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Magical Gardens - Myths and Folklore

What myths and folklore are hidden around the garden?


For Druids, mistletoe symbolised the spirit, as it grew in the air. Mistletoe was most treasured when found on oak trees because they are considered sacred.

It is thought that Druids believed that the hand of God placed it there with a strike of lightening. At the end of the year, it would be cut off by priests in white gowns who would not permit the plant to touch the ground. Two white bulls would then be slain where the oak had grown and the twigs of the mistletoe would be spread among the people. People believed the plant was protective and would place the twig above doors or carve them into rings and jewellery to ward of evils, such as attacks from witches and poisons. It could also be used as a general protection amulet. In British paganism, it was said that mistletoe was hung with red ribbon and then burned during Imbolc to protect the home and ward off disease at the height of winter.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) does not only grow from oak trees. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Today there are approximately 1,500 species of the plant. You can see a bunch of it in the Meadow field, high up on a tree.

Yew Tree

Another tree respected for its magical properties is the yew tree.

Also named ‘The Tree of Resurrection’ or ‘The Goddess Tree’, it has the ability to regenerate itself. A branch can grow down the centre of a tree, forming a brand new one, and because of this ability, it can be difficult to identify a yew tree’s exact age.

The oldest yew tree in the UK, is thought around 2000–3000 years old and is found in churchyard in Perthshire. Yew trees in England are often found in churchyards, popping up in approximately 500 around the country. It is thought yew trees could purify victims of the plague if placed on their graves.

Elder tree

The Elder tree is a truly magical plant. All parts of the tree can be used for good, like food and medicine.

The English elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon words, aeld meaning fire. In Elder tree folklore, the tree was believed to host a powerful spirit called the Elder Mother. People hung dried elder leaves to ward off evils from their home, and it was thought to be a lucky omen if an Elder tree grew near your home, as it would offer protection to your household. Use of the Elder tree required asking permission through a ritual, and if not asked, it is said the Elder Mother would seek revenge against the person who had offended her.

In some Christian legends, the elder tree has been given negative connotations. It was thought that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the tree after betraying Jesus. It is also said that the wood used in the crucifixion came from this tree, although it is unlikely the weight of the wood could bare the weight of a man.


Sage has become a widely used ingredient in our food dishes today but did you know the herb has a long history of being used for healing properties?

The scientific name for Sage is Salvia which comes from the Latin word Salveo, “to heal” or “to save”.

The Romans regarded sage as a holy herb. They used it to clean their teeth and believed it aided memory function. The Romans and the Egyptians both used the herb to preserve meat and to help with fertility.

In the Middle Ages, sage was used as a medicine. An old English practise was to eat sage every day in May, which was thought to grant immortality, and fresh sage leaves were said to cure warts, which may be due to its antibacterial properties. During this time people would use sage to cover rotting meat, both to help protect themselves and cover the smell, which may be why it is still so commonly used with roasting meat now.

Further reading:

Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees and Fruit, Charles. M. Skinner

Mindful journeys at the Horniman

We interviewed Sarah Strong from South London and Maudsley (SLaM) Recovery College about a resource to improve wellbeing while visiting the Horniman.

Could you explain the process of creating the resource – what did you do?

Participants of SlaM Recovery College attended our ‘Museums and Wellbeing’ course and, over a period of 6 weeks, developed the Horniman’s first wellbeing resource available to adults to explore the Museum with the aim of sustaining or boosting their mood.

We took the Wheel of Wellbeing, a visual framework based on positive psychology, as a basis for the activities to create an accessible introduction to the Museum and Gardens. As individuals or pairs we wandered around the building, responding to the displays by asking different questions about a variety of items and places. We then returned to the group, sharing our thoughts and suggestions, and discussed how our ideas might work. 

What is in the resource?

The Wellbeing Wander is a trail of sorts, a way of discovering what the Horniman has to offer in (hopefully!) manageable portions; it’s a great introduction to the Horniman if you haven’t visited before.

There are several activities to do both in the galleries and out in the Gardens, with some pointers to help you find your way. There are also some things to think about before you get there too; how you might think about objects around your own home, as well as the objects to see around the Horniman.

