The seaweed soaking in the buckets

“Collected on the coast – Brewed on the hill” The making of Highdown Seaweed Tea

“Collected on the coast – Brewed on the hill”
The making of Highdown Seaweed Tea.

Have you seen the movie The Field, starring Richard Harris? It’s the story of a struggle over a field, transformed over generations from a rugged clifftop area into a fertile pasture abundant with crops, by improving the soil with seaweed hauled up from the beach below.

Hi, I’m Toby, a Craft Gardener up at Highdown, and I began my own exploration into the benefits of Seaweed Tea at the end of January this year.

After previously chatting with my colleague Rob, leader of the Foreshore team, and then completing the necessary Risk Assessments, I was clear to start gathering the dried seaweed on the high tide line of our shingle beach.

In about an hour I had filled two bulk bags half full (one full bag being too heavy to lift safely, thank you Risk Assessment) I loaded them into my car, then drove up the hill to work and to start brewing.

Collecting seaweed on the beach

Collected seaweed
I put the seaweed into 12 large old plastic plant pots and then into four household wheelie bins, I’d got from my colleagues in the Refuse Department. Then, with a hose, filled the bins halfway with water to cover the seaweed buckets. Then I had a cup of tea (not seaweed) and waited. Hoping for the magic to happen and have the brew ready for the new growing season starting in spring.

The seaweed soaking in the buckets

The benefits of Seaweed Tea are numerous, as Monty Don often extols on Gardeners World, so I’ve been very interested to discover more about this natural resource, we’re lucky to have on our doorstep.

Long before commercial fertiliser production, seaweed had been used to aid plant growth. Providing many benefits to plants way beyond the capabilities of artificial fertilisers.

It promotes stronger, healthier plants which are better able to cope with environmental stresses, including flooding, drought, salinity, pests and diseases.

No doubt, it’s a tool all gardeners should have up their sleeve.

After 12 weeks’ fermentation, as April drew to a close and May brought warmer weather, so the brew was ready. I removed the buckets and drained off the pale green liquid and smelt the strong healthy odour which gave a reassuring nose of goodness, then poured and stored it into an old water butt.

Once a week since, I’ve been diluting the tea, one-part seaweed to ten water, then feeding all the new plantings I’d introduced to the garden, including annuals, herbaceous perennials, woody shrubs and trees.

But how would I really know if the seaweed tea has increased their health and vigour? As I wondered what to do with the free seeds supplied with the Gardeners World magazine, the idea came to me. Sow the basil, parsley, lettuce and Zinnia seeds and when they’ve germinated pot them up into two identical groups, feeding one with the Seaweed Tea and a control sample fed only with water.

So, on 15th June 2022 the two samples look similar, but what will the results show in three months’ time? Hopefully, the proof will be in the brew…

Photo: Growing experiment – plants fed with only water

Growing experiment - plants fed with only water

Photo: Growing experiment – plants fed with seaweed tea

Growing experiment - plants fed with seaweed tea

Note from the Worthing Coastal Office: What Toby from Highdown Gardens is doing is very small scale and a pilot scheme for exploiting ways to potentially utilize and deal with any large seaweed deposits in the future. As it stands, so long as the seaweed is for personal use, floating and un-attached then it is ok to harvest.

Crown Estate webpage quote: Seaweed collection for personal use, in small qualities does not require a licence. However, we would recommend that anyone doing so takes account of the environmental sensitivities of collecting anything from the wild.

If you have any questions about seaweed collection please contact the Worthing Coastal Office

Rainbow-Shakespeare-back next year

Rainbow Shakespeare Theatre

Rainbow Shakespeare at Worthing’s Magical Highdown Gardens

Each year Highdown gardens, one of Sussex’s most magical, beautiful historic gardens and best kept secrets, plays host to Rainbow Shakespeare, where it all first started. Picnic under the stars with the wonderful people, families and children of Worthing and its surrounds, and become part of what has become one of the great Sussex traditions.

