Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

This is the Wild Flower Conservation Society

Highdown Gardens - TobyHi, my name is Toby. I am one of the craft gardeners here at Highdown Gardens.

Did you know that some butterflies are producing up to three broods a year? Due to longer warmer temperate seasons, butterflies are laying more clutches of eggs, unfortunately the wild flowers they rely on for food are not keeping up.

This is just one of the fascinating insights you’ll learn while chatting with John Gapper, founder of the Wild Flower Conservation Society. With the apt moniker ‘The Green Man of Sussex’ he was raised in the village of Stanmer on the South Downs, so John has spent his entire life working with and observing nature.

John Gapper, founder of the Wild Flower Conservation Society

Photos: John Gapper

I first met John while studying Horticulture at Plumpton College and doing research for a wild flower unit, so when the opportunity arose to develop a meadow in the old orchard at Highdown Gardens, he was the first person I thought of.

John’s pioneering work in collecting wild seed has been bolstered in recent years, with support from the Brighton & Hove Council and the South Downs Communities Sustainable fund, who have equipped he and his volunteers with a new polytunnel where they produce plug plants to sell to the public.

During my visit I was lucky enough to be given some seeds to germinate in the new glasshouse here at Highdown, so that we may plant out our own plug plants next spring. John recommended devil’s bit scabious and corn marigold to get us started, as their flowering season goes right through to October and even November, which will be of great benefit to the Downland butterflies.

Seedlings growing in glasshouse

Photo: Seedlings growing in glasshouse

If you’d like to support John’s vital work helping to preserve the Sussex downland wildlife, pop up to Stanmer and pick up some plug plants for your garden, and please come and see our new meadow develop here at Highdown next year.

Hopefully, with plenty of butterflies!

Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

Photo: Devils bit scabious and Corn marigold

Verbena bonariensis - a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

Plant Focus – October 2021: Verbena – Verbena bonariensis

Highdown is launching a new series of monthly blogs called ‘Plant Focus’, written by our fantastic volunteers. Each blog will explore a different plant at Highdown which currently has seasonal interest, so you can learn about the wonderful plants we have at our garden and come see them for yourself.

We are kicking off Plant Focus with a plant familiar to many: the Verbena, written by Highdown’s Engagement & Volunteering Assistant, Rebecca Jones.

Verbena: Verbena bonariensis
Season: June to October
Location at Highdown: next to glasshouse and Sensory Garden

I first saw this eye-catching, purple-flowered plant in gardens in Worthing when I moved there a few years ago. With its fragile looking stems I’m always amazed it doesn’t blow over in the blustery coastal wind and rain!

Verbena bonariensis, as seen at Highdown Gardens, has quite a few common names including vervain, tall verbena or purpletop verbena. This plant is just one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena, of which only about half a dozen are in cultivation. V. bonariensis is native to Argentina and Brazil, which makes sense when you realise that the species name is derived from ‘Buenos Aires’.

Photos: Verbena bonariensis – next to the glasshouse and in the Sensory Garden (credit Rebecca Jones)

Verbena bonariensis - next to the glasshouse and in the Sensory Garden (credit Rebecca Jones)

They were first grown as a garden ornamental in 1726 by Englishmen James and William Sherard, who got the seeds from a dried specimen sent back to England from Buenos Aires. In the wild it is naturally perennial but is grown as an annual in cooler climates, such as ours. It is considered a weed in many mild climates, such as California, Texas, Australia, southern Africa, Fiji, and New Guinea, where it has naturalized.

The small purple flowers bloom in clusters on top of long, slender but sturdy stalks and can grow up to 6ft tall and 3ft wide. It’s very attractive to butterflies and moths and has a long flowering season so is good for nectar-feeding insects late in summer and into autumn. If you look at the flower heads you can see why the butterflies like it so much – the flowers are very similar to buddleia. Having multiple flowers on one flower-head enables insects to get lots of food without having to expend much energy to do so.

Photos: Verbena bonariensis – a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

Verbena bonariensis - a bee in the flowers, and a close up of the flowers (credit Rebecca Jones)

It’s easy to grow and isn’t too fussy about soil type providing it is well drained and is usually cultivated from seed. It does have a tendency to self seed and can look great in informal prairie style borders. However, if you don’t want it to spread make sure you deadhead it immediately after flowering.

If, like me, you are interested in the etymology or meaning of plant names, you might like to know that Verbena is derived from Latin, meaning ‘sacred bough’. This refers to the leafy twigs of Verbena officinalis, Common verbena or vervain, that were historically carried by priests, used in wreaths for druidic rituals, and for medicine. Vervain comes from the Celtic name, ‘ferfain’.

