Dilston Physic Garden
– Back to the Future –
The Physic Garden is a unique venture in the North East of England providing visitors with the opportunity learn about the wonderful healing properties of over 600 medicinal plants. Large signboards describe their traditional uses (medical herbalism, aromatherapy, homeopathy, flower essences) together with whether they are clinically proven, what chemicals are active and how they work biologically. The garden (an acre) is set in the beautiful Tyne Valley, near Corbridge, next to the Devils Water and is open to the Public twice a week during the season. Visitors find, as well as all the plants to see and fascinating information, a delightful, relaxing and even magical place to wander round. DPG runs courses based on the plants such as herbalism, homeopathy, magic and medicine, shamanism and art. Specialist groups / students of all kinds are, by arrangement, welcomed and refreshed with herbal tea and cake. DPG was established as a Charity primarily for educational purposes in 2007 and now has a great deal to offer visitors and the community.
Originally, hundreds of year ago, Physic gardens were for practicing physicians to grow plants for the medicines they prepared, based on knowledge handed down for generations, which they prescribed for their patients, What could a Physic Garden offer today?
There are two quite remarkable aspects of herbal medicine: first that plants make chemicals which are healing; and secondly that people discovered which plants at what dose to use for which disorder. The first mystery is to some extent solved by knowing that plants make their own antibiotics, anti–inflammatories and range of chemical armoury against predators which act on the nervous, digestive and other systems. The second mystery is still open to speculation. Some believe it was a matter of trial and error though considering how many plant species are around and that some are highly toxic at the wrong dose this must have been fraught with hazard. Others think that discovery depended on intuition – in the same way as some animals know what to eat when they are sick. Whatever the process it must have involved a kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ plant selection procedure (in terms of the balance between efficacy and safety) which provides an invaluable database for medicine today. New discoveries of effective medicines are still being made based on this traditional knowledge – for example the chemicals in the Yew tree are used against types of cancer.
At Dilston Physic Garden (DPG), visitors can learn about traditional herbal medicine as all the plants are displayed with detailed labels about their uses, can get to see, touch and smell each of the plants through the seasons, and also join courses in medical herbalism and other aspects relating to the wonderful healing properties of individual plant species. The garden is closely linked to the Medicinal Plant Research Group (MPRG) in the Universities of Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham and is now a registered charity set up for education and enjoyment.
This article describes how the garden evolved from original medical research interests of the owner and interactions with the local medical herbalist, how it has been constructed and is still developing, and what it offers in the way of interest, education, research, and different courses.
The garden has scientific origins, being originally created by the author of this article, professor of Neurochemical Pathology at Newcastle University and neuroscientist researching disorders of human brain for the seemingly interminable period of 30 years. The research includes understanding mechanisms involved in cognitive decline/memory loss associated with age related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and equally importantly neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The overall aim is to discover new treatments for such disorders with the view that of all disorders those of the brain / mind are the most devastating , depriving the individual of the power of reason and clear thinking, consciousness itself.
Original medical research back in the 70’s and 80’s conducted together with a team of neuroscientists and clinicians at the University of Newcastle contributed to the use of new drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. While most are synthetic chemicals, one was originally derived from a plant. This is galantamine (acquiring the american spelling) found in snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and the daffodil (Narcissus). Since one of the main themes of the garden is that all the plants have all been used as medicines at some time, it was intriguing to learn that the snowdrop was used by men in ancient Greece to protect themselves against poisons administered by women who wanted to control their male companions. Such toxic plants as deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) block a system in the brain called cholinergic, induce loss of memory, hallucinations and even loss of consciousness, and galantamine acts by increasing activity of this system. The cholinergic is the same system that is affected in Alzheimer’s and the drug helps restore brain function to some degree .The ancients clearly knew a thing or two about useful plant chemicals!