We’ve also provided all the useful information about facilities that can make your trip to Forest Hill a bit easier. It’s a guide that you can use again when you visit in future. It may even enhance your experience in other museums and galleries too.

Who is the resource for and why?

The resource is, first and foremost, aimed at those who have their mental and physical wellbeing in mind, but it is available to everyone.

Those who have lived experience of conditions and issues, such as anxiety or low mood, may find it particularly beneficial. Walking around the Horniman can be a mindful and calming experience, and we’ve also provided a few hints of where to go if you’d like a few moments of quiet time to yourself.

Why did you want to become involved?

I worked in a heritage collection for many years before working in mental health. I’m passionate about the importance of museums and galleries in life in general, and encouraging new audiences to discover all the amazing items they hold. I'm particularly excited about the positive role museums and gardens can play in improving wellbeing. 

How could someone use the Horniman for wellbeing? 

The Horniman is well suited for a project such as this, as it has the benefit of wonderful Gardens alongside the amazing Museum collections.

There is a variety of activities that you can participate in that can marry with the actions on the Wheel of Wellbeing, actions that have been proven to help wellbeing. This might be the very act of learning something new, taking time to observe and respond to the things around you, or just being in the open air and walking around the Gardens.

What do you want visitors to know about the resource and how would you recommend people use it?

I’d like to stress that it’s available and can be used by anyone even though it has been developed with wellbeing and mental health in mind.

You can follow every part of it or just use certain sections. You could use it as a generalised guide and apply it to other parts of the Horniman that we’ve not mentioned on the resource itself if you wish. If you know someone who gets anxious when travelling or going somewhere new, we’ve included some pre-trip things to think about to help get you on your way.

Did you learn or discover anything during the process?

I discovered just how much I miss working in the heritage sector and engaging with people who visit these places.

It was great to work with others in SLaM Recovery College who have the same enthusiasm for learning and collaborating on resources for the public at large. Working alongside a diverse range of others meant that I gained from their perspectives and it made me think about the Horniman and the needs of its potential visitors in a new way.

Why is it important to have resources like this in museums?

It’s important to acknowledge that different people interact with museums differently, and also that the spaces can be used in both traditional and non-traditional ways.

I hope that resources such as these might encourage people who don't visit museums often, or even at all, to come and investigate what's available at the Horniman.

The Wellbeing Wander resource is available online to print at home and behind the ticket desk.

A new breath of life for our Wildlife Pond

Shayna Soong, Schools Learning Officer discusses the recent Wildlife Pond renovation and upcoming family activities and school sessions on the Nature Trail. 

Nestled at the bottom of the Horniman Gardens lies a wonderful habitat corridor known as the Nature Trail. The site of a former railway, this trail is a tranquil oasis for wildlife and visitors alike.

At the end of the trail lays a wildlife pond and log meadow – both fantastic habitats in their own right, and a great setting for school and family outdoor learning sessions.

Unfortunately, the pond had rather suffered in recent times – the dipping platform was decaying, the water had filled up with tree leaves and duckweed, and the whole area was overgrown and gloomy.
  • Platform Nature Trail, Before: the old platform. slippery, sagging and too small, Wesley Shaw
    Before: the old platform. slippery, sagging and too small, Wesley Shaw
  • Duckweed and pond, Pond covered in duck weed and rotting platform timbers, Wesley Shaw
    Pond covered in duck weed and rotting platform timbers, Wesley Shaw

Gardens Team to the rescue!

Kevin and Daniel of the Gardens team set to work early this year, digging out the decaying old platform, clearing vegetation and excavating a new route to the log meadow.

The team built a new, extended platform with non-slip strips, a seating/workspace at the back and removable barriers at the front. A fabulous walkway was also created, with steps up to a new gate providing direct access to the log meadow.