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters, flowers and pergola

Summer gives way to Autumn in Highdowns sensory garden.

Highdown Gardens - LisaHello my name’s Lisa and I’ve been a Craft Gardener at Highdown Garden for just over two months now. The Sensory Garden is one of my areas of responsibilities and I’ve seen the plants change a lot while I’ve been here.

I started at the beginning of August when lots of plants were still looking wonderful, the bright orange Californian Poppies and Calendula were very eye catching and the white Lychnis and the powdery blue Nigella filled the raised beds with colour. The plants were still enjoying the sunshine in August so the Calendula and the sweetpeas had to be deadheaded regularly.

But as the summer started to come to an end, mid to late August, lots of flowers faded and it was time to cut some perennials down to the ground, this encourages new and fresh foliage and flowers. The Nepeta, Geraniums, Stachys byzantina and Alchemilla mollis were all cut down to the ground when their flowers faded, with the warm and sunny September we’ve experienced they’ve all bounced back with young new foliage.

In September annuals such as the Poppies and Calendula finished their show of flowers and had to be removed to tidy up the beds, but other perennials were having their time to look wonderful. Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’ and Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’ with their numerous and floating dark red and purple flowers and Symphyotrichum (Asters) with their mass of dense purple flowers are now still grabbing people’s attention.

Now we’re in autumn this is a good time to identify gaps in the Sensory Garden, some plants have been eaten by slugs and rabbits so some beds are looking less full than they should be. Autumn is a good time to plant, with moisture and warmth still in the ground, so new plants will soon be planted to fill these gaps. Come and have a look at the Salvia, Asters, Verbena bonariensis and the new plants in the Sensory Garden this Autumn, it’ll be good to meet you!

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - path and flowers

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - flowers, benches and pergola

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters and benches

Sensory garden - late summer 2021 - raised planters, flowers and pergola

One of our Irises - prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside - spaced out newly divided plants

Among the Iris

Highdown Gardens - CharlotteHello my name is Charlotte, I am the Craft Gardener here at Highdown Gardens.

I have spent much time in August amongst the Irises in the Lower Garden.

There are many at Highdown due to them being one of Sir Frederick Stern’s garden favourites. Is not hard to see why with their elegant tall leaves and flowers in shades of yellow or purple, they have become one of my favourites too. Stern even cross bred species creating hybrids to plant out in trial beds to see how well they performed.

It is time to divide bearded Iris once they have finished flowering, so from the end of July onwards depending on the season’s weather of course. There are a lot of different types of Iris, check which type you have if you are doing yours.

Typically they are divided every three to five years, I have only started at Highdown this year so I don’t know exactly when they were last done, but I can tell from looking that they are very congested and this would benefit them. The purpose is to give each individual more space to grow and help to keep it healthy and perform better. It’s quite a fun garden task, though it is time-consuming.

I use a border fork to gently lift them all from the soil. You are then faced with a prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with the tall strappy leaves coming from the topside.

This just needs preparing for replanting, the rhizome itself can be trimmed down to remove the older parts, leaving the healthier and fresher looking growth.

Very small ones can be discarded or potted up until they have grown larger for new stock to plant elsewhere. I did plant a few small ones just to see how they do. The leaves should be trimmed down to keep the energy at the roots and prevent wind damage, the Highdown rabbits have been helping us with this by feasting on them.

Whilst we were doing this, it was a good chance to remove any perennial weeds that we found. We are constantly battling ground elder here, so took the roots out as we went. There are a lot of bulbs such as snowdrops and gladioli underneath the Iris so care was taken to replant these.

After I had dug up a good few Iris, and had a nice clear weeded patch of earth, I spaced out the newly divided plants evenly to replant. They just need the roots to be fully in the soil, the rhizome needs to stay on the surface as it will not flower well or could rot if fully buried.

That’s really all there is to it, I gave them some growmore and water to help them on their way to beautiful blooms next year.

Be sure to come and see them next May and June.

One of our Irises - prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside - spaced out newly divided plants

One of our Irises – prawn-like rhizome with lots of roots on the underside with tall strappy leaves coming from the topside – spaced out newly divided plants

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds)

Introducing Highdown’s New Sensory Garden

Ellen Mascard, Engagement & Volunteering OfficerHello my name is Ellen, I am the Engagement & Volunteering Officer here at Highdown Gardens.

One of Highdown’s most significant developments, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has been the Sensory Garden. This space used to occupy the Rose Garden, which had over-mature, weak and diseased roses, as well as worn down and narrow paths inaccessible to wheelchair users and buggies.

