As well as hiding nasty odours, the herbs of a traditional nosegay often had medicinal properties. Michael Leapman discovers the ultimate in natural remedies at Kew Gardens
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"IT IS NOT the purpose of Kew to be interesting to gardeners," writes Patrick Taylor in his Gardener's Guide to Britain (Pavilion, pounds 12.99). The Royal Botanic Gardens have always suffered from this image problem: how can a place with such a pompous name be anything but a bore?

Yet it is full of secret pleasures, among them the sunken garden alongside Kew Palace - part of the Queen's Garden that celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. For many visitors, the charm of this pretty little spot, opened by the Queen in 1969, lies chiefly in its quaint labels bearing 17th-century descriptions of the plants' medicinal qualities. Curiously, it owes its existence in part to the Duke of Edinburgh and his penchant for plain speaking.

The story is told in Ray Desmond's Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens (Harvill, pounds 25). Visiting the gardens in 1959, to mark their bi-centenary, the Duke looked out of the back windows of Kew Palace and saw abandoned allotments and a rubbish dump. He was disgusted. "Something should be done," he declared - and in due course, after several abortive attempts to raise the necessary money, something was.

It was decided to turn the space into a 17th-century garden, contemporary with the original palace; something that Kew had not previously attempted. Mr Desmond calls it "a pastiche of Stuart design". Its parterre, statues and clipped box hedges delight visitors, who are particularly intrigued by the nosegay garden, so called because the herbs in it were ingredients of nosegays carried by the fastidious to ward off the smells and diseases of the common herd.

In the 17th century, plants were grown for medicinal as much as for decorative purposes. The labels in this garden contain quotations from the two main horticultural reference books of the day, John Gerard's Herball and John Parkinson's Paradisi in sole. There are cures for wind, vomiting, jaundice, constipation and snake bites; and some of them may even have worked. Indeed, as science progressed a few of these natural remedies - for instance poppy seeds - were incorporated into drugs that we commonly take today.

Others, such as peppermint, we know and grow as flavour-enhancing herbs. Breathe in deeply as you stroll through and you will understand what attracted our green-fingered forebears three centuries ago.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are open daily, 9.30am-4pm