In the early 90’s, after an unexpected life change, an invitation from a medical colleague to a fantastic meeting on consciousness in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico was an eye opener .Why they wanted to know as they discussed the science of consciousness, are most scientists so constrained by conventional thinking and academic pressures? A year later three unsuspecting students volunteered for summer work in the labs. We needed a new project for them and a meditation spell led to the idea of having them work on herbs for the memory. Just over 10 years ago -when there were still no prescription drug treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and in parallel with a growing interest in the medicinal properties of plants, we looked for evidence of plants traditionally used for memory/cognition enhancement. The students harvested the herbs growing in the garden and checked bioactivities in crude plant extracts and to everyone’s surprise found that a few traditional herbs such as sage (Salvia officinalis and Salvia lavandulaefolia) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) reputed to improve memory had relevant activities in vitro (in lab tests) such as inhibiting the enzyme that controls the level of the cholinergic signal in the brain. One of students who made the discovery went on to do a PhD in pharmacognosy at King’s College London. The exciting new findings attracted interest among colleagues especially the Newcastle University Moor Bank garden. This led to establishing in 1996 the Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) in Newcastle of which the author was director, now co director. The centre continues to conduct lab studies on the plant extracts and also clinical trials in people, both normal healthy volunteers and those with brain diseases.
Research discoveries from the MPR group include finding cognitive enhancing effects, in controlled trials in normal volunteers, of sage (Salvia), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginseng (Panax ginseng), and tea (Camellia sinensis), especially the green variety. Only three grow outside in Northumberland - Melissa thrives as do some species of sage such as the broad leafed variety and the gingko trees only just survive the wet winters. Further lab based studies have shown that some of these plant extracts interact with other enzyme and receptor molecules relevant to attention and memory. A controlled clinical trial of Melissa aromatherapy in people with Alzheimer’s found that this essential oil (made up in a skin lotion) reduced agitation, increased social interaction and constructive activities. The idea behind research such as this is to help bridge the gap between traditional, so called complementary / alternative medicine , on the one hand, and orthodox scientific understanding and clinical practice, on the other. Papers published recently by the MPR group in scientific or medical journals are listed at the end of this article. Together with increasing numbers of publications from other groups (many from India, Japan, South Korea and a few Arabian countries), these will hopefully help to promote acceptance of herbal medicine by scientists and practicing clinicians in the west.
A small culinary herb garden in the lower walled area (now the sage garden), existed at Dilston Mill house before all these developments. It soon became clear after reading the old herbals (Gerard and Culpepper for example, and the wonderful Mrs Grieve) that there are many more herbs for health than for cooking. This was so fascinating it seemed compulsory grow and get to know the medicinal plants as well but the original herb patch was far too small to accommodate the hundreds of interesting medicinal species listed in the old herbals and encyclopedias.
In the early 1990’s, just before the beginnings of the medicinal plant research (above) the idea of creating a physic garden was hatched. A period of severe illness prompted ‘taking stock’ of priorities. The need to have more space for the healing herbs and to spend more time enjoying growing and doing research on them seemed as important as carrying on with the more conventional neuroscience research. A letter to the local landowner asking to buy part of the field at the top of the garden to grow medicinal plants was happily met with a positive response.
The new land which was then pasture for sheep grazing was purchased and a wind-break planted with hedgerow medicinal shrubs and trees .The area is subject to strong prevailing westerly winds and many were convinced it would be impossible to persuade herbs to grow there. This was a challenge the herbs seemed to rise as if united in determination, and most have since flourished in abundance.
Different areas for all the medicinal herbs that could be found in local outlets were soon established. A landscape gardener suggested an avenue in the middle, and this became the bamboo avenue leading from the steps below (constructed from stone from the local Slaley quarry) up to the garden. These bamboos turned out to be the invasive kind and were threatening to take over the garden until in 2006 they all flowered and seemed to die. But to everyone’s amazement some have thrown up new shoots after a friend who practices shamanism (contacting the plant spirit) performed a drumming ceremony in the summer of 2007. So much for the scientific method!
Beside the avenue a croquet lawn, most of the time an empty space, is a ‘feng shui’ respite from the crowded herb zones. The landscaper also suggested tree structure in the far corners of the garden where in one fruit and in the other nut trees now grow. Since then many more medicinal trees have been planted throughout, including willow (Salix, the archetypal tree medicine from which aspirin was derived),dogwood (Cornus alba), maple (Acer), Eucalyptus with over 10 different species now growing to great heights, Berberis, rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), elder (Sambucus nigra), and Vibernum, to provide architecture, especially in the winter when most of the herbs disappear. Contrary to expectations the herbs continue to thrive under the tree leaf canopy and this may even help reduce water loss as global warming reaches Northumberland. However the eucalyptus trees have grown at a pace never anticipated (one is now taller than any of the old oak and beech trees that live in the woods around the garden) and some pollarding has been required, together with removing the leaves that drop as they can stop some of the herbs growing – an effective antibiotic!.