An important aim of the redevelopment project was to increase accessibility and encourage a more diverse audience to Highdown, so we decided to utilise this flat area to create a Sensory Garden.

Sensory gardens are designed to stimulate the senses by using plants and features which interact with a person’s hearing, taste, sight, smell and touch. This engagement taps into the practice of mindfulness, which increases a person’s awareness of their surroundings, helping them to connect with nature and relax.

Highdowns sensory garden’s planting scheme was designed by Craft Gardener, Claire Garcka, who chose plants for their different heights, textures, scents and noises when moving in the wind.

As you walk into the space, you will also notice a transition from pastel to much hotter coloured plants. Claire also cleverly underplanted the garden beds with bulbs to extend the season of interest. Highdown’s Sensory Garden also has ample seating, raised plant beds, and solid even ground throughout making the space accessible for all, particularly wheelchair users and visually impaired people.

What plants are currently available to interact with?

The following plants are Senior Gardener, Peter Keefe’s, top picks to interact with this September:

left Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) and right Lambs ears (Stachys byzantina)

(Left) Common name: Chocolate Cosmos
Latin name: Cosmos atrosanguineus
Sense: The flowers smell of chocolate!
Credit: Rebecca Jones

(Right) Common name: Lambs ears
Latin name: Stachys byzantina
Sense: The leaves are soft to touch
Credit: Rebecca Jones

left baby sage x autumn sage (Salvia x jamensis, Nachtvlinder) and right Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis, Kleine Silberspinne)

(Left) Common name: baby sage x autumn sage
Latin name: Salvia x jamensis ‘Nachtvlinder’
Sense: Look at its vibrant purple flowers
Credit: Ellen Mascard

(Right) Common name: Chinese silver grass
Latin name: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’
Sense: Listen to the grass rustle in the wind
Credit: Ellen Mascard

So, they’re Peter’s top picks – have you got any favourites?

Views of the Sensory Garden:

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds)

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds and pergola)

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (new bench)

Sensory Garden at Highdown Gardens (raised planting beds and pergola)

Welcome back to the gardens

Highdown Gardens - Peter Keefe, Senior GardenerHello my name is Pete, I am the Senior Gardener here at Highdown Gardens.

It’s August and the Garden is now open to the public without booking being required, we hope this will continue. When we first opened in June it was with a limited number of visitors and a booking system in place, we would like to say a big thank you to everyone for respecting this necessary inconvenience.

Seeing people back in the garden, taking their time to enjoy the wonderful collection of plants makes all the hard work worth it. In fact, we are now in our peak visitor season!

If you are planning a visit to the garden, please take the time to read our new information panels at the entrance to the garden, they provide an overview of what you can expect from your visit, as well as a few reminders of how everyone can play a part in protecting the garden and its collection of plants.

The new areas in the garden have been a great success. The new prairie borders are really starting to look wonderful, even though it is only their first year, this display should hopefully only get better as the individual plants grow bigger and stronger. Our new sensory garden has also been very popular with visitors, with its raised beds bringing the plants up to eye level. The new accessible bonded gravel path links these two areas so they can be appreciated by all of our visitors.

Anacamptis (A pyramidal orchid) and Ophrys (A bee orchid)

Orchids in the Orchard

Alex New, Plant Heritage Officer at Highdown GardensHi everyone, I’m Alex and I’m the Plant Heritage Officer at Worthing’s treasured Highdown Gardens.

In the orchard area here at Highdown Gardens, we’ve made the decision not to cut the grass so often. If we let it grow we encourage the wild plants, for which the chalk downs where we are located are so famous, to grow and flower.

Happily, a wider variety of plants leads to a greater amount of wildlife like insects and mammals too. It can take years for some of the wild flowers to establish but, straight away, some of the most exciting wild plants have shown up and shown off their beautiful flowers.

Two species of chalk-loving orchid have appeared and we’re told by those that have known the garden for years that these species have not been seen in the orchard for some time. The first is the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis). This beautiful plant catches the eye as soon as you are near it. The flowers range from pale pink to magenta. It gets its name from the way the group of flowers on each plant – the inflorescence – is shaped like a pyramid.

Anacamptis - A pyramidal orchid

Anacamptis – A pyramidal orchid

The second orchid is different. The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) doesn’t catch your eye immediately, perhaps because the flowers are spaced further apart on each plant. But, once you’ve noticed it and you get closer you can’t help but marvel at its sheer amazing oddity.

