When we want a lazy Sunday afternoon, we head to Cowbridge, a pretty little town in South Wales. It has nice shops and coffee houses. It also happens to have much of interest for the historian of pharmacology. Its physic garden is quite enchanting. It has been created ten years ago on the model of an eighteenth-century medicinal garden, and only displays plants found in the British Isles before 1800. The plants are divided into twelve beds according to their efficacy. My favourite bed is, quite unsurprisingly, the childbirth bed (pun intended), which contains, among others, the poetically named ‘lady’s mantle’ (Alchemilla vulgaris L.). Today, I leisurely took photos while Little Boy G zoomed around pushing his own pram. I particularly admired the iris in the cosmetic bed.
At one end of the garden is a plaque with a few lines of poem by Iolo Morganwg/Edward Williams, a Welsh poet who lived in Cowbridge (1747-1826). The poem sings the virtues of laudanum, which is a tincture of opium. I find this plaque very interesting. It is rather politically incorrect – it is not often one finds public monuments to a mind-altering drug. Further, most reconstructed physic gardens nowadays avoid displaying dangerous plants, or if they do, the plants are clearly indicated and set apart from others. That is also the case in Cowbridge’s physic garden, but the plaque hints at the more poisonous side of herbal lore. Then again, this particular stanza of the poem, to the uninitiated, could read as an ode to a lover.
Thou faithful friend in all my grief,
In thy soft arms I find relief;
In thee forget my woes:
Unfeeling waste my wint’ry day,
And pass with thee the night away,
Reclin’d in soft repose.
Other stanzas in the poem are much more explicit about the medicinal powers of laudanum, but the clever people who designed this plaque chose the one that reads like a love poem, albeit a sad one.