After 300 years, London's Chelsea Physic Garden opens to the public.
Founded in 1673 by the Worship Society of Apothecaries, the Chelsea Physic Garden played an active role in botanical history. As part of their research, its curators collected, distributed, and hybridized plants discovered by botanical explorers such as Charles Darwin (whose stepladder, a cheery docent may tell you, still sits in a shed) and Sir Joseph Banks, who traveled the South Pacific with Captain Cook. Seed bred at Chelsea started the cotton fields of colonial Georgia.
Today, more than 5,000 species of plants from all over the world pack the 3.8 acres. Plant research continues, and volunteers are on hand to help visitors look and learn. There are maps and leaflets explaining the experiments being conducted.
Despite London's northerly 51[deg.] latitude, the garden's particularly mild microclimate (aided by high brick walls) allows the growth of agapanthus, ceanothus, olive, and other Western friends.
Areas of special interest include two rockeries (one of them England's first, built in 1772), a collection of variegated plants, and a broad flower border lining Swan Walk wall. A brand-new section features plants introduced to horticulture by the Chelsea during its 311-year history.
The heart of the collection is the herb garden--where you see plants used for cooking, dyes, perfurmes, and medicines--and the Victorian-style display beds, arranged so you can easily compare plant families. Spring to early summer is the best time to see them in bloom.
The Chelsea Physic Garden is open from 2 to 5 on Wednesdays and Sundays from April 22 to October 21, and every afternoon from noon to 5 during the Chelsea Flower Show (May 22 through 25). Admission is [pounds sterling]1 (about $1.45). The entrance is 2 blocks west of the show grounds, on Swan Walk between Royal Hospital Road and the Chelsea Embankment--a 15-minute taxi ride from Piccadilly Circus or a 10-minute walk from the Sloane Square Underground station.