The plant has evolved not only to produce flowers that look like a bumble bee, they also give off pheromones – the chemicals that insects make to communicate with one another – that mimic those of female bumble bees. The point of all this is that certain male bumble bees, especially the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) – now sadly in decline in the UK – are fooled into thinking that the flowers are female bees. The duped bees are drawn irresistibly to the flowers and end up getting covered in the pollen and transfer it to the next flower once they have been lured in once again.

Ophrys - A bee orchid

Ophrys – A bee orchid

Whether for bees or pyramidal orchids, we now need to leave the grass uncut long enough that they produce their seed and spread themselves through the area a little more.

Orchid seed is absolutely tiny, each seed is the size of a particle of dust. By making a seed that is so small, the parent plant can make an enormous number of seeds that are capable of travelling quite a distance as they are so light and literally float away on the breeze. But there is a cost to all of this productivity.

Most often, when seeds are made, they all contain a parcel of sugars and fats that feed the young plant once it germinates; think of it as a little packed lunch. With orchids, there’s no room to fit the packed lunch into the miniscule seed and so they need to be able to grow without their own food. As it’s impossible to grow without any food, orchids have evolved to get around this problem by gaining their food from another organism. They get this food from fungus.

Ophrys - Close up of a couple of bee orchid flowers

Ophrys – Close up of a couple of bee orchid flowers

The roots of the fungi find a way into the outer casing of the seed and transfer fats and sugars to the developing orchid. With some species of orchid, this debt is repaid once the orchid grows but with others, it is not.

Fungus roots are everywhere in the soil and owing to their small size, orchid seeds can spread far and wide but if we stop and think about it for a moment, it is not difficult to see that getting a fungus root tip and a tiny dust-like particle of a seed to actually meet one another is a rather a chancy matter. This is why, despite the literal billions of orchid seeds that float out there into the grasslands, fields and hillsides every year see relatively few orchids. By leaving the grass to grow we at least give them a fighting chance.

Digging new beds at new greenhouse January 2021. Photo by Worthing Borough Council


We have a range of exciting volunteering opportunities:

  • Gardening: weeding, pruning, and planting
  • Engagement activities: leading guided tours, welcoming visitors, attending workshops
  • Plant Heritage Support: propagation, labelling plants, glasshouse work

If you would like to volunteer at Highdown Gardens please go to our volunteer page.

Highdown Tree Trail

Launching Highdown Gardens Junior Tree Trail

Ellen Mascard, Engagement & Volunteering OfficerHello my name is Ellen, I am the Engagement & Volunteering Officer here at Highdown Gardens.

Alongside Highdown’s reopening, we have also launched our brand new Junior Tree Trail! Children can take on the role of a Plant Hunter as they navigate the gardens using the activity sheet to discover Highdown’s rare and unique trees. The trail encourages youngsters to closely observe tree traits such as bark type, leaf shape, and height, appreciate the variety of different trees from around the world, and to respect the garden’s plants. The activity sheet also includes a tree ID chart, which can be cut out and reused as a ‘Top Tree Trunks’ card game, so children can continue to develop their knowledge at home.

The Trail’s development has had significant community involvement. Nadia Chalk and Nessy Brean, who are local artists and co founders of the non-profit Creative Waves, designed the activity sheet and hand painted plaques signposting each tree on the trail. We also had help from a local woodworking group, Lancing and Sompting Men in Sheds, who repurposed wood from Highdown’s old rose pergola to create posts to for the plaques.

Child using plaque and Tree Trail activity sheet during Creative Waves workshop (Creative waves, June 2021)

Child using plaque and Tree Trail activity sheet during Creative Waves workshop
(Creative waves, June 2021)

Nessy and Nadia and also educators, and have been holding workshops with local school groups, guiding them along the trail. We have already received some fantastic feedback from children who have participated in the workshops, including year 6 pupils from Chesswood School:

“I learnt a lot of new facts about Highdown Gardens including the names of different trees.”

“I enjoyed experiencing the different types of trees, especially the strawberry tree.”

“I learnt about how important trees are to us and new knowledge about nature.”

It has also been wonderful to see other schools and families walk the Tree Trail independently over the past month, and we hope to see many more. Our Junior Tree Trail guide is stocked in the visitor centre, or you can download the trail on our website.

Many thanks to Creative Waves, Lancing and Sompting Men in Shed, and everyone who has taken part in the Tree Trail so far. Thank you also to the National Lottery, who have funded the creation of the project.

See also: Download our trails

Highdown Tree Trail

The Chalk Pit. April A. by Steve Speller

Anyone for tennis?

