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Highdown Gardens
A hidden gem on the South Downs

Jo Hooper and Peter Whish, Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardeners

About Highdown Gardens: These beautiful chalk gardens in the South Downs countryside situated between Ferring and Goring, overlooking the sea, are a tranquil haven for all to enjoy. They are home to The National Plant Collection of the plant introductions of Sir Fredrick Stern - a unique collection of unusual plants and trees to be discovered all year round.

Find out about Jo Hooper and Peter Whish, Highdown's gardeners, below.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

You can read Jo and Peter's current blog posts on this page below:


10th May 2019: Highdown in May is in full bloom with a wonderful collection of spring flowering plants
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

As our displays of tulips and early spring flowers reach their peak - like these Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not - our flowering trees shrubs really get going.

When I came to Worthing as a young arboriculturist, I came across at Highdown what has become one of my favourite trees, Davidia invloucrata, which when you look at its unusual flowers, it is immediately apparent how it got its common name of Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree.

The white handkerchiefs are - usually two - large bracts which drape themselves around the small brush like flowers, making this tree such an arresting site in May.

Photos: (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata (Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree)

2019-05-10 - (left) Tulip Ballerina planted with Forget Me Not and (right) Davidia invloucrata

There two Davidia at Highdown; the original was wind thrown in the great storm of 1987 from high on the chalk ridge above the old chalk pit, and a new young tree down in the chalk pit entrance itself. Both I believe are the variety Vilmoriniana.

As testament to the regenerative abilities of many deciduous trees, the stump quickly re-sprouted as if it had just been coppiced and now 30 years later we have fine small tree again gracing us with its beautiful flowers. During the winter we undertook a bit of a thin and prune of the trees around it to open it up to the light and views.

The tree, planted early in the 1920s is one of the originals brought from a 1912 sale at Veitch & Sons Coombe Wood nursery. In 1901 James Veitch had sent the notable plant hunter and explorer E.H. Wilson (1876-1930) to look for it after its discovery in the mountains of western China by the French missionary Pere David from whom it derives its name.

The story is that, after reaching the reported location of the unique tree, Wilson found a cut stump next to a rather smart new wooden house. More specimens were thankfully rediscovered some 600km away and seed collected during the two year long plant hunting trip.

The tree is supposed to do best in damp, sheltered conditions, but our trees seem to like the chalk.

Moving from flowers in trees, the conditions this year are also perfect for our more terrestrial Tree Peonies which are giving stunning displays of their large voluptuous flowers borne on woody stems throughout the garden.

Another plant from the mountains of China and Tibet, the Tree Peony was a particular favourite of the gardens founder Sir Frederick Stern who after 20 years work on them wrote a study of the genus. We are still cataloguing and recording the collection, and our gardener Claire in particular is having fun photographing and identifying the myriad varieties on show.

These are not to be missed, and their exotic beauty awaits your discovery throughout, but notably in the lower gardens.

Photos: Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

2019-05-10 - Tree Peonies (P. suffruticosa)

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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13th April 2019: Hidden treasures revealed
Blog post by Peter Whish

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Highdown is most noted for its national collection of the plants of Sir Frederick Stern (1884-1967) which are able to grow on demanding chalk soil. The gardens naturally boast other plants too from around the world which grow in similar conditions.

For example, the collection features many plants from Gansu in north-west China which shares a similar geology. The Buddleia farreri in the middle garden (photo below) was grown from seed from Reginald Farrer's ambitious first expedition to Gansu in 1914 in which Stern had a share, and this year there's a magnificent display of its tiny tubular, lavender coloured and sweetly scented flowers.

2019-04-13 - Buddleia farreri

However, the gardens contain other plants that tolerate the local conditions whilst not necessarily demanding chalk; for example, cherry trees do well at Highdown too.

On the lawns nearby, the settled weather and shelter has given us long lasting displays of Japanese cherry blossom. First out was the dainty Yoshino Cherry, Prunus x yedoensis (photo below) with wreaths of white blossom growing right around delicately spreading branches.

2019-04-13 - Yoshino Cherry

The larger pure white Prunus Tai-Haku flowers (below left) mentioned in my last blog have been out for over a fortnight now and are being joined by P. Ukon (below right) which has a pale yellowish tinge to its flowers which flush from pink buds.

2019-04-13 - Tai-Haku (left) and P.Ukon (right)

The surprise to me was a pair of plants from New Zealand right next to our glasshouse.

Clianthus puniceus (below left) has an abundance of unusual scarlet flowers looking like lobster claws which gives the plant its common name. This can be grown in milder areas and can stand a degree of frost.