Dates for 2023:

These two events have now happened – thank you to all that came along:

  • Rainbow Shakespeare – The Tempest (11th to 16th July 2023)
  • Rainbow Shakespeare – The Comedy of Errors (18th to 23rd July 2023)

“Rainbow Shakespeare do a superb job of entertaining the audience!”
(The Argus, Brighton) ★★★★★

Photos: Orlando, Celia and Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It; Oliver Byng and Jake Snowden at Highdown; and audiences enjoying plays at Highdown (photos copyright Rainbow Shakespeare Theatre)

Orlando, Celia and Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It - and - Oliver Byng and Jake Snowden at Highdown (copyright Rainbow Theatre)

Highdown audiences enjoying Taming of the Shrew (copyright Rainbow Theatre)

Highdown audiences enjoying Julius Caesar (copyright Rainbow Theatre)

Rainbow-Shakespeare-back next year

Judas Tree flowers up close (credit Ellen Mascard)

Plant Focus: Judas Tree – Cercis Siliquastrum

For this month’s Plant Focus blog Sue takes a look at the Judas Tree – Cercis Siliquastrum.

Common Name: Judas Tree
Latin Name: Cercis siliquastrum
Garden Location: Middle Garden
Country of origin: Southern Europe and Western Asia

Hello, my name is Sue and I’ve been volunteering at Highdown Gardens for about three years. I’m entrusted to do menial tasks in these beautiful gardens such as sweeping up leaves or weeding. Plus, I’m now training to be a guide hoping to share the fascinating story of the plants and people of Highdown.

The training has been fun, with Alex (the plant expert) and Ellen (in charge of volunteers) playing good cop, bad cop … one covering us in the compost of botanical facts in the hope that our horticultural knowledge will grow and thrive and the other drilling us endlessly on the facts that we have to have at the tips of our gardening gloves for when we do the tours. Yes Ellen, we can all now recognise the gorgeous Cyclamen repandum (see photo) and spot the champion tree Chinese hornbeam (Carpinus turczaninovii) at 50 paces.

Photo of cyclamen repandum (credit: Alex New)

Cyclamen repandum (credit Alex New)

But there is one specimen that has caught my attention and to which I keep returning – the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum). What is it about this tree that I find so alluring? I think it is partly the name. It is said to be named after that most despised of Biblical characters, Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples and who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, leading to his arrest and crucifixion. He is said to have hung himself from the branches of this beautiful and quirky tree. More likely, but less memorable, is that it is named after Judea, now called Israel where it can be found.

It’s unusual but not rare and a friend recalls seeing it often in Turkey, where she lived for many years. Here at Highdown, there are three or four Judas trees and in late April this year, they were at different stages of flowering depending on their position. Let’s talk about the flowers because that is the other fascinating thing about Judas – the flowers often grow directly onto old bark. Just pause to take that in because that really struck me as being unusual! Often, before the leaves develop, these little dark pink buds pop up straight onto the bark. If you know of any other trees where this happens, please let me know! They have a complex dark pink, pea-like flower and although I’ve not seen it yet, bear a pod-like fruit later in the year. One of the trees in the Middle Garden was absolutely covered in flowers, like a damask tablecloth.

Photo of Judas Tree flowers growing directly off of bark (credit: Ellen Mascard)

Judas Tree flowers growing directly off of bark (credit Ellen Mascard)

Photo of Judas Tree flowers up close (credit: Ellen Mascard)

Judas Tree flowers up close (credit Ellen Mascard)

Sir Frederick Stern recorded in his book, A Chalk Garden, that one of Highdown’s Judas trees came from Afghanistan and was given to him by the son of a fellow military man, Major Arthur Algernon Dorrien-Smith, who grew them from seed. There’s a whole other story to be told about this man, and his descendants who were Lords of the Isles of Scilly and created the world famous Tresco Gardens. Maybe another day!

