Apothecary Gardens: A Brief History

Apothecary or physik gardens only came into being in Europe in the heyday of the monasteries in the 15th century. Previously, all plants were considered useful, whether it be for food, medicine, beauty or magical properties! Women would have grown all number of plants for use in the house – ‘‘strewing’ herbs, such as hyssop, to freshen the rooms and keep certain illnesses at bay; herbs to flavour food and drinks; plants to ease the mind and spirit, and those known to have curative properties.

The first herb gardens were cultivated by monks, for use in the monastery or monastery hospital. The gardens were traditionally divided into four sections, household, culinary, medicinal, and poisonous plants. These were mixed by apothecaries to produce ‘compounds’ to treat ailments, flavourings for food and other household needs.

The monks of the early monasteries were able to read (when the general population was not) therefore most of the written information about the uses and medical properties of plants originated with them. Apothecaries and other practitioners would have had smaller collections than the monasteries, since the monks had greater access to plants imported from other parts of the world. As more and more plants were studied and properties recorded, so the range of plants grew.

One of England’s most well-known gardens is the Chelsea Physic Garden.

‘The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. The location was chosen because 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.’
(courtesy of the Chelsea Physic Garden www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk)

In the Linneal binomial system of plant taxonomy, more than 60 plants have been given the species name officinalis, officinale or officinarum. Officina, a noun, is a mediaeval word derived from the Latin opificina, which was later shortened to officina. It referred originally to a workshop, later to a monastic storeroom, then to a herb store and finally to a pharmacy. The adjective, officinalis, in all of its declined forms is used in botanical Latin to mean ‘used in medicine’ in the sense of used in the practice of medicine.

In the Apothecary Garden at Todmorden Health Centre, we have about 20 of the officina plants, including English rhubarb, the Apothecary Rose and hyssop.