After the garden began to take shape a local journalist wrote an article for ‘The Northumbria’ which attracted the interest of the National Garden Scheme [NGS] organiser, who suggested opening the garden to the public. That was a new experience with numerous people coming on a set day each year and demanding tea and cakes but perhaps not all really interested in the amazing phenomenon of hosts of healing plants. A particular open day following an article in the ‘Times’ attracted a record 300 people on a sunny Saturday afternoon and car parking was a real challenge. As a result it was decided that group size needed to be small and many specialist interest, club and society groups now visit by appointment - all kinds, from medical and nursing students to gardening and walking groups.
At the same time as the garden ‘came out’, there appeared as if by magic the first qualified practicing Medical Herbalist in the local Hexham area, who was really interested in the idea of a local Physic Garden and incredibly supportive, offering to run courses on medical herbalism .The idea of having courses based in the garden was born and has grown to include other topics related to the healing properties of plants.
The need for informative labels for the plants soon became obvious not only to identify each species but to list their traditional uses. Apart from the fact that all the wooden sign systems so far invented are affected by the weather and have to be renewed, there is new information appearing all the time about further medicinal uses, evidence of efficacy based on controlled clinical trials, together with scientific facts on active chemicals and biological mechanisms. A system was therefore needed for the signs that would allow for updating as well as renewal. The computer processed signs now in place were devised by an inspired university colleague and display common and latin names, traditional medicinal uses, whether these have been verified by controlled clinical trials –the hallmark for orthodox modern medicines, and if known the main chemicals and how they work to treat or prevent disease, and even in some instances sacred or magical qualities if these are prominent. Apart from the last quality, the information on the signs has been verified by two expert botanical groups, two practicing medical herbalists, and two biologists. These signs which thus amalgamate knowledge from traditional/ethnic sources with modern science and medicine are probably the most unique aspect of the Dilston, compared to the other few, Physic Gardens in the UK.
While informative and attractive, our wonderful support team from Northumberland County Council Social Enterprise insisted we go for a more professional look and helped us gain a substantial grant in 2007 from Awards for All . A local sign-maker then, together with the garden team, designed a new form of sign with a frame that was tilted for easy reading and also easy to place in the earth (remembering they all get moved around sooner or later) and still with replaceable text.
Many of herbs are travellers or ‘gypsies’ – they do not like to stay in one place for long .The different plant areas are thus divided by moveable timbers and tree branches (all from the trees growing in the garden) so these and the signs can be moved around to follow the wandering plant habits.
With increasing members of the public visiting it was hard, with a full time job to look after the garden alone and to a standard for public inspection. The garden is necessarily labour intensive with each plant species being allocated its own area but most of the others trying to invade the space. Several good friends and relatives offered occasional help but more was needed. An advert in the local paper asking for assistance with the Physic Garden prompted many responses and two wonderful assistants were recruited who not only enthusiastically cared for the plants but also had numerous new ideas about moving forward, managing miraculously to raise funds with the help of Northumberland Council social enterprise for long overdue road signs, brochures and advertising. An artist friend devised an intriguing logo for the road signs with intertwining leaves of sage (the first plant to be researched in the MPRC) and one of its key active chemicals called cineole.
The garden team arranged in 2005 for the garden to officially open to the public once a week during the season from April to September (twice a week the next year, as of now). Although we did not have many visitors initially, the garden gradually becoming known in the area, and visitor numbers doubled in the next year. Further developments then were the introduction of new courses which focus on the healing properties of the plants – not only medical herbalism, but also aromatherapy, homeopathy, flower essences, shamanic plants (‘plants of the gods’), astrological aspects, roman herbal medicine, aphrodisiacs, skin lotions, to name some. These are introduced to ‘test the water’ and continue or evolve according to popularity. The garden is now managed by one of that original team with the help of another gardener and a wonderful group of volunteers. All of these give so much to the project, not only time tending the plants but also much enthusiasm and all kinds of suggestions for new developments.