One last amazing fact about the Judas Tree is that it likes to lie down as it gets older – becoming more and more prostrate so that many people think it has actually died. Now that is something I can really identify with!

Photo of Judas Tree lying down (credit: Ellen Mascard)

Judas Tree lying down (credit Ellen Mascard)


Tales from the potting shed

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

This month I wanted to share with you some of the regular propagation work which takes place in the garden.

Highdown Gardens has lots of different plants in its collection. Some are important mature examples or rare species, and these are being catalogued and propagated by our Plant Heritage Officer.

Many of the plants in the garden are more modest in their historical or botanical importance but still contribute to the interest and look of the garden.

Plants like these do not live forever. Some have very short lives naturally and others can find our climate challenging.

In order to ensure the continued presence of these plants in the garden different methods of propagation can be used.

Last year during the late summer and autumn, the gardeners were saving seeds from plants such as Tithonia ‘Torch’ and Lychnis Coronaria.

Lychnis coronaria

The Tithonia cannot survive our winter and only likes to live outside when there is no frost. It is usually fine in the South of England between May and October.

The seed has recently been sown in trays filled with seed compost and placed in our heated glass house. This should give us strong, young plants which can be planted out in the garden in May or June.

The Lychnis is a short-lived perennial that can survive our winters, so we have taken a different approach.

The seed was collected and sown in the autumn in our heated glass house. This has produced some lovely little garden ready plants which will only need acclimatising to the cold in our cold frames. They will be planted out later in the spring.

We also have a few lovely shrubby Salvias in our sensory garden. These can suffer if we have a bad winter so it is wise to take a few cuttings every year.


Last September and October we took several cuttings from healthy, typical non-flowering stems, putting four to six in a 9cm pot filled with compost and perlite, a mineral which keeps the soil loose and well-drained, and placed them in our new heated glass house.

Earlier this month we separated all the cuttings and potted them up individually. These will make garden ready replacements for any we have lost over the winter, or give us plants to use in other areas of the garden.

This type of propagation is enjoyable and cost-effective, and there is something incredibly satisfying about watching a seed you have planted, or a cutting you have taken, grow.

Great spotted woodpecker (Pixabay - 6552939)

A wild year at Highdown

Highdown Gardens - CharlotteHi, I’m Charlotte and I’ve worked at Highdown Gardens for a couple of years now.

One of the most enjoyable parts of working here is the wildlife I’ve seen during this time! Every day I’ll have a robin or two following me as I work, spotting grubs in the disturbed ground.

Early last year we were closed to the public due to renovation work which gave the plants and animals some breathing space.

There were pheasants running all over the garden in packs of five or six, I’d not seen so many together before! Interestingly, the collective noun for pheasants is a bouquet , a covey or a nide. They can be troublesome in gardens, scraping the ground and digging up plants to find food. At Highdown they tucked into a large number of our newly planted crocus bulbs, what a feast!

Pheasant (Pexels - nestor-montagu - 6572914)

Woodpeckers can often be heard hammering away and even seen far up in the trees. Last year a hole appeared in the Acer davidii near the visitor centre, about five foot up the trunk. This was quite puzzling until we saw a woodpecker pair coming and going. Not wanting to scare them away, we gave them plenty of space and were soon rewarded with hearing the chicks chirping away! The hole to the empty nest remains so see if you can find it on your next visit.

Great spotted woodpecker (Pixabay - 6552939)

Not just birds, we’ve got mammals too. One morning I came into sight of a fox and three cubs playing in the sensory garden. This garden’s an ideal place for them as there are plenty of rabbits about. Obviously rabbits are a gardener’s nightmare, which is why you’ll see certain plants surrounded by a low chicken-wire barrier to deter rabbits from eating them. Despite this I love to see their little cute tails hopping about.

Fox (Pixabay - 5042210)

One time I was weeding through the borders and noticed a tiny hole next to me and saw rustling in the leaves nearby. A minute later a little furry blur ran out and then, changing his mind when he saw me, quickly retreated back into the foliage. I kept really still and the creature tried a few more times, each time coming a little bit closer to me and I saw it was a vole. Eventually he got the courage to and ran out all the way and scampered straight down the hole next to my boot.

