Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


The Sibbald Physic Garden

Two physicians, Robert Sibbald (1641-1722), and Andrew Balfour (1630-1694), altered the way in which medicine was practised in Edinburgh. They, with others, established the College of Physicians, each was a founding Fellow and later became President.

They had both travelled extensively in Europe during their studies of medicine. It is known that Sibbald met and stayed with the great Scottish gardener Morrison in Blois at the garden of the Duke of Orleans.

Sibbald described this in his autobiography:

“I had from my settlement here in Edinburgh a designe to informe myself of the natural history this country could affoord, for I had learned at Paris that the simplest method of Physic was the best, and these that the country affoorded came nearest to our temper, and agreed best with us. So I resolved to make it part of my study to know those animals, vegetables, mineralls, metals and substances cast up by the sea, were found in this country, that might be of use in medicine, or other artes usefull to human lyfe.”

Sibbald and Balfour were friendly with Patrick Morray, Laird of Levingstone (now Livingston). Morray was a keen gardener, who with other gardeners throughout Europe, exchanged seeds and information (Patrick Morray died of a fever in Avignon (1671) during a long tour of Europe (1668-71) on his way to Italy). Sibbald and Balfour visited Levingstone to admire his collection of nearly a thousand plants. This gave rise to the plan to establish a medicine garden in Edinburgh .

In 1671, “Doctor Balfour and I first resolved upon it, and obtained of John Brown, gardener of the North Yardes in the Holyrood Abby, ane inclosure of some 400 foot of measure every way. By what we procured frorn Levingstone and other gardens, we made a collection of eight or nyne hundred plants ther’.”

The purpose of the garden was to supply fresh plants for medical prescriptions and to teach medical botany to students. The garden was looked after by James Sutherland (1639-1719) who later became the Professor of Botany in the Town’s College. Balfour and Sibbald were appointed Visitors to the Garden.In 1676, it was obvious that the garden was too small so Balfour leased from the Town Council a second garden which belonged to the Trinity Hospital. The site of this garden can be found by platform 11 in Edinburgh Waverley Station, where there is a commemorative plaque. In 1763 the garden moved to an expanded site near Gayfield Square to the west of Leith Walk and then in the early 1820s it moved to the present site in lnverleith Row. The garden is the second oldest surviving in Britain after Oxford (1632) and ranks in importance with Chelsea Physick Garden (1673) and Kew (1759).

Principles of Physic Gardens
The constraints of the site at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh made it impossible to construct a full scale Physic Garden. Therefore designs were drawn up to put in place a modern interpretation, which would reflect the importance of plants to mankind throughout the ages.

Plants were initially selected from the writings of four different eras. The garden was laid out in four beds accordingly, The Early Herbalists, The 16th & 17th Century, The 18th & 19th Century (including the influence of the American herbalists) and finally The 20th & 21st Century. As the new garden had to function primarily as an ornamental feature, the plants selected were then evaluated for seasonal interest, horticultural merit and anecdotal value.

The Beds in the Physic Garden
The layout of four beds with integrated seating around a bust of Sibbald allows space for contemplation and good circulation for small outdoor gatherings. The plants are arranged within the beds to provide good architectural and design value.

Bed One The Early Herbalists, features plants included in the writings of the Roman and Greek herbalists Pliny, Theopharastus and Dioscorides. Other plants were selected from the writings of the Emperor Charlemagne who decreed that medicinal plants should be cultivated throughout the land to aid his troops.

Bed Two The 16th & 17th Century, focuses on the rise of herbalism in Great Britain from the late 15th to the 17th Century with the work of the well known herbalist and botanist William Turner, who is considered to be the father of English botany after the publication of his book A New Herball between 1551-1561. Well known contemporaries of his included John Gerard, John Parkinson as well as Nicholas Culpeper who published The English Physician in 1652.

Bed Three The 18th & 19th Century, which follows the railings, celebrates the contribution made during the 18th and 19th centuries by Philip Miller and Elizabeth Blackwell as well as the discoveries of new plant treatments from the Americas.

Bed Four The 20th & 21st Century, celebrates the use of plants in medicine today, and looks into the future with research into the use of new plant compounds.

