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Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns

The Chelsea physic garden, London’s oldest botanic garden, marks its 350th anniversary in 2023.

The word ‘physic’ means both a drug and the “art of healing” and during Mary, Queen of Scots time as a resident of Holyroodhouse (1561 – 1567) there are records of such “apothecaries” existing – walled spaces containing herbs and plants for cooking, healing and dyeing materials. The tradition firmly established, Carlowrie Castle, Isobel’s birthplace, used its physic garden to ensure fresh, seasonal supplies all year round. Isobel would have enjoyed organic, long before the 2000’s made it trendy.

Gardens and healing have always been entwined. While Isobel is most often celebrated as an explorer, it was her love of plants and the great outdoors that steered much of her unconventional life. Captured in poetry, stories and watercolours, the gardens of Carlowrie were initially Isobel’s playground and school room, showing her the power of the changing seasons, honing her observation skills and providing insight that garnered respect. When tragedy struck, they became her solace, allowing mental as well as physical escape.

Carlowrie Castle seen from Isobel's Greenhouse in the Castle Gardens

Isobel’s love of botany was a constant guiding theme. It took her to agricultural college in 1917, when the societal norm would have been to marry well and keep house. Studley Horticultural College for Women, was a unique institution, founded by Daisy Greville, who campaigned for women’s rights and used her status as a countess to influence thinking of the time around careers for women and social equality as a whole. In 1908 Dr. Lillias Hamilton became warden. She was a relentless pioneer for women’s social reform and a trained medical doctor, who understood the medicinal properties of plants and the need for physic gardens. By the time Isobel enrolled, Studley, like the rest of the world, was recovering from WW1 and students had to be housed in government war surplus buildings while improvements were made. This was ‘no frills’ living, which built self-reliance and a peer group which shared Isobel’s love of nature. Though she didn’t know it yet, it would provide the perfect training ground for her future life in the Arctic.

Isobel in the Gardens of Carlowrie Castle with her Potting Shed in the background

By 1927, botany was a recognised science and as the British empire grew, plant hunting became a reputable pursuit in the furtherance of western medicine. This allowed Isobel access to Greenland, (at that point a Danish Colony with tight restrictions on visitors), via the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society. Though she had collected plant specimens on previous travels, it was her trip to Greenland that made Isobel realise she could help herself and others through monies raised by sending plants back to the UK. At this time there was still a large difference in status between the Danes and the native people and Isobel used her knowledge of horticulture as a bridge to both communities. She published ‘Flowers and farming in Greenland’ on her return from her first visit.

Carlowrie Castle Potting Shed

Keen to live as a local, it’s likely that Isobel would have tasted food-herbs like chives, sorrel and angelica for the first time during her travels. Plants in the Arctic have a very short growing season due to the long hours of darkness from September to March. It’s thought that this, coupled with the region’s mineral rich volcanic soil, makes those that do thrive, especially potent. A number of common herbs have a regional variants there, including oregano, caraway, juniper and meadowsweet. Native peoples would have cooked with these but also used them as natural remedies – physic gardens on top of the world.

Isobel collecting plants and gardening

Today, around 11% of the drugs considered 'basic' and 'essential' by the World Health Organisation originated in flowering plants. Paracetamol, aspirin and penicillin were first discovered during Isobel’s lifetime and globally botanic gardens continue to play a role in the advancement of modern medicine through plant research.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, founded from the Holyroodhouse physic garden, still hold a few of the herbariums she created, to show the plant diversity of the Arctic region.

Isobel enjoyed and added to the gardens at Carlowrie, as the last of the Hutchison line, until 1982.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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