We have smaller critters of note in the garden. Everyone is curious about the Euonymus grandiflorus in spring time when it gets completely covered in the web of the spindle moth caterpillars, from which caterpillars hang dangling in the air from long threads. The photo below shows them pupating in webs near the trunk before they become tiny white moths with black dots.

The web of the spindle moth caterpillars

One thing I’d never seen before coming to Highdown are stag beetles, of which I’ve now seen a couple over the summer. They like living in leaf litter, dead wood and shady spaces. I think the picture may be a lesser stag beetle as it doesn’t have the large jaws.

Lesser stag beetle

Why not come, look and listen for wildlife at Highdown? Just remember to be respectful of creatures in their habitat, not disturbing just quietly observing.

Tibetan Cherry Tree - Prunus Serrula

Plant Focus: Tibetan Cherry Tree – Prunus Serrula

For this month’s Plant Focus blog David Smart, Highdown’s Plant Heritage and Gardening Volunteer, writes about the Tibetan Cherry Tree.

Tibetan Cherry Tree: Prunus Serrula
Common Names: Tibetan Cherry / Birch-bark Tree / Ornamental Cherry
Latin Name: Prunus Serrula
Country of Origin: West China
Location in the garden: Prairie bed at the garden’s entrance and next to the visitor centre

The Sterns originally planted an avenue of these cherry trees in 1938 to give interest in the winter months. Sir Frederick Stern, in his book A Chalk Garden, refers to Prunus serrula as having “small white flowers of no consequence, but a very pleasant and highly decorative mahogany-coloured bark which gives interest and colour in the winter”.

Since then, new ones have been planted to replace older dying trees, however these also became diseased so it was decided to remove them upon the new redevelopments. One cherry tree from the avenue still remains next to the visitor centre, and more recently one was planted in the bed by the garden’s entrance to pay homage to those that were lost.

Prunus serrula is a round-headed bushy deciduous tree native to Tibet and Western to Southern Central China. The trunk has shiny coppery bark and the leaves are narrow, turning yellow in the autumn. The white flowers are 2cm in width, and bloom in small clusters. The tree can grow to a height of 12 metres and width exceeding 8 metres over a period of 20 ro 50 years.

Photos: The trunk of the Tibetan Cherry Tree – Prunus Serrula

Tibetan Cherry Tree - Prunus Serrula

Ideally, the Tibetan Cherry should be grown in full sun, but can tolerate any aspect or exposure. It prefers any moderately fertile chalk, sand, clay or loam soils that are moist but well-drained, at all but extremes of pH. They are frost-hardy to -20 degrees Centigrade. It can suffer from silver leaf, bacterial canker, blossom wilt, as well as pests such as caterpillars, leaf-mining moths and bullfinches. Despite this it is a low maintenance plant, though may need pruning in mid-summer if the disease silver leaf is a problem.

In its native range it was believed that cherry wood kept away evil spirits, so people would hang branches of cherry wood over their doors on New Year’s Day and make cherry wood statues to guard their houses.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Making the most of the new start to the year

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

After the dark leaden skies that to me seemed to dominate in December, it is finally a relief to be a couple of weeks into January 2022. The days are now noticeably lighter and the garden is starting to show signs of life. On the occasions when the sun shines on a cold crisp day, it is a real joy to be outside.

One plant that is making the most of the new start to the year is the Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a member of the buttercup family with a bright yellow flower that is native to the woodlands of France, Italy and the Balkans. It was introduced to the garden by Frederick Stern and it now thrives in our alkaline soils, having naturalised into large swathes of the garden and in some places it forms a carpet of flowers. A feast for the eyes at this time of year.

