‘Herbal medicine is rubbish’

Gardening might be therapeutic but what about our plants? On the edge of London’s Regent’s Park the question remains of living interest to the Royal College of Physicians. They maintain a special series of gardens, two gardeners and a designated Garden Fellow. Over a shamingly health-conscious breakfast I have just asked their president how they run it and what his Garden Fellow can possibly teach me, an Oxford Garden Fellow of more than 30 years’ experience. The morning turns out to be full of lessons.

The college, its president Sir Richard Thompson informs me, “is not about old men sitting round and drinking wine”. It sets standards for hospital medicine and is a major advisory force to the government. It elects fellows and draws on the subscriptions of some 25,000 members. Out of a small part of these subscriptions it runs the college gardens, which have been revitalised since 2004. Sir Richard arranged for me to be enlightened by the Garden Fellow, Henry Oakeley, formerly a consultant psychiatrist at St Thomas’ Hospital. Over slices of sugarless melon the Garden Fellow met his Oxford equivalent, myself, and compared notes.

Oakeley’s fascination with gardening is even older than mine. It began in 1954, focused on orchids and raised him to the council of the Royal Horticultural Society, far beyond my own level as a humble subscriber to Alpine Garden groups. He has been president of the Orchid Society of Great Britain. I recognise a rare expert but his style is not mine. He defers to his head gardener, Jane Knowles, who moved to the college after 11 years of service at the Chelsea Physic Garden. He even defers, in principle, to a garden committee during the year.

My college used to have such a committee until I reduced it to cowed extinction. No hot air about “governance” is going to make me bring it back. Nor have I ever taken on professionally trained gardeners. We would quarrel within a week. My aim is to hire workers who plant only what I tell them to plant and who put it where they have been told. Criticism is still possible but not often helpful.

I have learnt from Julius Caesar, who extinguished the free governance of the old Roman republic. I teach the nation’s brightest young classicists to deplore Caesar’s methods and then go outdoors and apply them myself. Oakeley works with the respect of a college to whom he presents his plans. We agree that he is more of an Augustus, tactful but unopposable, whereas I am Caesar, as yet not murdered.

Lobelia tupa

Like me, the physicians’ garden is centrally concerned with history. “I see myself,” Oakeley crisply remarks, “as teaching people that herbal medicine is rubbish.” I warm to a kindred spirit but begin to wonder if Augustus might not be assassinated before Caesar. As we visit the college’s fascinating garden I begin to see what my psychiatrist-gardener guide means. The garden has been backed by charitable grants, especially from the Wolfson Foundation. Oakeley has increased it and taken it to new heights. It now displays 1,280 plants, chosen for their relevance to medical history.

Oakeley is a walking encyclopaedia about their roles in healing and killing. His point is not that useful medical properties are never discoverable in plants but he rightly insists that chemical science has been needed to refine them and their dosage. Herbs have chemicals that are sometimes a springboard for science but they are only one of many medical resources. Only about a fifth of effective medicines come from plants in nature and even in this fifth chemicals in plants have only been a springboard. They have to be toned down and adapted. They are not our “only hope”. It is not thanks to herbal remedies that we now prevent the ravages of shingles on facial nerves or cure the ulcers in our stomachs

“I certainly do not believe in the Tree of Life,” Oakeley informs me as we look at plants from the American prairies. “Nor do I believe that a lost ‘wonder herb’ is out there up the Amazon waiting for a naturist to discover it.” We pause by good clumps of echinacea and evening primrose, two darlings of amateur healers. “They are both useless,” Oakeley informs me curtly, as they have proved ineffective in clinical trials. Big Chief Sitting Bull turns out to have been sitting on drugs that could be helpful in principle to the pains of childbirth but were present at such strength in herbs that their side-effects were often lethal for the infants being born. As for the perennial Lobelia siphilitica, it was bartered to early colonists in America but was absolutely useless for the disease it commemorates.

Each bed of the college’s beautifully maintained garden concentrates on a particular region. Beside a herbal antidote to ecstasy poisoning we clash over the medical value of big doses of vitamin C. I know, by faith and personal trial, that big doses of vitamin C will stop a cold if taken at its first sign. I also believe that my intake of this vitamin is the reason why I will be running my college garden 100 years from now. Oakeley is sceptical, treating me like the loonies who believe that agapanthus leaves are good for the womb. His father turns out to have been at my Oxford College and at the age of 102 is its oldest living member. His son denies that vitamin C is the secret.

Opium poppy

The college also occupies white-painted Georgian houses in neighbouring St Andrews Place. Each small square garden is excellently planted with selected medicinal plants, a model of the “herb-garden” style. I learn that foxgloves, the ultimate source of digitalin, were never exploited by the ancient Greeks or Romans and that Madagascan periwinkle has a compound that has been adapted to treat leukaemia in children. The big bullrush stems of Arundo donax even contained a usable local anaesthetic. So what does the Garden Fellow think about cannabis?

He certainly does not grow it and, although it has painkilling effects, he considers it needs to be scientifically distilled to be medically useful. Years of hospital consultancy have made him wary. A significant proportion of the under-25s whom he has treated for schizoid mental complaints, he tells me, have also been modern cannabis-smokers. In his view there is likely to be a genetic predisposition in some people to bad side-effects from the drug.

Nonetheless, when we reach the bed of poppies the Garden Fellow suddenly takes a sharp penknife out of his pocket. He shows me with expert ease how to cut lines into poppy seedheads and extract codeine for a “high”. Other plants known to him in the garden are ready sources of narcotic pleasure, too, but nobody has yet picked on them. Hippies were never much good as plantsmen, despite the publicity.

From half-hardy rarities in pots to halesia trees and feathery albizias the College of Physicians garden is at the top of its class. It proves that college gardens flourish inimitably if the college happens to have a freak of nature who is both an academic and a keen gardener. It makes the “medicinal” sections of our big botanical gardens look fifth rate.

On August 14, from 10am until 5pm the Garden Fellow will give guided tours to a visiting public. Now retired, he is a master at explaining one of his lifelong passions. It is not the living pharmacy that keeps him on top form. It is his fascination with the study which his college and its gardens exemplify.


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