But the flower that particularly excited me was born on the Kowhai tree, Sophora tetraptera (below right), an unassuming 8m tall rather gaunt stick of a tree that wasn't on any plan. As a semi-deciduous tree its spectacular saffron and lemon pea like flowers appear as it sheds its previous year's leaves. The flowers were once used by the Maori as a dye and I have since found out that this beauty is the unofficial flower of New Zealand.

2019-04-13 - Clianthus puniceus (left) and Kowhai (right)

2019-04-13 - Kowhai Seed

Another interesting feature of the Kowhai tree flower which helped its identification are the short necklace like seed pods which apparently float and aid its seed dispersal along the river valleys it inhabits.

The gardens are full of surprises so please come along and make some discoveries for yourself.

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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30th March 2019: Spring has sprung at Highdown
Blog post by Jo Hooper

Highdown Gardens logo

So spring has well and truly sprung at Highdown and spring flowers are in abundance. Move over snowdrops the next show has arrived!

When you visit you will find the beds and borders studded with the delicate and mainly pastel blooms so typical of early spring, anemones and the first bluebells in the woodlands, cherry blossoms just breaking forth on the middle lawn and swathes of Scilla messianica and primroses in the tree and shrub garden to mention a few.

A couple of notable exceptions to the usually delicate hues of spring are the Anemone pavonina a riot of bright reds, pinks and purples that erupt like jewels along the hot dry south facing lawn edges, intermingled with the grass, conditions that mimic well their native landscape in the Mediterranean. The blooms open and close for the sun and seem to me to be the living embodiment of children's drawings of flowers!

The other example is the wonderful deep cerise pink flowers of the Cyclamen repandum.

Photo: Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

2019-03-30 - Anemone pavonina (left) and Cyclamen repandum (right)

Unlike the Anemone pavonina they shy away from the hot sunny spots and prefer the dappled shade of the woodland edges.

Over the last five years as we have pulled back ivy and pruned back overgrown shrubs we have revealed dormant colonies of these wonderful plants which have sprung back to life and are once again gracing us with their presence.

A deeply satisfying outcome, especially considering they were originally planted by Stern at least 50 years ago.

It is worth bending down low enough to catch a waft of their wonderful scent, a delectable lemony sherbet affair.

With the unseasonably warm temperatures in March the spring bulbs and flowers have come along a couple of weeks earlier this year.

With seasons becoming more and more unpredictable it is difficult to know when things are going to flower these days, and many of our daffodils are already over and making way for the bolder coloured tulips usually seen in late spring.

Looking on the bright side though, this year has provided plenty of early nectar for the bees Peter mentioned in the last blog and gorgeous spring days for us all to enjoy.

With that in mind it is a good time to mention that from the beginning of April we will be open at weekends again and move to our summer opening hours of 10am to 6pm giving you plenty of opportunity to come and enjoy the gardens.

Hope to see you soon!

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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2nd March 2019: Soaring temperatures and warm winter sun
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

With soaring temperatures and warm winter sun, it's been good to be working outside at Highdown these past two weeks. And it hasn't just been the team of gardeners who have been hard at work either - as these pictures show ...

There is no early morning slumber for both these honey and bumble bees, whose pollen baskets on their legs were full at 7:45am when these pictures were taken.

Highdown is really waking up to spring now, with winter and early spring flowering bulbs and shrubs adding colour and scent to the cooler displays of Snowdrops that we enjoyed last month.

The honey bee (below left) is pictured on one of the earliest flowering cherry trees. Prunus 'Okame' is a beautiful small tree originally raised by Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981), who was an authority on Japanese Cherry trees.

2019-03-02 - Honey bee (left) and bumble bee (right)

We look forward to the flowering of another of Collingwood's introductions later in March, the Great White Cherry, Prunus 'Tai-Haku'. In 1926 he was invited to Japan to talk about their national tree and noticed a white cherry in an old painting which had been thought to have died out. Ingram recognised it in an unusual old tree he had raised cuttings from in a Sussex garden, and he was able to re-introduce it to cultivation. Only this week, by chance we planted a new young 'Tai-Haku' tree to ensure a place in the garden for the next generation.

The warmth has spurred us on to complete our winter work and get those trees and shrubs planted, beds mulched and begin pruning before spring begins in earnest. We can only hope that the weather is kind to us and does not revert to winter as it could so easily do, catching out wildlife and tender young plant growth.

The bumble bee, as shown in the second picture, was found on one of the most fragrant of our winter flowering shrubs, Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'.

With changes in agricultural practices, gardens are increasingly important for early sources of pollen and nectar for our all-important bees on which we rely for the fertilisation of so many of our food crops.

