Harold & Frances Holt Physic Garden


The Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden is a formal garden feature comprised of 12 concentric brick-edged beds around a central sundial and 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 1920s that resided in the original Botanical Garden supports a bronze sundial. The sundial is engraved with the native Toxicoscordion venenosum (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). The associated signage tells stories through historical quotations outlining the alleged utility, including medicinal uses mostly based on the Doctrine of Signatures and the ecology or mythological significance of the plants displayed. There are also 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 to design the garden. 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. The Chelsea Physic Garden donated seeds of many of the plants 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.

Feature: History of physic gardens

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, which is not far from fact, as the plant is a legitimate herbal remedy for bronchial infections and asthma.