Common Name
Latin Name
Comment in Codex Vindobonensis, Dioscorides

Ajuga reptans
“Being beaten small with figs and given like a pill it mollifies ye belly”

Autumn crocus
Colchicum autumnale
“Being eaten it killeth by choking like to ye mushrumps”

Tree heath
Erica arborea
“The leafe and the flowers hereof do heale the bitings of serpents”

Euphorbia myrsinites
“If one having cut ye skin of ye head even unto the bone, do pour in ye liquor beaten small, & sew up ye wound”

Christmas rose
Helleborus niger
“Arthritis, Epilepsy and a variety of skin infections”

Bearded iris
Iris germanica
“Have a warming, extenuating facultie, fitting against coughs & extenuating grosse humoures hard to get up”

Juniperus sabina
“Is diuretical, therefore is good for convulsion, ruptures and those who have strangled uteruses”

Madonna lily
Lilium candidum
“It cleareth ye faces & makes them without wrinkles”

Pheasant’s-eye Narcissus
Narcissus poeticus
“Being laid on with Loliacean meal, & honey it draws out splinters”

Hart’s tongue fern
Phyllitis scolopendrium
“The leaves of this being drank with wine are good for ye serpent-bitten”

Sambucus nigra
‘Plumosa Aurea’
“It softens ye Matrix and opens ye passages”

Comment in Historia Plantarum, Theophrastus

Yellow Asphodel
Asphodeline lutea
“Put before the doors of Roman villas as a remedy for sorcery and magic”

Comment in The Illustrated Bartsch 1484-1500

Silver Birch
Betula pendula
“A sickly infant was strengthened by placing oven-dried birch leaves in his cot”

Levisticum officinale
“For tooth ache and removing spots from the skin, as a wound ointment for earaches and kidney stones”

“It stops vomiting, in an enema it halts dysentery”

Sempervivum tectorum
“It cures abscesses, making them scab over firmly, stops nose bleed and aids hearing”

Comment in Bankes’s Herball

Common Polypody
Polypodium vulgare
“It hath the virtue of dissolving, of drawing and of purging phlegm”


Common Name
Latin Name
Comment in The Names of Herbes, Wiliam Turner

Acanthus mollis
“The leaves have power to drive humours to their places”

Actaea spicata
“It may be called in English Grapewurt because it hath many blacke berries in the toppes like Grapes”

Spindle tree
Euonymus europaeus
“It may be called Englishe longe cherry tree. The female is plituous in Englande and the butchers make prickes of it”

Jerusalem sage
Phlomis fruticosa
“It is much grown in the gardens of England. Let learned men examine and judge”

Comment in Theatre of Plants, John Parkinson

Lady fern
Athyrium filix-femina
“The green leaves are said to open the belly and moveth it downwards”

Guelder rose
Viburnum opulus
“Used as a sedative in the treatment of cramp, particularly uterine dysfunctions”

Comment in The Herball, John Gerard

Scottish heather
Calluna vulgaris
‘Peter Sparkes’
“The tender tips and flowers are good to be laid upon the bitings and stingings of any venomous beasts”

Dogs tooth violet
Erythronium denscanis
“It provoketh bodily lust if it be only handled, but much more if it be drunke with wine”

Siberian iris
Iris sibirica
“There is an excellent oile made of the flowers and rootes called Oleum trinum: which oile profiteth much to strengthen the sinews and joints”

Lent lily
“The roots have such wonderful qualities in drying that they conound and glue together very great wounds”

Scots pine cv.
Pinus sylvestris
“The kernels of the nuts make rough parts smooth and are remedy against old cough”

Mountain ash
Sorbus aucuparia
“They stay all manner of fluxes in the belly, the bloody flux and vomiting”

Viburnum tinus
“Pliny nor any of the other ancients have touched the faculties of this herb”

Vinca major
“A handful of leaves stamped and the juice given to drink in red wine, stoppeth the spitting of blood”

Viola tricolor
“The later physicians think it good to mix dry violets with medicines that are to comfort and strengthen the heart”

Comment in The English Physician, Enlarged, Culpeper

Digitalis purpurea
“The herb is frequently used by the Italians to heal any fresh or green wound”

Helleborus foetidus
“The root of stinkwort being grated and sniffed up the nose, causeth sneezing. Kills rats and mice being mixed with their meat”

Irish juniper
Juniperus communis
“They are excellent good against the bitings of venomous beasts, they provoke urine exceedingly and therefore are very available to dysenteries and stranguaries”

Primula veris
“Salves for wounded limbs”

Primula vulgaris
“Salves for wounded limbs”

Pulmonaria officinalis
“To help the disease of the lungs and for coughs, wheezings and shortness of breath”


Common Name
Latin Name
Comment in Plants, People and Paecology, F B King

Box elder
Acer negundo
“Used by the Ojibwa and Meskwaki as an emetic”

Geranium maculatum
“Root used by Mesawaki and Ojibwa Indians to treat sore gums and pyrohhea”

Ostrich fern
Matteuccia struthiopteris
“Used by the Menominee as a poultice”

Comment in Medicina Britannica, T Short

Aquilegia vulgaris
“A Dram of its seed, given with a little saffron, is a certain cure for jaundice”

Artemisia absinthium
“It is warming and drying, strengthens the stomach and liver, excites an appetite, opens obstructions and cures diseases therefrom”