There are new additions and areas of interest added DPG each year. Specialist interest areas such as the chamomile lawn, culinary, ‘heart and mind’. ‘flower power’ are constantly being added to – this year has seen the addition of new ‘wilderness’, ‘herb ‘smudging’, and ‘magic bean’ (for kids) zones.
Whilst originally set up to display and inform about the wonderful healing qualities of so many plant species, an exciting if unexpected development has been the introduction of creative arts in the garden. There is a replica gate to Japanese Shinto shrines at the entrance constructed by a local artist. and a wind sculpture from Arizona that is an endless source of fascination. New sculptures created this year especially for DPG include a large ‘Green Man’ and flying goddess figures constructed from recycled copper. Such visual art additions serve to draw visitors to the different garden zones.
DPG is clearly a dynamic venture, much more than a museum, with herbs being used not only to prepare medicines for prescription by the local Herbalist, but also for research purposes. With retirement from formal University posts within the year, new opportunities are arising to set up trials involving local volunteers to find out whether the traditional herbal uses can be verified in ‘controlled’ testing. Regulations on drug testing have recently been extended to medical herbal products adding prohibitively to time and costs. Lateral thinking in response is leading to new plans to test herbal teas and other culinary herbal forms which not only side step such regulations but also provide the prospect of taking herbs for health in a delicious and delightful way.
A new vision of great importance to the future of DPG is the determination of the team to attract groups of young people. We have been very pleasantly surprised by how much children of all ages, by chance accompanying their parents, really enjoy the garden. In turn this has led us to realise that, however encouraging it is to have many mature visitors. If the concept of herbs for health is to have a future it is the younger generation that will need to be sufficiently informed and enthusiastic to take this forward. Plans (below) include contacting schools, young clubs, colleges and the like.
Not many people have heard of a Physic garden or know what the word "physic" means in this context - and the word "psychic" keeps cropping up. The two words are almost anagrams -just one more ‘c’ for psychic, a word that originally meant of the soul. Some misread the sign at the end of the lane leading to the garden, others assume it means psychic, and still others insist on calling it psychic even if they have been ‘corrected’! Perhaps they know more about the venture than we do.
There are, as may be apparent from some of the above, several of those curious so called ‘cosmic coincidences’. The medicinal plant research and the garden only came into being because of personal transformation –definitely not sought after! One or two plants have behaved rather mysteriously. In one corner of the garden are plants that are associated with magic – for example used by witches, werewolves, zombies and shamans. They can induce hallucinations at high doses - altering consciousness and changing perceptions (for those who believe in a ‘spirit’ world they allow people to visit this world in their mind). In this plant magic area, once it was established, an unusual weed that arrived and now grows vigorously turned out to be enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana). It was used as a love charm by Circe –the Greek goddess who controlled her male visitors with various herbs –hence its name.
One of the more popular courses ,‘Plants of the gods’, explores the shamanic uses of such plants. Many of these shamanic herbs are subject to slug and snail destruction as if the molluscs are some kind of ‘trip’. The ‘opium den’, under construction as a zone filled with Papaver somniferum and other poppy speciesis consequently struggling to exist. Preparing for one of the courses on plants of the gods it was intriguing to discover a shamanic plant that is immune from the molluscs –sweet flag (Acorus calamus) used to induce hallucinations and while picking the long needle like leaves to demonstrate on the course, cutting them into small pieces and scattering them around the teaching area suddenly seemed a good idea. Looking up information on the plant it later became clear that the leaves were customarily used in churches strewn over the floors to keep them fresh. Another plant that grows and spreads readily is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) . It has a sharp and invigorating aroma that many find refreshing .This plant did not receive much attention until the ‘Astral Aspects’ course leader explained it is a wonderful pant for ‘clearing obstructions’ / ‘opening chakras’’. It was great to learn we had a vigorous mollusc resistant plant with spiritual properties thriving in the garden, as it does around the wayside in Northumberland. The original seedling which has given rise to one of the largest herb patches in the garden was obtained from the roadside beyond the bridge over the Devil’s water.
