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 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.

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.

Explorations in the Highdown Gardens archive

By Jennifer Mason, Senior Collections Management Archivist, West Sussex Record Office

In two prior blog posts staff at WSRO have talked about the work that they’ve been doing at home through the pandemic. Today’s blog post is just one example of how we’ve been able to continue to provide a service to our users, despite the challenges of remote working.

In March 2020, just a week before lockdown was announced, we were thrilled to receive the Highdown Gardens archive. We had been working with the Highdown Gardens on their National Lottery Heritage Fund project and as part of this were able to offer the archive a home where it could be stored in secure, environmentally controlled strongrooms and made available to researchers.

We were particularly pleased to receive this collection because, aside from a visitor’s book and photograph album, WSRO holds very little about Highdown and the important work that Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern did to transform the site into an internationally renowned chalk garden.

WSRO Acc 19802 Highdown index cards

The archive includes important evidence of the Sterns’ work, their research, plant collecting, and their connections with botanists, plant hunters, scientists and the Royal Family. This is partly in the form of Stern’s plant index cards – detailed notes of different plant species, often with information about where they were found, the name of the plant hunter who found them, when Stern had planted seeds or cuttings, and the results. Some even include his sketches. There is also a series of glass plate negatives and photographs of many of the plants at Highdown, as well as people the Sterns had known and who had visited the house and gardens from 1918 to 1967.

It’s a fascinating archive but because staff at WSRO have mainly been working at home over the last year, it hasn’t yet been possible to catalogue it or to provide the individual items with detailed locations. This means that finding specific items within the collection can be challenging…

When Hamish MacGillivray, Heritage Consultant on the Highdown Project, contacted me and my colleague, IT Officer Clare Snoad, to request the digitisation of a specific glass plate negative and seven of Stern’s plant index cards for a history section for the new Highdown Gardens website we needed to rise to this challenge!

Hamish had provided a detailed description of the original location of the glass plate negative – which is a wonderful image of plant hunter Ernest Wilson. Because the negatives are in the process of being cleaned and repackaged many are still in their original boxes and Clare was able to track this down, with assistance from James Gaffney who is currently cleaning the negatives.

When it came to the index cards, we had enormous help from a large spreadsheet which Highdown volunteers had compiled, listing all of the individual cards and (importantly) which card index drawer they were in. With a bit of detective work (the cards aren’t necessarily in straight alphabetical order – genus subgroups are sometimes stored separately) I was able to locate the correct cards and leave them for Clare to digitise the following day.

WSRO Acc 19802 – Index card example for magnolia delavayi, 1912 and lilium albanicum, 1932

WSRO Acc 19802 – Index card example for leptodermis purdorni, 1921

The whole process, from receiving the list of the index cards to providing Hamish with digital images  took just four days – with Clare and I in the office separately for only two of them. We were really pleased to have been able to help the project and overcome the twin obstacles of limited access to the office and a new, uncatalogued archive, greatly assisted by all of the work the Highdown volunteers put into the plant index cards spreadsheet.

We’re hoping to be able to turn our attention to cataloguing this important archive once we’re back in the office on a full time basis. We don’t yet know when this will be but please watch this space.

Please also keep an eye on the blog for a future post from Hamish about his fascinating research into the Highdown visitors’ book and look out for the launch of the new Highdown Gardens website in May. The Gardens will gradually open to the public from June.

Winter garden reveals itself

Early winter is setting in now in the gardens. In spite of all the rain our beech trees are on fire now in a last blaze of orange autumn colour. The Gingko Biloba too is a shining beacon of fine butter yellow. As the green pigment breaks down in the cool and dark of the season, the beautiful autumn colour reveals itself.

2019-11-23 - Gingko biloba (left) and Snake Bark Maple, Acer capillipes (right)
Photos: Gingko biloba (left) and Snake Bark Maple, Acer capillipes (right)

There is a slight tension between leaving the leaves for visitors to collect and scuff through as they marvel at their colours, and the professional gardener who knows the damage that rotting leaves can cause to our grass. That said we can only just keep up with the fall so there are plenty to go round.

We have been making some great leaf mould from previous years’ leaf and together with garden compost we use this to condition our soil. High up on the chalk hill at Highdown the soil can be described as thin or very thin and is thirsty for the addition of organic matter.

It is easy to make leaf mould at home and just keep it bagged or covered to retain moisture … and to get the very best, leave it for two years.

The garden borders and shrubbery are also revealing themselves in their winter mode and, unlike us layering up with extra clothes, they divest themselves of their summer attire and sit naked until spring.

Entire borders and areas of the garden are now see through, the woody forms of trees and shrubs laid bare to reveal form and detailed tracery of branch and twig.

2019-11-23 - Sorbus sargentiana
Photo: orbus sargentiana

Winter tree identification without leaf or flower to guide you is quite an art and we have been honing ours and our apprentice’s eye for the detail of winter buds and bark.

We are lucky to have some garden plans to help us at Highdown, but as we refine these and delve down into historic records we are often coming up with surprises such as a Paper Mulberry (Bousonetia papyrifera) with its very variable foliage masquerading as a Black Mulberry (Morus nigra).