Lonicera periclymenum
“Leaves and flowers are cleaning, resolving and digesting like hyssop, savory or wild margoram”

Damask rose
Rosa damascena
“Damask roses retain their purging quality when dry”

Wild service tree
Sorbus torminalis
“Remedy against the gripes and bloody flux, being a great astringent”

‘Pink Chintz’
“The juice with vinegar rubbed on dissolves clotted blood”

Vinca major
“Is a good wound herb and astringent, proper in fluxes, dysentery, blood-spitting and discharges”

Comment in American Medical Plants, C F Millspaugh

Black snakeroot
Cimicifuga racemosa
“In pregnancy it often causes abortion, and in labour will stimulate the uterus and cause rapid, painless expansion of the parts”

Cornus florida
‘Cherokee Princess’
“American Indians used the bark for fever and colic”

Evening primrose
Oenothera biennis
“A strong decoction of the dried herb was used as an external application in infantile eruptions”

Comment in A Curious Herbal, Elizabeth Blackwell

Cornelian cherry
Cornus mas
“The fruit is good in fevers, especially if attended with diarrhea”

Digitalis purpurea
“Ye ointment made of the flowers and butter, for scrophulous ulcers which run much, dressing them with the ointment and purging two or three times a week with proper purges”

Male fern
Dryopteris felix-mas
“The root is said to be hurtful to the female sex, and to cause miscarriage; but is accounted good for obstructions of the liver and spleen”

Sea holly
Eryngium maritnum
“The roots are accounted hepatic and diruetic, good to open obstructions of the liver, help the jaundice, provoke urine, and the strangury”

Christmas rose
Helleborus niger
“The powder of the roots cause violent sneezing when sniffed up the nostrils and is rarely used without milder ingredients”

Stinking iris
Iris foetidissima
“Some account the root a specific for the King’s Evil and scrophulous swellings both given inwardly and applied outwardly”

Solomins seal
“Some say a cataplasm of ye root is good to take away black and blue marks arising from contusions”

Pulmonaria angustifolia
“The leaves are accounted pectoral and balsamic good for coughs, consumptions, spitting of blood and the like disorders of the lungs”

Ruta graveolens
“The leaves and seed are useful, being good against all infections and pestilential diseases”

Veratrum viride
“The roots are a strong cathartic and purges with great violence”

Comment in A Guide to Medicinal Plants of the USA, Krochmal

Hydrangea cv.
Hydrangea arborescens
“A decoction of the roots and other materials was given to women who had unusual dreams”

Bull ban
Magnolia grandiflora
“Indians drank a warm infusion of the bark, cones, and seeds for rheumatism”

May apple
Podophyllum peltatum
“The use of podophyllums as a component of cathartic pills is very general'”

Wake robin
Trillium erectum
“Trilliums are all astringent, restringent, pectoral, tonic, antiseptic, alternative etc.”

Comment in Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica, John K’Eogh

Jasminum officinale
“It cures red spots and pimples and dissolves swellings and lumps on the skin”

Salt cedar
Tamarix ramosissima
“Drinking a decoction opens obstructions and is good for coughs and catarrh”


Common Name
Latin Name
Comment in A Modern Herbal, Mrs Grieve

parthenium ‘Aureum’
“Is employed in hysterical complaints, nervousness and lowness of spirits”

Galanthus nivalis
“Digestive, resolutive and consolidante”

Virginian witch-hazel
Hamamelis virginiana
“The properties of the leaves and bark are similar, astringent, tonic, sedative, internal and external haemorrhage, treatment of piles, bruises and inflammatory swellings”

Common ivy
Hedera helix
“To remove sunburn it is recommended to smear the face with tender ivy twigs boiled in butter”

Hypericum olympicum
“Aromatic, astringent, resolvant, expectorant”

Hypericum patulum
“Useful in pulmonary consumption, chronic catarrh of the lungs, bowels and urinary passages”

Lemon balm
Melissa officinalis
“It induces a mild perspiration and makes a pleasant and cooling tea for feverish patients in cases of catarrh and influenza”

Monarda didyma
“Rubifacient, stimulant, carminative. It may be employed in chronic rheumatism, cholera infantum, or wherever rubifacients are required”

Rosmarinus officinalis
“Tonic, astringent, diaphoretic, stimulant. Oil of Rosemary cures many cases of headaches”

Lesser periwinkle
Vinca minor
“A homeopathic tincture is prepared from the fresh leaves and is given medicinally for the milk crust of infants as well as for internal haemorrhages”

Comment Source not specified


Maidenhair tree
Ginkgo biloba
“Currently under investigation as a source of ginkgolides”

Written by Dr M A Eastwood, FRCPE. reproduced by permission of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.

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