Highdown Hill has seen a busy few weeks with the unseasonably good weather which has brought many visitors to the gardens and to our new neighbours at Highdown Towers. We are pleased to welcome The Highdown, a hotel, restaurant and pub, and hope that many of our visitors will now able to enjoy tea and cake after a visit to the gardens as they used to.

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9th February 2019: Snowdrop Festival
Blog post by Peter Whish

Highdown Gardens logo

After a short break in blogs from Highdown Gardens, we're pleased to be back and to tell you all about our recent Snowdrop Festival!

Following an approach by the Sussex coordinator of the National Garden Scheme (NGS), and last year's successful open day, we welcomed nearly 300 visitors to the garden in glorious sunshine last Sunday (3rd February 2019) to enjoy the splendid collection of snowdrops on show.

Sir Frederick Stern, who created Highdown Gardens, was one of the founder members of the NGS, an organisation which gives the public access to some unique gardens and raises significant amounts of money for nursing and other charitable causes. Although the gardens were bequeathed to the residents of Worthing Borough in 1968 and are now public, we continue to support the NGS with special open days.

Photo: NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

2019-02-09 - NGS Snowdrop Festival opens at Highdown Gardens

Highdown has a great collection of snowdrops dating back to Sir Frederick Stern's time. He had a particular interest in the flowers which he picked up as he explored the plants that could be successfully grown in the demanding conditions in his garden on the chalk of the South Downs.

Photo: Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

2019-02-09 - Paul takes a tour in the gardens to show visitors the Snowdrops and other plants

Snowdrops belong to the family Amaryllidaceae and members of the genus Galanthus, and there are approximately 20 recorded species and hundreds of varieties. Stern had picked up on an earlier Victorian craze for snowdrops which had begun in the 1880s, and because they are such a promiscuous plant they give rise to endless hybrids and varieties. Indeed they are the perfect collector's plant - those who are bitten by the Snowdrop bug are known as 'Galanthophiles'!

Together with another famous plantsman E.A. Bowles, Stern published a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) book on Snowdrops and Snowflakes in 1956, developing a way of classifying them that is still in use today.

Familiar with the native wild snowdrop, G. Nivalis, I have been amazed by the variety of the genus and the many good garden plants among them ...

In flower now and for the next few weeks we have a great show of naturalised G. Gracilis. With their blue-green twisted leaves and delicate nodding bell shaped white flowers, they hang as if from a little fishing rod below a bright olive green ovary. These come from coastal areas around the Black Sea. British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850s brought bulbs home with them, having been amazed to see battlefields blooming with them after the harsh winter.

The early flowering G. Atkinsii is larger and has the RHS Award of Garden Merit, meaning it is considered to be an excellent and reliable garden plant - a good one to try at home.

G.Elwesii is another large snowdrop with handsome broad grey-green leaves. It was first brought into the country by H.J. Elwes, another Victorian plant hunter on a visit to the mountains near Smyrna, now Izmir, in Turkey in 1874.

Like the Snowdrop, Snowflakes are winter flowering bulbs - but as members of the genus Leucojum and again they are well represented at Highdown. The pretty white bell shaped flowers with green or yellowish markings on both the spring and summer snowflakes are, like the snowdrops, a herald of spring to come.

Photos: Snowdrops - G. Elwesii (left) and G. Gracilis on rockery (right)

2019-02-09 - Snowdrops - G.elwesii (left) and G.gracilis on rockery (right)

See also: Highdown Gardens website

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About Jo Hooper and Peter Whish:

About Jo:

Jo Hooper, one of the Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardens

Jo has been Head Gardener at Highdown since 2012 and since returning from maternity leave last year now works part time and job shares with Peter. Jo first discovered her love of plants and gardening growing up in rural Devon with a keen gardener for a Mum, but the bug really hit when she spent two years living on a farm in Costa Rica. She returned to England and studied at Plumpton College and has been a gardener ever since. Amongst various roles Jo has previously been head gardener at Peckham Rye Park in London and Alfriston Clergy House / Monks House for the National Trust, as well as training garden staff at Holland Park and various sites across London.

About Peter:

Peter Whish, one of the Head Gardeners at Highdown Gardens

Peter has worked in Adur & Worthing Councils' Parks Service for 25 years and now job shares with Jo. He is a Master of Arboriculture. He has a background in nature conservation and has spent much of his career here working with volunteers, landscape design and trees. Peter has a keen interest in history and is enjoying his role at Highdown where he manages three staff and an apprentice to help bring out the best in this nationally important garden and plant collection.

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