Another thriving plant that has most consistently been shown to be effective in the med plant research is lemonbalm or Melissa. This has cognitive enhancing, mood calming , stress reducing and perhaps also anti-addicitive effects. It is like mugwort one of the most vigorous plants growing in the garden, consistently free from infection and persistently spreading to far corners, as if seeking attention! There is a clinical trial in progress across several UK centres to test effects of the essential oil from this plant against conventional therapy for people with Alzheimer’s. This research, funded by the UK Alzheimer Society, is part of the MPRG activities with parallel lab work being conducted at Durham, King’s College London and Otago University in New Zealand.
Apart from such interesting plant behavior, there is apparently a ‘light’ spot in the garden which was discovered by a visitor. This is just beside the large Thai Buddha at the top of the bamboo avenue and some say they can feel the light energy. It is just the right size for a seat which now provides a base from which to experience this. There is no doubt that as science progresses, with quantum physicists claiming that matter is no more than energy, and alternative healers talking of vibrational energy, the role of light and other energy forms will be given more credence in medical practices. The recently publicized observation that water can alter its structure, forming different ice crystal forms according human thought opens up new lines of thinking – the human body is like most living things made up of 90% water. Homeopathy, the use of such dilute plant extracts that there may be no chemical present, may thus ultimately prove to have a sound scientific basis and since the first for a DPG course on this subject it had been kept running each year as one of the most popular.
Hopefully DPG will continue explore such fascinating if still mysterious phenomena, some nearer or further from scientific ken. A strange phenomenon noted by those working in the garden and by other herbal gardeners is that of an after-image of plants that stays in the mind’s eye long after a session working with them eg weeding. Not exactly an experience common to supermarket shopping it might be tempting to speculate on plant spirit communication! This is a standard concept in shamanism and the ‘plants of the gods’ course is now run by a local shaman together with the neuroscientist and ethnobotanist course leaders.
Apart from the 600 or so medicinal plants, each in its own chosen zone ( the herbs decide where to live or not!) there are additional features worth seeing.
At the top entrance to the garden is a replica Japanese tori –the gate to a Shinto shrine (shintoism is a from of shamanism) that marks the transition from the everyday to the spirit world . This was constructed by a local artist and as with its original function marks the transition from the adjacent woodland and pasture land as you walk up to the garden into a space dedicated to the wonderful healing world of plant medicine .
Those looking for a scenic spot to relax (or equally likely shelter from the rain) can sit in the sunset meditation hut –a covered gazebo situated with a fine outlook on the western front right across the Tyne valley. Scented roses and wisteria climb up the wooden frame which is hung with Tibetan prayer flags.
Throughout the 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), rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (thymus), marjoram (oreganum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis),fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), numerous types of mint (Mentha), 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 garden are customarily treated to a refreshing herbal tea made from a selection of these aromatic herbs 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!
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 garden:
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).
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 the garden are shrubs such as elder(Sambucus nigra), hawthorn (oxyacanthoides or monogyna Crataegus), blackthorn / sloe (Prunus spinosa), dog rose (Rosa canina) with self seeding herbs such as garlic mustard (Alliaria officinalis ) and the inevitable nettle (Urtica urens).
A stone wall area has wild wallflower (Cheranthus cheiri), wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), stone crop (sedum), and iris or flag (Iris pseudacorus).
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 culinary zone contains numerous herbs, together with vegetables and cereals that have medicinal as well as nutritional properties –eg 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 20 [amongst 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 in the MPRG to enhance memory and attention.
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.
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).
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.
The physic garden does its best to follow organically managed principles. Thus all the weeding of the hundreds of herb beds is carried out by hoeing or by hand. No insecticides are used. One of our volunteers has concocted an extract of rhubarb and other herbs which succeeded in getting rid of black fly afflicting the wormwood. Slug pellets are however used and these confuse visitors as they are blue but, unlike the conventional pellets, are made of ferric phosphate and do no harm to birds, frogs or even children. Not officially organic to add chemicals. this is the nearest strategy to organic that is compatible with survival of many of the plants that would be totally destroyed by an overactive mollusc population. That pond is alive with frogs and a host of diverse birds and butterflies flit around the whole garden is we hope a testimony to the validity of this strategy.