During the autumn of 2019 I spent many “wow” moments in the West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) reading room discovering forgotten stories about Highdown Gardens and its original owners. Did you know that Highdown Gardens started because of a tennis court in 1909? New plants were purchased by Sir Frederick Stern at first to hide the chalk pit glare from his tennis court. Experts said nothing could grow on chalk. By 1910 Stern became obsessed and built his first rockery. When Sybil Lucas married Stern in 1919, she joined in the horticultural experiment.

The Chalk Pit. April A. by Steve Speller

The Highdown Chalk Pit – in 1909 this was the Highdown tennis court.
(Photograph taken April 2019 by Steve Speller.)

Panels and campers

When I started this job, supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, I was struggling to get my head around specialist horticulture and botanical Latin names. I am not a gardener. I was asked to produce text and images for at least 7 exhibition paneIs to be displayed in the new Highdown Visitor Centre. I was expecting Frederick Stern’s book ‘A Chalk Garden’ to offer clues – but I found it difficult to read. In fact, my first web searches kept on steering me to an old Jewish Youth Club that used to camp near the Miller’s Tomb on Highdown Hill, I could not work out their connection with the Sterns.

The Visitors

Mapping out the names from the Highdown Visitors Book Sept 2019, using Comic Life software. (opyrigh H.MacGillivray)

Mapping out the names from the Highdown Visitors Book Sept 2019, using Comic Life software.
copyright © H.MacGillivray)

Then I discovered the Highdown Visitors Book at the WSRO. This is an amazing time machine with signatures, poems and even photos from 1918 to 1968. This shows the waves of visitors that game to Highdown including: Jewish aristocrats (Lionel Rothschild, Lucy Stern), plant hunters (Frank and Jean Kingdon-Ward), Royals (Prince Edward, Prince Albert and their mother Queen Mary), politicians (Lloyd George) and scientists (E.K. Janaki Ammal). Unlike other Visitors Books I have seen, the Sterns also pasted in photos of some of their VIP visitors. The image of a giggling Lloyd George and daughter Megan (WSRO Add Mss 45624) marooned near the Lime Kiln is my favourite. See my ‘bubble’ diagram of some of the visitor names.

add mss 45624 Lloyd George and Megan - 6th October 1926

Lloyd George and Megan – 6th October 1926
(WSRO Add Mss 45624)

Letters and photos

The Visitors Book was the key to the project as it was proof that the Sterns were part of the last generation of Anglo-Jewish aristocrats who were obsessed with big game hunting, horses, politics, philanthropy, military life, science and of course gardens. With the signatures I managed to cross reference Stern’s letters in other archives such as at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the Kew Botanical Gardens archive. There was a surprise on my last visit to Worthing Library when Martin Hayes remembered a forgotten Highdown photo album in the basement of Worthing Library. This contains a memorable image of Stern grinning through his psychedelic eremurus or foxtails lilies.

WSRO Acc 19642 Frederick Stern peeking behind foxtails, 1930s

Frederick Stern peeking behind foxtails, 1930s
(WSRO Acc 19642)


Just as I was starting to draft text for the Visitor Centre panels the first Lockdown was announced. I was very lucky that Highdown Gardens and the Lottery extended my contract during those strange times. There were also plans for a new Highdown Gardens website which I knew would be image hungry. To my surprise, Jennifer Mason and Claire Snoad were able to go into the WSRO archive for limited periods. With my knowledge of the WSRO material I asked Jennifer if it was possible to digitize key photographs and later the entire Highdown Visitors Book. This the WSRO team did with efficiency and speed. We now have images from the WSRO Highdown collection on: external signage at Highdown, inside the new Visitor Centre and soon in a unique historical section in the new website. Some of the VIP photos from the Highdown Visitors Book are also being used for guided tour training for volunteers.

Interior of new Highdown Visitors Centre. Photograph taken April 2021 by H. MacGillivray

Interior of new Highdown Visitors Centre.
(Photograph taken April 2021 by H. MacGillivray)


And what of the Jewish campers? After talking to local volunteers and an international phone call to the BBC’s Jon Sopel last summer I discovered that the Sterns allowed the Oxford and St. George’s Jewish youth clubs to camp every summer on their fields for 50 years, another forgotten part of the Sterns philanthropy work in London and Goring. With all this new evidence I approached the University of Oxford’s Jewish Country Houses team who are advising the National Trust on raising awareness of former Jewish properties. We are now expecting a group of historians to visit Highdown this summer.

This has been a remarkable two-year research journey for me, and it would never have developed were it not for the support of the WSRO team.