Garden travel: Harold & Frances Holt Physic Garden

Harold & Frances Holt Physic Garden at UBC Botanical Garden

Of all the great gardens in Toronto, one thing that seems to be missing is a physic garden – a garden devoted to medicinal plants. These have been around since humans graduated from folk remedies to the science of medicine. Except that the infancy of that science was a little suspect.

Certain plants, it was believed, had been touched by God, leaving them with markings that were clues to their potential use (more on the Holt Physic Garden at the University of British Columbia below). That’s why, even today, we have a plant called lungwort or Pulmonaria. Its spotted leaves looked like a diseased lung, and it was thought to be useful for ailments of the lung. Of course, it wasn’t.

And it’s why we have Echium vulgare or viper’s bugloss, the blue flower in the image at the top. The markings on the stem and the shape of the spent flower had a snakey look about them – so of course they must be good for snakebite. But, of course, it isn’t.

This European immigrant is pretty, though, with intense purpley blue flowers. Viper’s bugloss has naturalized so freely in Ontario’s dry meadows and roadsides, it’s easy to forget how pretty it can be in a mass. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it planted in a botanical garden.

The story of the Holt physic garden, which is themed around Tudor/Elizabethan herbal medicine. I hope you can read it.


  1. I suppose the Paterson's Curse gets frozen in winter, and it's not invasive for you. Here we see abandoned fields covered in an unbroken shoulder high mass. Beautiful, but frightening. And it bites, those leaves shred your arms if you garden within reach.

  2. Barry, I loved your post and encourage everyone else visiting here to zip over to your blog to see it.

    Diana, I imagine the weather in South Africa to be much more hospitable to weeds that are mostly a minor pest in Ontario. I know about those bugloss spines, on the leaves and stems, having once tried to pick a bunch of these "pretty wildflowers" when I was a kid. Never again. Not great on bare feet in the lawn, either.

  3. Hi Helen. It’s interesting to learn that Toronto has not medical plant gardens and I’m sorry to hear that. Living in California, we have quite a few of them but my personal favorite is the Yerba Buena Nursery which specializes in the state’s native plants and ferns that are used in medicine and their site even provides recipes.

    In case you want to take a closer look, their URL is:

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