene, stone Buddhas at either end. There is also a small Fruit Orchard and a Croquet Lawn, surrounded by a living library of over 800 European species of herbs and cultivars, all clearly labelled with their botanical and common names and medicinal and scientific properties. To the west a woodland joins a willow coppice, ode to the world’s more widely used drug aspirin and to an area under development dedicated to plant medicine used through history and across the globe, from monastic herbs to Japanese Kampo medicine. Alongside this, a sun mandala opens to a meadow space with a labyrinth, spirit henge, tranquillity pool and sculptures such as a red phoenix that represent the birth of a new type of physic garden. At a lower level, through the yew arch, are ornamental and Sage Gardens guarded by a topiarised yew chakra angel.
There is nothing demure about this physic garden, the plants are exuberant both in habit and colour. Elaine, the garden’s curator, retains a relaxed attitude towards the plants calling them ‘gypsy plants’ because of their tendency to move freely round the garden and self seed, this method increases their medicinal property. Plumes of fennel sway in the breeze and the green globes of angelica flowers shimmer. Majestic spires of stately verbascums stand sentinel over bushes of deep purple sage and glowing golden thyme.
Throughout the physic garden there are aromatic herbs which on a hot day emit delightful scents that bounce off the heated gravel paths. Such herbs as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), sage (Salvia sp.), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus sp.), marjoram (Oreganum sp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), numerous types of mint (Mentha sp.), wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), sweet rocket / dame’s violet (Hesperis matronalis), scented vibernum (Viburnum carlcephalum), rose including the apothecary’ s rose (Rosa gallica), elder (Sambucus nigra) and various species of chamomile (Chamaemelum). On a sunny summer’s day many of these positively vibrate with hosts of honey bees.
Group or course visitors to the physic garden are customarily given refreshing speciality physic garden botanical tea made from a selection of these aromatic herbs, freshly picked, which has been specially concocted for its delicate flavour (appreciated even by those who never drink herbal teas) with guaranteed effects to stimulate the mind and calm the mood!
Heart and Mind
A Heart and Mind section contains three herbs for the heart, foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) and hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacanthoides or monogyna) and four for the mind, sage (Salvia officinalis), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officininalis).
The chamomile lawn is a labour of love that has to be hand weeded weekly, but is immensely rewarding as a soft, aromatic carpet with built-in rest and relaxation facilities. The lawn species is roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, syn. Anthemis nobilis) which does not flower but spreads or can be transplanted. Even so the years of previous pasture land have left their mark and when winter takes its toll the bare patches quickly sprout up with clover and grass.
There are various other specialized zones of interest in the physic garden.
In the Woodland area woodruff (Asperula odorata), bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, syn. Endymion non-scriptus), and lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) thrive amongst the witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia), cob or hazel nut (Corylus avellana) and walnut (Juglans regia or nigra) trees.
In the Hedgerow edging parts of the garden are shrubs such as elder (Sambucus nigra), hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacanthoides or monogyna), blackthorn / sloe (Prunus spinosa), dog rose (Rosa canina) with self seeding herbs such as garlic mustard (Alliaria officinalis) and the inevitable wonderful nettle (Urtica urens), one of our popular dried organic herbs we sell for a detoxifying tea.
In the Orchard there are many fruits with medical properties including apple, crab apple, pear, plum (including wild plum), greengage, mulberry, damson, cherry, spindleberry and rowan. Nearby is a hedge of blackthorn and patch of raspberries which together with the damsons provide the basis for preparing some not so spiritual victuals such as sloe gin, damson brandy and raspberry vodka.
A Stone Wall area has wild wallflower (Cheranthus cheiri), wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), stone crop (sedum), and iris or flag (Iris pseudacorus).
A Culinary Zone contains numerous herbs, together with vegetables and cereals that have medicinal as well as nutritional properties, for example carrot, chicory, beetroot, Chinese gooseberry, garlic, spinach, cabbage, oats, barley and chickpea.
The lower walled garden, the original herb garden, is now the Sage Garden with over twenty, amongst the several hundreds, of different species that survive in Northumbria. This area is sheltered from the prevailing westerlies that can threaten the survival of such European herbs. Of particular interest is Salvia lavandulaefolia, a species that is probably safer to use than Salvia officinalis because of its low thujone content. Both of these species have been shown through research conducted by the founders of Dilston alongside the MPRG to enhance memory and attention.
Plant Magic Garden
The Plant Magic Garden includes mandrake (Mandragorum officinalis), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), Japanese belladonna (Scopolia carniolica), henbane (Hyoscamus niger), thornapple (Datura stramonium), angels trumpet (Brugmansia), various species of yew (Taxus), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), monkshood (Aconitum), periwinkle (Vinca), Delphinium and Helleborus.
Ornamental Flower Garden
Since many herbs have a modest appearance and non dramatic flowers, there is a recently created Ornamental Flower Garden below the steps on the path to the sage garden which contains cultivars of the traditional medicinal plants that although not tested for medical properties add color and delight.
Water loving herbs
A pond created to foster frogs for snail control is surrounded by water loving herbs such as bog myrtle (Myrica gale), alder (Alnus glutinosa), various species of willow (Salix), bulrush (Cyperus papyrus ) and sweet flag (acorus calamus).
The garden was created 25 years ago on former pastureland on the south bank of the Tyne Valley which is rich in alluvial soils. It is well-drained and sunny, an ideal spot for growing herbs, nestled above the flowing Dyvel’s Water.
The croquet lawn surrounded by herbs, shrubs and trees also has varied seating allowing visitors to relax and take in the beautiful views out over the Northumbrian countryside.
Stimulation of the senses
Many plants in the garden are highly aromatic and, on a warm day, the air is laden with fragrance and loud with the buzzing of bees. The chamomile lawn invites visitors to walk on it and release its heavenly smell which acts as a mild sedative and a tranquilliser. Wooden-edged gravel paths intersect the various fragrant herb beds and, tucked away in a tranquil corner, is a small wildlife pond, planted with bog myrtle.
Carefully sited wind chimes hang in the trees and tinkle in the slightest breeze.
The Bamboo Walk adds its gentle susurration of rustling leaves to the other multi-sensory qualities of the garden. The scale of planting is generous, providing a kaleidoscope of colour ranging from purples and greens through to silvers and golds – the whole shot through with yellow, red and foamy cream. From the peace and quiet of the terraces, visitors can hear calming sound of the mill water gurgling over the rocky stream bed below.