London's history of herbal treatments

Karen Howell, Herb Archivist at the Herb Garret.
Image caption Karen Howell is an archivist at the Herb Garret.

A small wasteland in Southwark has been transformed into a pop-up medical garden by more than 100 volunteers.

The Urban Physic Garden opens on Saturday for just six weeks on a neglected plot of land to celebrate London's history of herbal medicine.

Just six weeks ago the Union Street site was a rubble-filled and fenced-off wasteland awaiting development.

A group of designers and urban growers approached the landowner, Lake Estates, and were given keys and permission to transform it into a temporary community garden.

But London's relationship with healing herbs and medicinal plants is anything but temporary.

While plants are still central to much medical research, in the past the herbs themselves had more of a presence.

A visit to the nearby Herb Garret, on St Thomas' Street, behind London Bridge station, reveals how much Londoners once relied on herbs for medicine.

Herbal history

The Garret, an attic space above St Thomas' Church, is now a museum but it used to store dried herbs which hospitals would use to treat patients.

Image caption Plants have been dried and prepared at the Herb Garret for more than 300 years

In fact, London Bridge itself owes something to herbal remedies - it is thought that Edward I taxed liquorice to pay for bridge repairs in 1305.

Liquorice has long been one of Western herbal medicines' most important roots.

It is a soothing herb and can help with coughs and catarrh.

In the past people would visit an apothecary when they were unwell.

Karen Howell, a Herb Archivist at the Garrett, said: "The Herb Garret is an oak beamed attic that was built directly above St Thomas' Church in 1703.

"There would have been wormwood drying by the cart load up here. The plant was used to literally rid people of worms, which were a real problem amongst London's poor.

Recipe of cures

"There was an annex that connected the Garret directly to the neighbouring hospital, and the dispensary was just down the street."

She added that research into herb use in hospitals had revealed that chamomile was used by surgeons during bladder stone operations as an antiseptic.

She said: "The operations had a high success rate, despite using no anaesthetic or hand washing. Chamomile is well known for being a sedative, but this highlights its other properties."

The Urban Physic Garden will be open from 11 June to 15 August 2011.

Article written by Helen Babbs, a freelance nature writer and the Urban Physic Garden's writer-in-residence.

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