Compost is continuously made but not enough to provide for all needs so this is supplemented by deliveries from the local council recycling centre and they are not provided as organic. The only other non organic procedure is the occasional application of roundup to the lawn edges and paths – if anyone can tell us to avoid this while not adding many hours a week to garden time we would be delighted. Nevertheless, none of the herbs used to prepare teas or the tinctures and lotions that are made by our medical herbalist has had any exposure to chemical gardening.
Many of the pots of herbs for sale now come from Dilston college, where students with learning disabilities help prepare them from organically produced herb seeds. Other items for sale include healing tinctures prepared by the local medical herbalist from organic herbs growing in the garden, and aromatic essential oil lotions prepared by a qualified PhD student in essential oil biology.
In the absence, so far, of any coherent plan for the creation and development of the Physic Garden it may be irrelevant to ask where we are going. Questions are often asked about visions for the future, strengths, weaknesses and so on – particularly in contact with potential funders. This is a challenge since, as is probably obvious from its history, the garden has more or less grown of its own accord, without preconceived ideas. It has evolved rather like the plants grow in it to provide their wonderful healing qualities, without any obvious ‘business plan’.
Set in Northumberland, one of the least populated counties with a short visiting season from April to September at best, the garden will not readily be a profit making venture. Costs are minimal in the way of materials and there are seedlings to pot up and sell, together with locally made lotions and ointments, Administrative costs for courses and group visits for example are met by profits from these activities. But gardening costs (two days a week) still have to be met from salary and since the garden is a recreation that is wonderful to share with others, this seems as good a way to spend surplus income as any other. A botanical friend of the garden who gained a PhD on the subject of botanical gardens tells us that no botanical garden makes enough to sustain its existence and has to depend on grants and donations. In that context there are many ideas for new developments that would enhance the project particularly in terms of community interaction. Recently established as a Charity the Physic Garden is now eligible to apply for new grants.
In this context ,the ‘wish list’ continues to grow and some of those at the top of the list include the following:
Young people in the garden – developing activities and educational opportunities for school children with local teachers.
Eco –Hut / Shed .Visitor and information centre near the entrance to provide space and shelter to peruse information sheets and and purchase herbal products and booklets.
Teahouse - building a much larger wooden teahouse and deck to provide a sheltered area, overlooking the river, for visitors to sample tea form the fresh herbs, and also the space for the courses (currently conducted in the loggia in Dilston Mill House.
Signage – resources to keep the sign information up to date involving for example database searching.
Earth closet – in keeping with the environment, building a soil toilet for visitors and staff Books and leaflets – preparing and printing information books on the herbs, garden, and related topics of interest for visitors
Research on herb uses and effects – projects to verify traditional uses where these have not been subject to placebo controlled trials in volunteers.
Whether any of these will manifest will depend on the vision, enthusiasm and patience of those in the team submitting applications and a great deal of good luck. Already fortune has shone on the signage, brochure and art projects which have been supported by Awards for All, Northumberland and Tynedale Councils
Looking ahead change can be guaranteed but not defined. Apart from being on the move, new plants will come as there are always irresistible species try growing. For example blood root, herb paris and birthwort are new plants being introduced in the magic garden area, and saffron, a plant not just for flavoring but also thought to be an antidepressant, in the culinary garden. The signs will undoubtedly change as research tells us more about whether they work and how. The courses will evolve as we discover who likes what and new people want to try doing a course. The mind body spirit theme will endure, with mind at top of the list as long as we continue with the research at the MPRG. This is now a inter–university venture with Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham. Durham joined most recently to help with new laboratory research on the way plant essential oils interact with receptors in the brain .This research is supported by the Alzheimer Society in a major clinically oriented project to investigate the use of Melissa and lavender aromatherapy in patients.
New applications for research funding are continually being submitted . These are challenging times for obtaining support for research in ‘complementary medicine’. The large pharmaceutical companies are wary of plants which cannot readily be patented unless the active chemical is known and even then the costs of taking a’ new’ chemical through toxicity and other preclinical testing are enormous. Companies marketing herbal medicines either do not have the resources to sponsor research, or worse are not willing to risk the possibility that such research might not come out ‘on their side’! So it is government or charity funds that need to provide resources to establish the validity or otherwise of widely used herbal medicines. Increasingly large sums are spent by the population in general on these remedies ( widely available in supermarkets , chemists, and health food shops) and establishing if they really work and also importantly how they ‘mix’ with conventional drugs are major issues. So far the MPRG has obtained support not only from Alzheimer Society but also the Parkinson’s Disease Society, We can only hope that, like the herbs that have flourished against all odds in a windy plain in the Tyne valley, the research into their efficacy and safety will do the same!
