The Urban Herbalists

A shorter, edited version of this feature appears on the BBC news website

A small wasteland in Southwark has been transformed into a pop-up medical garden by the hard working hands of over a hundred volunteers.  The Urban Physic Garden will be open for just six weeks, 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 atmospheric Herb Garret on St Thomas’ Street, behind London Bridge station, reveals how much Londoners once relied on drugs that literally grew on trees.

In fact, London Bridge itself owes something to herbal remedies – it’s 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’s a soothing herb and can help with coughs and catarrh.

The capital has a colourful herbal history.  In the past people would visit an apothecary rather than a high street chemist when they were unwell.  Karen Howell is a ‘Herb Archivist’ and something of an expert when it comes to London’s historical herbs.

“My job is to decipher all the documents we have, mainly in Latin, relating to the Herb Garret.  I read texts called Pharmacopeias, which are like recipe books of cures.  I find patterns in treatments and evidence of which herbs were being used and to what effect”, explains Karen.

“For example, we’ve found that chamomile was being used by surgeons during bladder stone operations as a healing antiseptic.  The operations had a high success rate, despite using no anesthetic or hand washing.  Chamomile is well known for being a sedative, but this highlights its other properties.”

“The Herb Garret is an oak beamed attic that was built directly above St Thomas’ Church in 1703.  It was where the hospital apothecary dried and stored herbs, sourced from London herb sellers or from the docks” says Karen, describing her unusual work space.

“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.  There was an annex that connected the garret directly to the neighbouring hospital, and the dispensary was just down the street.”

While synthetic drugs have superseded medicinal plants for many in the western world, some Londoners argue herbal medicine is as relevant as ever.   “Modern medical herbalists have harnessed science to carry on and enhance herbal traditions” says Alex Laird, co-founder of Living Medicine.

Living Medicine runs workshops in Newham and Southwark, designed to share knowledge about plant-based cures for common complaints, like allergies, digestion and cardiovascular problems.  They dream of a future where communal medical plots are found at the bottom of everybody’s street.

As Alex Laird wanders round the Urban Physic Garden, she points out the medicinal properties of some of the plants.

“If you have a sore throat, nibble on a sage leaf and it will release anti-bacterial essential oils to help engulf the infection.  If the sore throat becomes a chest infection, pungent horseradish root will help clear the lungs of catarrh” Alex advises.

“Try mint for digestion and marigold for skin healing.  Rosemary is good for the lungs, the liver and the mind. Seek out elderflower for viruses, colds, fever and allergies, and nettles for nutrition, skin and joints.  Berries are good for circulation, and the cabbage family offers anti-cancer action.”

A true fan of the power and potency of medicinal plants in urban areas, Alex explains that plants’ “complex mix of chemicals don’t just give us nutrition and energy.  They also offer a package of tools that range from anti-inflammatory to calming and hormone-balancing.”

All these plants can thrive in city gardens or window boxes, which, according to Alex, could then act as living first aid cabinets for modern Londoners.


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