As the garden sinks into the deep dormancy of winter even now there are signs of new growth and a spring to come. As we winterise our shrub beds and do a final weed and mulch down, the bulbs just below are poised ready for their spring display.

The earliest in the garden is a November Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis reginaeolgae) blooming away with its elegant flowers hanging on little fishing rod stems on our rockery; it just can’t wait for the New Year.

2019-11-23 - Galanthus reginaeolgae
Photos: Galanthus reginaeolgae

Berries and seeds from our plants

Work on our National Lottery Heritage Fund award is well underway now and autumn is a busy time too for all our plants as they ripen this year’s berries and their seeds within.

Part of our work is to conserve the plant collection both in-situ and by distributing plants and seeds to other botanical collection holders.

Our new Plant Heritage Officer Annelise and Craft Gardener Paul have been collecting seeds from some of our best and most notable trees and shrubs for the Millenium Seed Bank, held by Kew Gardens at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

The seed bank aims to save plants throughout the world which are most at risk and valuable for the future.

Whilst some of plants are beginning to show some autumn leaf colour our chalky soils do not give the fiery tones associated with more acid conditions as you might for example find in the Sussex Weald. Autumn at Highdown is however notable for its fantastic displays of berries.

Gorgeous orange and red Cotoneaster, coral Spindle berries and shining blue Clerodendron seeds garland our borders in a sumptuous display.

2019-10-26 - Red Cotoneaster C.franchetii Sterniana (left) and Clerodendron tricotomum fargesii (right)
Photo: Red Cotoneaster C.franchetii Sterniana (left) and Clerodendron tricotomum fargesii (right)

There is plenty to go round which is a good job as we compete with Blackbirds and Blue and Great Tits who have begun feasting on the autumn glut.

We have been trained by the Seed Bank to collect, clean and cut test the seed to ensure that they are good, ripe and viable. In the picture you can see the perfect cut seed of our Euonymus grandifloras salicifolius.

We have two large specimens growing on the thinnest of soil near the bungalow and clothed with light pink berries.

2019-10-26 - Euonymus grandiflorus salicifolius fruit (left) and cutting one of the seeds open (right)
Photo: Euonymus grandiflorus salicifolius fruit (left) and cutting one of the seeds open (right)

The seed is then recorded and together with a pressed dried leaf sample for the herbarium are kept in cold storage until they are needed for research or to raise new plants.

We have a great team of volunteers at the garden who help with all manner of horticultural tasks and this week some will be joining us for another training session to help us collect, clean and sort seeds.

We will also be growing some seed ourselves to restock the garden and to distribute to other living collections.

Our Viburnum betulifolium is one of our best berrying shrubs with cascades of bright red translucent berries hanging like redcurrants from its tall spreading branches.

Covered in white flowers in June this is one of the plant hunter E.H. Wilson’s introductions from western China and grown from seed at Highdown all those years ago.

Photo: Viburnum betulifoilum

Fantastic Fungi – A Mixed Blessing

‌An almost audible sigh of relief came from the dry earth on Highdown Hill this week as the first and most appreciable fall of rain we’ve had for what seems like weeks arrived from the sea.

Our parched lawns greened up overnight and we’ll be cutting again in a few days even as growth slows down and we slide into autumn.

The early autumn has brought with it the fruiting of many plants including some of our lower plants the mushrooms and fungi.

The garden is a living collection and of course relies on a vibrant ecology of which fungi are a vital part. Playing a role as nature’s recyclers they break down dead plant material and make available nutrients for uptake by new generations of plants.

However, they don’t always wait for the demise of a plant before beginning their work.

Some trees at Highdown host fungi which are decomposing the dead heart wood held within their lofty boughs and bole.

The pictures below show examples of two common fungi both harmlessly living on the trees dead heart wood, in this case Dryads Saddle (Polyporous squamosus) on one of our red Horse Chestnut’s and a Ganoderma bracket (Ganoderma applanatum/austral) on one of our National Collection trees Cercis racemosa.

2019-09-28 - Dual image
Photo: Ganoderma on Cercis (left) and Dryads Saddle on Red Horse Chestnut (right)

The fungi are present all around us as spores in the air and they usually move into the wood of a tree through a wound. There are barriers within the tree to prevent their spread into live wood. Having spent many years as a Tree Officer it’s often this balance between living and dead parts of the tree that is investigated and decisions about the safety of a tree made.

The Cercis here is actually being killed by another much more aggressive Honey Fungus, Armillaria, that will invade and kill living plants and is quite a pest in parks and gardens.

Parts of our collection are particularly prone to its attack including our Cotoneasters, Berberis, and, because the growing conditions on the chalk are so hard, our older Mock Orange, Philadelphus.

The new Heritage Lottery funded Plant Heritage Officer will be tackling this with us by propagating our collection, beginning with those oldest or most at risk plants and working with other plant collection holders to help conserve the stock of these ‘in captivity’ plants. These in turn can assist in global conservation initiatives like the Millennium Seed Bank that provides a safety net for plants that are threatened with extinction.

On our old avenue of Tibetan Cherry the fungi have an interesting maze-like pattern on their lower side, lending themselves to the name of Maze Gills.

2019-09-28 - Maze Gill on Cherry
Photo: Maze Gill on Cherry