The Heath Garden at Nymans
There are not many UK gardens that have areas which truely offer visual interest to the visitor during every month and season of the year but here at Nymans we do actually have such a place. The Heath Garden can be found at the furthest point from the main entrance to Nymans but it really is worth the journey to get there. Planted originally around 1902 when the idea of having heathers in a garden in this country was something very new indeed, our heather garden was one of the first of its kind in Britain, and is still lovingly maintained to this day by the team here, and our Head Gardener Philip Holmes in particular.
The heathers here are planted in large drifts, in-keeping with the style in other parts of the gardens at Nymans
Ludwig Messel was keen to introduce as many different species of heather as possible when he first began designing the Heath Garden, cultivars not being available at the time. In the pioneering, experimental spirit that the Messels had when it came to horticulture, Ludwig really threw himself into collecting plants, with heathers and conifers being right at the forefront of that obsession. Some of this passion for amassing such a large collection came from rivalries with other local gardens and gardeners. In fact, the Messel family often used to swap plants with other local land owners, each in turn trying to offer something new and rare to the other while still keeping choice specimens for themselves!
Even when only budding and not fully in flower, the heathers have a zingy colour to them
Most of the current crop of heathers here have been added since the big storm of 1987 that caused so much damage to Nymans and many other gardens across the south of England. We still try to add a few new varieties every year too, keeping that tradition of collecting plants going. We are rightly proud that there will be heathers in flower during every month of the year. During Winter and Spring you will find the likes of the Erica carnea and Erica darleyensis types in flower for instance. In Spring and Summer it will be the Daboecia heathers that will be stealing the show, and as Summer carries on into Autumn the Erica vagans and Calluna vulgaris cultivars for instance take their turn in the spotlight. The Winter-flowering heathers are generally found on the outskirts of the beds whilst the Summer varieties sit in the centres.
Erica cinerea ‘Lilac Time’ is another horticultural heather highlight as we head into Autumn
The soil in this part of the garden, like much of Nymans, is an acidic sandy loam. Despite being in the acid-loving Ericaceae family, not all heathers thrive only in acidic soil. Some will tolerate neutral to alkaline soils too. Here at Nymans however they all seem to be perfectly happy in our soil and also, being pretty tough and hardy, able to cope well in this exposed spot. Elsewhere in the gardens you will also find quite a display of heathers along the Winter Walk. The specimens here, such as Erica carnea ‘Isabell’ or Erica x darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Rote’ for instance, are all exclusive to this area and won’t be found in the Heath Garden itself.
The sharp grass paths really offset the heather beds
Not only are cultivated heathers very attractive all the year round, they are also incredibly popular with bees especially commonly found buzzing around the bulbous blooms. Anyone who has ever tried heather honey will testify that this can only be a good thing! Heather plants are also fairly low maintenance and relatively pest and disease-free. Winter-flowering heathers are not trimmed after flowering while the Summer-flowering types are simply trimmed in Spring to create soft hummocks which reflect the soft rolling hills of the Sussex downs beyond the Nymans garden boundary fence.
One of the many Calluna vulgaris heathers flowering in the Heath Garden right now
There is one bed within the Heath Garden here that is filled with heathers that have a Sussex connection. There are some groups of plants named after areas of Sussex like Calluna vulgaris ‘Crowborough Beacon’ for example and also some named after people associated with the Nymans county such as Calluna vulgaris ‘Edith Godbolt’. This is a very floriferous heather that was named after Mrs Godbolt who originally discovered it growing in her garden in East Sussex. Calluna vulgaris is the native heather and a common sight in upland areas where it benefits a range of wildlife. It has also been equally beneficial to plant breeders, giving rise to myriad cultivars, which provide a huge range of foliage and flower colours.
Morning dew catching on a spider’s web in the Heath Garden
Heathers are historically quite interesting within the British Isles. A drink has been known to have been made from them for many centuries in Scotland, and archaeologists have found traces of a fermented drink made of heather flowers on a 3,000 year old Neolithic shard of pottery on the Isle of Rum. The idea that white heather is lucky was popularised by the Victorians and their love of Scottish traditions. In 1884 Queen Victoria herself wrote about her servant Mr Brown, who “espied a piece of white heather, and jumped off to pick it. No Highlander would pass by it without picking it, for it was considered to bring good luck.” White heather’s luck may have been attributed to it because of its scarcity, in a similar way that four-leaf clovers brought other Celts good luck. Other suggestions include the more romantic notion that white heather grows above the final resting places of faeries, or the idea white heather grew on patches of battle ground where no blood had been shed.
The Heath Garden looks out over the parkland, often grazed by local cattle
Historically, heather was also put to many practical uses. Long leggy stems could be used for durable thatching while a yellow dye was derived from some heather plants. Strong ropes which withstood the effects of seawater were twisted from it and it was also gathered together in bundles to make a variety of brooms. In fact, the Genus name Calluna is derived from the Greek ‘kalluna’, meaning ‘to brush’. On the Isle of Lewis, a particular kind of garden hoe had two rows of wooden teeth followed by a row of heather to smooth the soil behind it. In the Highlands the medicinal properties of an infusion of heather tops were used to treat coughs and colds and to soothe the nerves, while heather tea and ointments were used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. The soporific aroma from the dried flowers was also put to use to make heather mattresses, flowers uppermost and leaning slightly towards the pillow end. In the 16th century James VI’s tutor George Buchanan wrote that a heather bed was “so pleasant, that it may vie in softness with the finest down, while in salubrity it far exceeds it and restores strength to fatigued nerves, so that those who lie down languid and weary in the evening, arise in the morning vigorous and sprightly.” We have plenty of heather beds here at Nymans but not the sort the King was referring to!
Berberis georgeii is one of a number of non-heather plants to be found in this part of the Nymans garden
As you can see from the picture above, the Heath Garden at Nymans is not only filled with heathers, but also plenty of other botanic gems to increase the interest even more. Planted in the middle of the beds and in amongst the feature plants are things which combine well with heathers such as coloured stems on shrubs like Dogwood (Cornus sp.) and trees such as Betula utilis and Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry). There are also tall ornamental grasses which provide a good contrast of form, dwarf conifers such as the beautiful blue Abies pictured below and low-growing ericaceous shrubs such as Rhododendron racemosum ‘Forrest’s Dwarf’ for instance. There is even one of our Champion Trees growing in one of the heather beds. Hakea lissosperma, the tree which is the largest of its kind in the UK, is a James Comber original collection and hails from Tasmania and south east Australia.
Abies concolor ‘Compacta’
Hopefully this has piqued your appetite to come and have a look at the heathers in our Heath Garden here at Nymans sometime soon. Of course, there is plenty more to see and do here at all times of the year so to make sure you keep up to date with all that is going on here, don’t forget you can interact with us on both Twitter and Facebook as well as finding out all the important visitor information via our official website. If you want to be alerted by email when each new Nymans Garden Blog is published, simple click the ‘Follow’ button at the top of this page and carry out the instructions.