All who work in the garden comment on how good it would be if we had more young visitors. Attracting children from school is one of our new goals. The garden is situated beside a public footpath between Hexham and Corbridge –along which there is a scout camp, a school for those with learning disability, and new sports centre for young people. The youngsters who walk by are not yet among our visitors or course attendants. No longer educated at school in botany, or naturally interested in healing they are however invariably attracted to the idea of the magic garden. They know of the mandrake root thanks to Harry Potter. While we have so far only a few children who come to the garden with parents, there is a curious story about a visiting shaman from Peru. When he came in the summer of 2006 to lead a group, his first comment on climbing up the steps to the garden was that he could see lots of children. There were none any of us could see then, but we have since had a groups of girl guides and even toddlers from a local nursery who loved rolling on the chamomile lawn. The ethics of the garden – biodiversity, valuing traditional knowledge as a basis for new discoveries, healing methods that are safe by virtue of being long tried and tested, for example, are those that the young will hopefully take on into the future.
Article composed by Elaine Perry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
So many wonderfully enthusiastic people have played an essential and greatly appreciated role in the development of the garden:
- Marie Addyman who checks plant names are contributes new plants and concepts for the Magic Plant area;
- Clive Ballard, an old age psychiatrist willing to ‘risk’ clinical research into herbal medicine;
- Lucy Carty the inspired artist who created the original website and logo;
- Zoe Capernaros (very sadly now deceased) who was one of the practicing medical herbalists who helped verify the sign information;
- Jean Dawes who has set up a new art project for which she paints the herbs – pictures that will be for sale summer of 2008.
- Local visionary artist, Matthew Forster for the great Tori;
- Maggie, our Head Gardener who provides many new ideas.
- Sue Hicks who runs the organic vegetable scheme at Dilston College and prepares with the help of the students pots of herbs to sell in the garden.
- Tony Kirsop of Northumberland Social enterprise who originally pointed us in the direction of becoming more professional, encouraged visions for the future, and continually provides expert advice and help with grant applications
- Liz Marshall for the original inspired sign system, for endless database searching and management,and production of information sheets for visitors;
- Ross Menzies, the Medical Hebalist associated with the Physic Garden, for his major support and encouragement, running ever popular course on herbalism, and also for suggesting writing this article for the journal he edits (updated now it would probably not otherwise have been written);
- Ronald MacDonald for invaluable help in maintaining the website;
- Lesley Miller for landscaping expertise and the inspiration of the bamboo avenue;
- Jonathan Perry for brilliant plant photos and help with the website;
- Nicolette Perry for endless input, suggestions, checking the biological aspects of the signage and the original research into the essential oils especially sage;
- Robert Perry for step construction and grass control (paths and croquet lawn);
- Katrina Padmore for joining us originally to thoroughly and caringly tend for the plants, becoming in due course Project Officer responsible for so many activities from public opening, groups and courses to website, brochures and adverts;
- Anne Pickering for her major role in helping set up the MPRC and for arranging for her Botanical group to spend time in the garden checking plant identity and naming; Johanna Sheehan for dedication and skill in caring for the garden and initiating new developments in the early days;
- Jane Torday (previously of Langley Garden Station) for endless enthusiasm and writing the original article that opened many doors or the garden;
- Susie White for her wonderful herb garden at Chesters that has been the source of so many of the plants and also for suggesting joining the NGS which established the new profile of the garden;
- Trustees of the Physic Garden: The Honourable Charles Beaumont, Viscountess Devenport, Helen Stephenson, Nicolette Perry and Ross Menzies.
- Many Colleagues in the MPRG, especially Drs Ed Okello, Paul Chazot and George Wake (who also brings his exotic catci and great knowledge to the shamanic course).
- The great team of volunteers (3-4 per year) who give so much for no reward save what they say is the pleasure of being in the garden.
