Botany in Time and Space: The Chelsea Physic Garden

When I sent a fellow doctoral candidate in the history of botany some pictures from the Chelsea Physic Garden, she asked me if I had encountered any ghosts of the much-admired botanists that shaped this famous institution and its networks. While I had to answer in the negative, I noticed that the paths of many natural historians and horticultural practitioners, whose footsteps I traced during my stay at the German Historical Institute London, had crossed on that patch of land—either physically or at least in writing and through the exchange of plant material. Here, during a journey following his medical studies under Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) in Leiden, Johann Philipp Breyne (1680–1764), an aspiring botanist from Gdańsk, visited and admired the Lebanese cedars at the entrance of the garden which remained its most significant attractions until the nineteenth century. Crucially for the history of botany, Breyne also met with botanists who would define the history of the garden.

In 1712, Hans Sloane (1660–1753) bought the property along with Chelsea Manor and leased it to the Society of Apothecaries for a peppercorn rent. He also transformed the garden into a sort of branch institution of the Royal Society, of which he was the president. Chelsea’s head gardener, Philip Miller, cultivated exotic plants, many of them from North and South America, and made them available to researchers and collectors all over Europe.1 Supervisor James Petiver (1663–1718), who was in office from 1708 until his death in 1718, also contributed significantly to the garden’s stock. In 1711 he travelled to Leiden with fellow plant enthusiast William Sherard (1659–1728), where the two renewed their contacts with local botanists—first and foremost Boerhaave, who oversaw the university garden. After his return, Petiver published a catalogue listing the rare plants of the Leiden Hortus. The document became crucial for exchange between England and the Netherlands, and Sherard often found himself in the role of an intermediary for the parcels of seeds, books, and living plants that made their way across the Channel.2

Statue of Hans Sloane at Chelsea Physic Garden. Photograph by the author.

Usually a ‘stay-at-home’ botanist, in his correspondence with natural historians Petiver did not hesitate to pester them for plant material from their homelands. He kept in close contact with Johann Philipp Breyne, who had returned to Gdańsk and practiced as a physician before giving up his occupation and committing himself fully to his collection of natural objects and his garden. Based on the Baltic, Breyne had access to plants that did not grow in the British Isles, which is why Petiver was determined to foster their connection. His strategy was one of promise and pressure:

I must again remind you of the Flora quasimodogenita, & other Natural History Books lately publish’d in your parts, & what fresh seed for our Garden this last summer you have collected. . . . I have a great many things to send you & more to write, but shall deferr both untill I hear effectually from you, which I desire may be assoon as possible . . .

To this letter, Petiver added a detailed list of plant species of which he desired seeds and specimens before noting that he had recently published a list with the Latin, English, and indigenous names of four hundred plants from India that he would share with Breyne after the latter had sent him an answer.3 His method worked a treat: Breyne kindly thanked his English friend and promised to collect the requested materials, of which the seed was  to be sown in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Despite his workload as president of the Royal Society, Hans Sloane was very active in the exchange between gardens. Letters from various botanists show that he was greatly revered across Europe and beyond, not least thanks to his distribution of long-awaited trees from the Americas. His agreement with the positively dendrophile Herman Boerhaave revived the connections between the London and Leiden gardens as much as Petiver’s journey. The Dutch were interested in American plants, of which the English had multitudes at their disposal in their oversea colonies. The English in turn coveted plant material from Asia, which was collected and shipped by employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The arrangement was thus of mutual benefit and helped to fulfil one of Boerhaave’s dearest wishes. His Index seminum informs us that on 12 October  1716, Boerhaave sowed the seeds of a tulip-bearing tree which he had received from the then Chelsea head gardener Isaac Rand, who in turn had received them from Virginia. Boerhaave also noted that this tree had a three-part maple-like leaf (‘tripartito Aceris folio’) and cited Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia. It follows that the tulip tree was indeed of the kind that Linnaeus would later name Liriodendron tulipifera. In 1720, this ‘tulip-bearing tree from Virginia’ reappears in Boerhaave’s Index alter. It is therefore more than probable that the tulip tree that has adorned the entrance to the Leiden botanical garden for many centuries is the offspring of a specimen that grew in Chelsea. The trees remained few in number, however, and at one point the head gardener also complained about their lack of stateliness.4

Chinese aquatic plant at Chelsea Physic Garden. Photograph by the author.

