Drimys winteri

Drimys winteri,  RCP

Drimys winteri, RCP

In the gardens of The Royal College of Physicians by Regents Park are two large specimens of Drimys winteri, an elegant and evergreen aromatic tree which in the early Spring is covered with lovely, ivory flowers (scented of jasmine) followed by pungent berries.  The garden is home to over 1000 plant species that have medicinal qualities, and as such offers an intriguing view of not just the history of medicine but also of culture.

The reason that these Drimys are growing there is a fascinating story going back to the sixteenth century, when Francis Drake led an expedition in 1577 against the Spanish colonies in America, which resulted in him circumnavigating the globe.  Five ships set sail from England, with Drake on the flagship Pelican (later renamed the Golden Hind), but after the long and arduous voyage across the Atlantic three were lost or scuttled. At the southernmost tip of Chile, the remaining accompanying ship, Elizabeth, captained by John Winter was caught in a storm and the two ships became separated. Drake went on to accomplish his mission – and eventually brought back spices and treasure to replenish England’s coffers, earning him a knighthood, and the enmity of the Spanish; whilst Winter put in to port at Tierra del Fuego. His men went ashore for supplies and returned to ship with the berries (or bark, accounts differ) of a local tree which has since become known as Winter’s bark – Drimys winteri.  According to John Parkinson, writing later in 1640 they:

boyled some of it in hony., to make it the more pleasant to be taken, and dried other some and made it into pouther [powder] putting it instead of Cinamon in their meats: but afterwards they found it to be singular good against the Scurvey, for divers in the shippe being troubled with that disease found remedy thereby in using it for a while.

Captain Winter had the further accolade of having an entire plant family named after him – Winteraceae – to which Drimys belongs. They have long been regarded as the most primitive family of flowering plants, being trees or shrubs characterised by an acrid sap and hardiness to freezing temperatures due to a lack of water conducting cells.  

This also means that Drimys behaves fundamentally differently to other shrubs.  If they do not receive enough water when they are young (or in a pot) the plant wilts, and although after watering it will recover, it will not straighten. The new growth will continue vertically but the old growth will remain swooped, rather like cut tulips sometimes behave.  Once established in the ground this doesn’t happen, which some may consider a shame as it looks rather exotic, which along with its beauty, history and aroma make it a valuable addition to a garden.