Photo: Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

A plant that you might smell before you see it, while walking around the garden, is our fragrant Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia). A flowering shrub and a member of the box family native to China, it is found throughout Highdown Gardens providing a lovely scent that can hang in the air when the weather conditions are right. As it is evergreen when not in flower, it also gives constant structure in the garden. It is a great plant if you have a difficult shady situation and you are looking for some all year interest in your own garden. It will also tolerate being controlled and shaped by a prune after flowering in spring.

Photo: Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

These are just a couple of the plants that increase the interest in the garden throughout the winter season. Soon we will get to the inevitable explosion of growth and colour that the spring will bring.

Viburnum x bodnantense - Bodnant Viburnum

Plant Focus – December 2021: Bodnant Viburnum – Viburnum x bodnantense

This month Roy Philpott, a Friend of Highdown Gardening Volunteer, has written about the Viburnum x bodnantense.

Bodnant Viburnum: Viburnum x bodnantense
Season: October to April
Location: A single specimen in the middle garden

Viburnum x bodnantense is one of the few plants that flower at Highdown throughout the long winter months when little else is blooming. Clusters of white and pink, sweetly fragrant flowers are produced on bare wood stems from October through to April.

Photos: Viburnum x bodnantense – Bodnant Viburnum

Viburnum x bodnantense - Bodnant Viburnum

V. x bodnantense is a large, upright, deciduous shrub growing to a maximum height of 4m with a maximum spread of 2.5m. Like most Viburnums, it is very tolerant of soil type, is happy in full sun and partial shade and is fully hardy in sheltered or exposed positions.

Purple tinged leaves begin to appear in spring and gradually turn to a deep green as they mature. While happy on chalk, it does not like drying out completely and last summer I lost one of my specimens in the very hot and dry spell during May and June. Another V. x bodnantense, in a shadier situation, survived and is now in full flower.

Viburnum x bodnantense is a hybrid cultivated from two species: V. farreri and V. grandiflorum, both of which originated in the mountains of Northern China.

Viburnum farreri was collected from Northern China in 1913-14, by Reginald Farrer, a plant hunter whose expeditions were part funded by Sir Frederick Stern, and is sometimes called Viburnum fragrans. V. farreri was first introduced by William Purdom in 1910 and named for Farrer.

Sir Frederick germinated seeds brought back by Farrer, and V. farreri first flowered at Highdown in 1921-22. Stern also received some cuttings of V. grandiflorum from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and grew them on at Highdown.

Viburnum x bodnantense was first raised at Edinburgh in 1933 and then by Lord Aberconway’s head gardener, Charles Puddle, at Bodnant Garden in North Wales in 1935, from which the cultivar acquired its name. V. x bodnantense has a more elegant habit than either of its parents with long straight stems arching up from the base, forming an attractive cone shape.

In 1947 Viburnum x bodnantense was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and Lord Aberconway presented Stern with a plant that same year. Alas, the plant currently in the middle garden at Highdown is unlikely to be this original shrub.

(left) Coronilla glauca in flower and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

Stillness speaks

Highdown Gardens - GlennHello my name is Glenn, I am one of the Craft Gardeners at Highdown Gardens.

In the winter months nearly all plants go dormant, but this period of rest is crucial to survival in order to regrow and therefore dormancy during cold conditions is so important. It may also be equally important during times of stress during heat and drought, especially, for example with trees shedding their leaves early in order to conserve water.

Nature can be a great teacher if we take our time to observe. It is equally important that we also rest during times of stress. Christmas can be for many people one of those times – hectic, stressful and full of expectations to live up to.

Highdown Gardens are very therapeutic and each season offers something different to the senses. Winter time is the perfect opportunity to tap into the rejuvenating energy of the garden. The garden at Highdown stands so tall and majestic it has a real presence especially at this time of the year.

Come to the middle garden and take three or four conscious breaths, free yourself from the fog of the time bound mind and allow yourself to sit in the pristine present moment, listen to the silence, the absolute peace of mind, body and spirit.

Highdown Gardens is a space to feel at peace.

