These stunningly beautiful gardens on downland countryside overlooking the sea, are one of the least known gardens in the area, but it is one that offers a unique collection of rare plants and trees. In fact the whole garden has been deemed a National Collection.
The 34479 sq m (8.52 acres) of garden were created out of a chalk pit overlooking the Downs, where there was little soil and very unfavourable conditions for plant growth. The Chalk Garden at Highdown is the achievement of Sir Frederick and Lady Stern who worked for 50 years to prove that plants would grow on chalk. This was during a period when many expeditions were going out to China and the Himalayan regions collecting rare and beautiful plants.
Many of the original plants from the early collections can still be seen in the garden today, particularly plants collected by two pioneering botanists Reginald Farrer and Ernest Henry Wilson.
Reginald Farrer was born at Ingleborough Hall in Clapham, North Yorkshire and from a small child was very passionate about plants and would explore hills around his home. Farrer went to Balliol College in Oxford and during his student years helped to build a rock garden in St. John's College.
Plants from many of Reginald Farrer's early expeditions to the Himalayan regions, China and Japan can be seen in Highdown Gardens today. The plant Geranium farreri is named after him. He also wrote and painted about plants and gardening.
Ernest Henry Wilson was born in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire and studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1899 Wilson was recommended by the then Director of Kew to travel to China to find a source of The Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata). Wilson not only found the source but 400 additional new plants, including the yellow poppy (Meconopsis integrifolia), many new rhododendrons, roses and primuli. He was also instrumental in discovering the Lilium regale, the large white trumpet type lily which graces many gardens.
Wilson became Director of the Arnold Arbortetum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927 which was quite an achievement at the age of 50. Unfortunately Wilson and his wife were tragically killed in a road accident in Massachusetts in 1930.
The gardens look their best in Spring and early Summer when there is a colourful succession of spring bulbs such as Snowdrops, Crocus, Anemones and Daffodils followed by Paeonies and Bearded Iris.