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May 07, 2008

Renaissance Man: Tending to My Cannabis

Better for making rope than Reggae Sunsplash.

Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. Last week, Mark "mastered" golf in Scotland.  His next task: gardening in England.

VitruvianmanYou may or may not remember the scene in Romeo and Juliet, it's a pretty important one, as I recall, when Romeo (or is it Juliet?) takes a potion and kills himself because he's heart broken over the (false) news that Juliet is dead, and then Juliet (or is it Romeo?) discovers him and then . . . okay don't worry, I won't spoil the ending for the tween audience who are waiting for the Hannah Montana version.

Romeo got that potion from an apothecary. Back in the days before WebMD, if you had an ailment, you went to see the apothecary. (Unless you were rich, in which case you went to see a physician.) An apothecary might prescribe any number of rare herbs or plants to make you right again, and to get said plants, he had to visit a physic garden. That's why, in 1673, a patch of land outside the bustling town of London was set aside for the cultivation of medicinal plants.

Chelsea Physic Garden.

Miraculously, it's still there, right in the middle of Chelsea, though it's safe to say the land it sits on--3.8 acres all told--is a tad more expensive today than it was back in the seventeenth century, because back then there wasn't a plague of investment bankers buying up all the nearby flats. All of which is why this morning, at the not so ripe hour of 10:12 a.m., I found myself taking just-germinated cannabis seedlings and tucking each one into its very own pot of fresh soil. The pots were then set out in a greenhouse and drizzled with water. In a few weeks, they're going to be transplanted into actual earth beneath a spreading olive tree, where they will grow tall. By September or so, they'll be in full foliated, fragrant glory. Not long after that, they'll be dug up and destroyed.

That's how it works with a botanical physic garden these days. They grow cannabis because it has a rich history of medical usage, but they grow it only for the sake of growing it. They grow somewhere in the order of 4,000 different varieties of plants, including opium poppies, white mulberry (which the Chinese use to raise silk worms), and a plant that is used to make a drug used to treat breast cancer. Think of it as a living storehouse of some of the greatest hits of the plant world. It is, in short, a garden with a point. Or, I should say, a garden whose point isn't merely to be pretty.

Don't for a second think that the Chelsea Physic Garden is not pretty--or fragrant, life affirming, serene, rejuvenating, and so forth. In spring, a heady combination of British rain and waxing sunlight gives it an undeniable visual and olfactory pop.

No one, it turns out, touches the cannabis, although roughly 30,000 visitors traipse through the garden each year. Even if they did, nothing much would happen, because it's a variety that's better suited to making rope than it is to taking to a reggae concert. But they don't. No one touches the motherwort, either. That's a tad less surprising, granted. But a little motherwort boiled with skullcap, valerian, mistletoe, and wood betony reduces to form a potion that is said to have a certain calming effect on the nerves. It's right there in a receipt dating to the seventeenth century, and it's safe to say that if I'd lived back then, I would have been spending a rough seven guineas a day at the apothecary on this stuff.

The potion had a name: Nervine. Keep in mind, this was in the days before focus-grouped pharmaceutical names. Better to think of it as the Shakespearean version of Wellbutrin. And remember, Nervine by any other name still has motherwort in it. You can't say that for Wellbutrin, now, can you?

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Perhaps the reggae concert variety would have improved your golf game? I guess there's no going back ...


Bring me some of that British ditch weed.

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