Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden

The Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden is a formal garden feature comprised of twelve concentric brick-edged beds around a central sundial, the whole of the Garden enclosed by a yew hedge. The yew hedge is traditional, used to protect the "the ignorant" from the many poisonous plants within. A plinth dating from the the 1920s that had original resided in the old Botanical Garden supports a bronze sundial. The sundial is engraved with the native Zigadenus venenosus (death camas), while the gnomon (pointer) carries a physician's snake and a pharmacist's cup of hemlock.

The collections in the Physic Garden represent important plants from the early European pharmacopeia (drug-making), most of which were originally derived from the Chelsea Physic Garden. The associated signage tells stories through historical quotations, outlining the purported utility, including medicinal uses mostly based on the Doctrine of Signatures, and the ecology or mythological significance of the plants displayed. And while all of the herbs are in some way interesting, there are many “weeds” and poisonous plants among them. Physic gardens serve as an important link to the original Botanical Gardens, such as Chelsea, Oxford and Padua, which were built as additions to universities for the education of physicians and apothecaries (early pharmacists).

Seasonal Highlights

Most plants in the Physic Garden are either deciduous or herbaceous, so are best viewed during the late spring to early autumn growing season.

Significant Collections

The Physic Garden plant collection includes valuable herbs, noxious weeds and deadly poisons.


The Physic Garden at UBC Botanical Garden owes its creation to Dr. Roy Taylor, former director of the Botanical Garden, who commissioned the landscape architectural firm of Justice and Webb. They found inspiration in a 16th century Dutch engraving showing monks working in a monastery garden. Initial plantings in the Physic Garden in 1976 were established from a list generated by the newly-formed Friends of the Garden (FOGs), after much consultation and research. Seeds of many of the plants were donated by the Chelsea Physic Garden, as part of a historical legacy that involves seed exchanges and gifts between Physic Gardens.

In the 1990s the Physic Garden underwent a major renovation and the garden was re-named in honour of Harold and Frances Holt. In 2007, the Garden re-established its historical connection with the Chelsea Physic Garden by acquiring a new gift of seeds. The goal for the Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden is to maintain the connection to Chelsea and to introduce medicinal plants of documented wild origin.

Physic gardens were usually built as additions to universities for the education of physicians and apothecaries. In these settings, medicinal plants were grown and identified, and their medicaments and active ingredients prepared and purified. The first physic gardens developed in Italy at universities in Padua (1544), Pisa (1545), Florence (1545) and Bologna (1567). From here, physic gardens spread to other parts of Europe. The first English physic garden developed at Oxford University in 1621, followed by the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673, which was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries as a garden for training apprentices.

The “Doctrine of Signatures” is a belief that all plants have a divine mark of their curative power. For example, yellow plants, like the flowers of goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea, were presumed to yield a cure for jaundice. The spotted leaves of lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis, were believed to be godly marks of a use for respiratory diseases. By chance, this is not far from fact, as the plant is a legitimate herbal remedy for bronchial infections and asthma.

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UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research
6804 SW Marine Drive, Vancouver, B.C., V6T 1Z4
Tel: 604.822.3928
Fax: 604.822.2016 Email: garden.info@ubc.ca

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