After all, the gift of peace is the only gift worth giving.

Happy Christmas from all the Highdown Team.

Photos: (left) Coronilla glauca in flower, and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

(left) Coronilla glauca in flower and (right) Carpinus turczaninowii in dormancy

Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (credit Mark Emery)

Plant Focus – November 2021: Strawberry Tree – Arbutus X Andrachnoides

This month Mark Emery, a Friend of Highdown Gardening Volunteer, has written about the Arbutus x andrachnoides, or most commonly known as the Strawberry Tree.

Strawberry Tree: Arbutus x andrachnoides
Location at Highdown: Opposite the front of the Visitor Centre and Performance Area

Species from the genus Arbutus commonly known as Strawberry Trees are represented at Highdown by several closely related specimens. Arbutus x andrachnoides, the Hybrid Strawberry Tree, is pleasing to the eye throughout the gardening year.

It has glossy dark evergreen foliage, with white or pink pitcher-shaped flowers borne in autumn and winter. A mature specimen can produce small strawberry-red fruits, giving it its common name. The fruits are orbicular in shape and smaller than a strawberry.

Its most outstanding feature is its flaking bark in varying shades of cinnamon-brown, providing striking colour all year round, especially in autumn and winter. The bark has a beautiful warm glow when bathed in sunlight. Classed as a shrub or small tree it can reach 12m in height. The plant is tender when young but hardy when mature.

Photos: the Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (Credit: Mark Emery)

Arbutus x andrachnoides opposite the the Visitor Centre (credit Mark Emery)

There are several examples of Arbutus growing at Highdown:

Arbutus x andrachnoides is to be found on the lawn opposite the new Visitor Centre. It’s the smallest of two but still striking in appearance and not dissimilar to Acer griseum, the Paper Bark Maple.

An additional and stunning mature specimen of Arbutus x andrachnoides can be found east of the Performance Area of the lower garden.

Arbutus x andrachnoides is a hybrid between Arbutus unedo the Strawberry Tree and Arbutus andrachne its Grecian relative, the two parent plants stand together left of the visitor centre.

Photos (credit: Mark Emery):
(left) bark of the Arbutus x andrachnoides in the Performance Area

(right) trunks/bark of the Arbutus unedo and Arbutus andrachne

(Left) Bark of the Arbutus x andrachnoides in the Performance Area (Right) Trunks of the Arbutus unedo (L) Arbutus andrachne (R) (credit Mark Emery)

Frederick Stern mentions the Grecian Strawberry Tree in his book A Chalk Garden:

A. andrachne is also well, now about 16ft high with charming downy-grey bark turning red. The seed was sent to us in the 1920s by S. C. Atchley from Greece. So it seems that several of the Arbutus do not mind calcareous soil although they belong to Ericaceae. P.183

Atchley was a British diplomat and botanist, one of many early plant collectors who contributed seeds collected from foreign habitats to Stern. In 1938 The Wild Flowers of Attica by Atchley was published, Attica being the ancient Greek name for Greece. These collaborations were directly responsible for many of the unusual plants growing at Highdown. Early plant collectors and experimental gardeners such as Stern were pioneers in introducing many of the plants we grow in our gardens today.

Stern began his garden against the advice of some experts, given that Highdown consists of a few inches of topsoil resting upon the solid chalk of the South Downs. As a true adventurer and man of imagination he persisted and succeeded gloriously. In the above quote from Stern we learn that the plant belongs to the botanical family Ericaceae, which normally indicates an intolerance for alkaline soils and a liking for acidity. Stern further writes:

A. andrachne was raised from seed from Greece, and it’s growing on the edge of the Downs, making a bush with a lovely smooth reddish bark and deep green entire leaves. P.159

I first came across the Strawberry Tree at Mewsbrook Park in Littlehampton. There are also some fine specimens of Arbutus x andrachnoides adjacent to the bridge that crosses the river Arun as you enter the West Sussex town of Arundel.

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’.