The group is focused on medicinal pants for healing the mind/ brain, discovering traditional herb uses for memory and mood, checking extracts for relevant biological activities and conducting controlled clinical trials.
Papers published in refereed journals in peer reviewed scientific or medical journals in the last 5 years include the following:
In vitro inhibition of human acetyl- and butyryl-cholinesterase by Narcissus poeticus L. (Amaryllidaceae ) flower absolute
E. J. Okello a , C. Dimaki , M-J. R. Howes , P. J. Houghton , E. K. Perry I nternational Journal of Essential Oil Therapeutics 2008 2 1-6
Pharmacological profile of essential oils derived from Lavandula angustifolia and Melissa officinalis with anti-agitation properties: focus on ligand-gated channels.
Huang L, Abuhamdah S, Howes MJ, Elliot MS, Ballard C, Holmes C, Burns A, Perry EK, Francis PT, Lees G, Chazot PL. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2008 Nov;60(11):1515-22
Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia in developing countries: prevalence, management, and risk factors.
Kalaria RN, Maestre GE, Arizaga R, Friedland RP, Galasko D, Hall K, Luchsinger JA, Ogunniyi A, Perry EK, Potocnik F, Prince M, Stewart R, Wimo A, Zhang ZX, Antuono P; World Federation of Neurology Dementia Research Group. Lancet Neurol. 2008 Sep;7(9):812-26
An extract of Salvia (sage) with anticholinesterase properties improves memory and attention in healthy older volunteers.
Scholey AB, Tildesley NT, Ballard CG, Wesnes KA, Tasker A, Perry EK, Kennedy DO. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2008 May;198(1):127-39.
Pharmacological profile of an essential oil derived from Melissa officinalis with anti-agitation properties: focus on ligand-gated channels.
Abuhamdah S, Huang L, Elliott MS, Howes MJ, Ballard C, Holmes C, Burns A, Perry EK, Francis PT, Lees G, Chazot PL. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2008 Mar;60(3):377-84.
Commentary: botanical potentials in Alzheimer's disease.
Perry E. J Altern Complement Med. 2007 Apr;13(3):345-6.
The essential oils from Melissa officinalis L. and Lavandula angustifolia Mill. as potential treatment for agitation in people with severe dementia
MSJ Elliot*, S Abuhamdah*, M.J.R. Howes, C Ballard, C Holmes, A Burns, G Lees, PL Chazot, P Francis and EK Perry International Journal of Essential Oil Therapeutics 2007 Dec 1 (4) 143-152
Aromatherapy in the management of psychiatric disorders: clinical and neuropharmacological perspectives.
Perry N, Perry E. CNS Drugs. 2006;20(4):257-80.
Attenuation of Abeta deposition in the entorhinal cortex of normal elderly individuals associated with tobacco smoking.
Court JA, Johnson M, Religa D, Keverne J, Kalaria R, Jaros E, McKeith IG, Perry R, Naslund J, Perry EK. Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2005 Oct;31(5):522-35
Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers.
Tildesley NT, Kennedy DO, Perry EK, Ballard CG, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Physiol Behav. 2005 Jan 17;83(5):699-709
In vitro anti-beta-secretase and dual anti-cholinesterase activities of Camellia sinensis L. (tea) relevant to treatment of dementia.
Okello EJ, Savelev SU, Perry EK. Phytother Res . 2004 Aug;18(8):624-7
Selective changes in nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subtypes related to tobacco smoking: an immunohistochemical study.
Teaktong T, Graham AJ, Johnson M, Court JA, Perry EK. Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2004 Jun;30(3):243-54
Butyryl- and acetyl-cholinesterase inhibitory activities in essential oils of Salvia species and their constituents.
Savelev SU, Okello EJ, Perry EK. Phytother Res . 2004 Apr;18(4):315-24
Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers.
Tildesley NT, Kennedy DO, Perry EK, Ballard CG, Savelev S, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2003 Jun;75(3):669-74.
Salvia for dementia therapy: review of pharmacological activity and pilot tolerability clinical trial.
Perry NS, Bollen C, Perry EK, Ballard C. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2003 Jun;75(3):651-9.
Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties.
Kennedy DO, Wake G, Savelev S, Tildesley NT, Perry EK, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003 Oct;28(10):1871-81.