Their modest appearance notwithstanding, botanists in countries where tulip trees were unavailable were keen to request them from Sloane in London. Some seven years after his teacher Boerhaave, Johann Philipp Breyne also decided to acquire this fashionable plant. It would take another five years of asking, reminding, and networking with English botanists, merchants, and religious dissidents before he succeeded in persuading Hans Sloane to transport a specimen to Gdańsk. Breyne was overjoyed and exuberantly thanked his old patron. Unfortunately, the delicate plant was no match for the wind and salt water of the Baltic Sea. It died shortly after its arrival. Not wanting to upset Sloane, Breyne did not mention the incident in his letters. A substitute reached him from a correspondent whose help Breyne had already given up on. Before turning to Sloane, Breyne had implored William Sherard to procure him tulip tree materials, a specimen, or at least information about where to buy one. Sherard had tried his best to fulfil Breyne’s wishes and made several attempts to send him seeds, fruit, and living plants. None of them ever reached the Prussian port and Sherard died in 1728, around the time Sloane sent his tulip tree to Breyne. Two years after Sherard’s death, Breyne’s next-door neighbour Jacob Theodor Klein (1685–1759) received a letter from Sherard’s botanical heir Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684–1747), whom he had installed as a professor of botany at Oxford University, leaving him his herbarium and library.5 Apparently, there had been some confusion over whether Breyne or Klein was the intended recipient of the rare tree, but the latter was an excellent neighbour and handed it over. Breyne, however, turned out to be somewhat ungrateful. He dutifully reported the arrival of the plant in his garden and thanked Dillenius, but complained that he would have preferred a tree more mature than the one he had been given. At least this specimen flourished for a while, although it is not listed in the letter that can be considered Breyne’s botanical testament.6 Consequently, we must assume that the tree in question perished at some point, and its garden of origin likewise remains uncertain.

If anything seems to linger from the eighteenth century, it is neither the fragile and often short-lived plants nor the ghosts of the botanists that tended them, but the traces of natural historians and horticultural practitioners in manuscripts, herbaria, and gardens themselves. The Society of Apothecaries honored Hans Sloane with a statue that still stands today in the Chelsea Physic Garden and while walking over the grounds, I encountered many major and minor plants that I am researching for my Ph.D. project on early modern botanical gardens. With Breyne’s correspondence as the foundation, I am reconstructing the itineraries of specific plants that arrived in and left his garden. I am also studying the papers of contemporary horticulturists as connectors between spaces of knowledge, paying special attention to their changes in when Breyne’s home town of Gdańsk got caught up between the events following the War of the Polish Succession on the one hand, and mounting botanical interest in Eastern Europe on the other. While it was thus not the primary focus of my stay in London, my visit to Chelsea greatly contributed to my understanding of the relevance of historical botany in the present and encouraged me to continue pursuing my research—just like the Apothecaries’ Garden must have done for Breyne three hundred years ago.


The featured image shows a dried plant in a print with comments by Johann Philipp Breyne. Photograph provided by the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.



Cite this blog post
Louisa-Dorothea Gehrke (2023, January 26). Botany in Time and Space: The Chelsea Physic Garden. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1r2

  1. Stefan Siemer, ‘Geselligkeit und Methode: Naturgeschichtliches Sammeln im 18. Jahrhundert’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Zurich, 2004), 25, 40–1. []
  2. Penelope Hunting, ‘Isaac Rand and the Apothecaries’ Physic Garden at Chelsea’, Garden History, 30/1 (2002), 1–23, at 9. []
  3. Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Chart. B. 787 486r–491r, James Petiver to Johann Philipp Breyne, 15 Apr. 1713. []
  4. Margreet Wesseling, Boerhaave Botanicus: Zijn tuinen, zaaiboeken en botanische vrienden (Leiden, 2019), 176–7. []
  5. Stephen A. Harris, ‘William Sherard’, in Mark Carine (ed.), The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloane’s Extraordinary Herbarium (London, 2020), 39. []
  6. University of Amsterdam, 53a, Johann Philipp Breyne to Johannes Burman, 12 Aug. 1750. []

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Louisa-Dorothea Gehrke

During her studies in Latin and History at Jena University, she began working at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Initially at Erlangen-Nuremberg University and now at Leipzig University, she works towards a PhD thesis on Johann Philipp Breyne's relation to botanical gardens in the eighteenth century.

One thought on “Botany in Time and Space: The Chelsea Physic Garden”

  1. This is a fascinating article on the history of the Chelsea Physic Garden. It’s interesting to see the correspondence and relationships between these botanists and their commitment to expanding their knowledge and collections. Rich detail and context provided to the events and developments that took place at the garden and highlights its significance in the history of botany. Overall, a well-researched and engaging piece. thanks for sharing.

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