The duckweed has been cleared and native marginal and submerged pond plants have been established. The tree canopy has also been reduced to allow more light into the pond. These measures will help to oxygenate the pond which, in turn, will encourage more aquatic wildlife.
  • new steps Nature Trail , After: new steps and gate through to log meadow− © Wesley Shaw
    After: new steps and gate through to log meadow
  • Foundations of platform - Nature Trail , Foundations for the new platform, Wesley Shaw
    Foundations for the new platform, Wesley Shaw
  • Kevin sawing decking for the new platform, Kevin sawing decking for the new platform, Wesley Shaw
    Kevin sawing decking for the new platform, Wesley Shaw
  • Kevin and Daniel hard at work, Kevin and Daniel hard at work, Wesley Shaw
    Kevin and Daniel hard at work, Wesley Shaw
  • The finished platform, The finished platform, Wesley Shaw
    The finished platform, Wesley Shaw
  • Pond cleared of duckweed, Pond cleared of duckweed, Wesley Shaw
    Pond cleared of duckweed, Wesley Shaw
There are plenty of newts living in the pond, the star of any pond dipping session, along with aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly nymphs and water boatmen.

The improvements to the pond and surrounding area will make a huge difference to the experience of families and school groups taking part in learning sessions on the Nature Trail.

The Learning Team would like to extend a huge “thank you” to the Gardens Team, in particular, Kevin and Daniel, for their time and hard work.

Learning outdoors

  • Pond dipping , Pond dipping session, Megan Taylor
    Pond dipping session, Megan Taylor
For schools, the Nature Trail is a fantastic place to bring your Science topic to life. During guided learning sessions, pupils can directly experience native British habitats and learn a range of fieldwork skills under expert guidance, and all in a safe, managed environment.
For more information about Schools Learning Sessions on the Nature Trail, see Habitat Explorers for KS1 or Go Outside: Pond and Meadow for KS2 & 3.
Families can also experience the wonders of the Nature Trail during supervised pond dipping sessions during the school holidays and guided Welly Walk events.
Upcoming events:
Pond DippingTuesdays 9 and 16 April

Walking the Horniman

Walking is one of the simplest exercises we can do; even 10-minute brisk walks can have great benefits to our overall health. We’ve put together a walking guide to the Horniman, its architecture and some of the surprises in the Museum.

The Architectural Walk

  • Clock Tower, Sophia Spring
    , Sophia Spring

The impressive Clocktower, made from Doutling Stone has become an iconic feature of the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Originally built in 1901, it’s a glowing beacon on top of Forest Hill. The clock tower was further extended in 1911 by Emslie Horniman, son of our founder Frederick Horniman.

Both the original building and the Emslie Horniman extension were designed by Charles Harrison Townsend.

Once you have admired the front of the building, take a walk around it to the left and you’ll find the green-roofed CUE building, which houses our Library and some offices.

The CUE building opened in 1996 and was designed by local architects Architype using methods developed by Walter Segal. The grass roof has been constructed with sustainable materials and CUE stands for Centre for Understanding the Environment.

An ecological survey of the Library building’s green roof recorded 52 insect species living there, including a rare type of ant and other unusual species. We also have a living roof on our Pavilion. They are self-sustaining and, no, we don’t mow them!

Past the Museum entrance and the Café is the Conservatory on the right.

Originally built in 1894, the grade ll Victorian Conservatory was an extension of the Horniman family house at Coombe Cliffe, Croydon. Having been abandoned for many years and in a derelict state, the Conservatory was moved to the Horniman in the 1980s and opened in 1987. The Conservatory today holds some beautiful events and even weddings, and is occasionally used by the Café as a pop-up tea room. It’s even been featured in magazines such as Vogue.

Read in more detail about the conservatory’s reconstruction and history.

Continue up the avenue and you will reach the Bandstand terrace with the beautiful views over London behind it.

The Bandstand dates from 1912 and was also designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. It was renovated in 2012 with new floorboards, its original weather vane was restored, and screens which blocked the windows for decades were replaced with glass. The Bandstand and the modern Pavilion (built in 2012) both offer beautiful views of the Meadow Field below, Dawson’s Heights and London’s skyline.

Behind you is the Dutch Barn. Frederick Horniman brought this small building back from Holland and it dates from around 1895. It now provides a useful indoor shelter for picnics in inclement weather.

Read more about Horniman’s architecture.

The Interactive Walk

Play a tune and tap a beat on the musical sculptures in the Sound Garden, the sounds echo throughout the acres connecting the Gardens to the music collections in the Museum.

Visit the Animal Walk to meet the rabbits, alpacas and sheep, as well as goats and guinea pigs. These living specimens connect us to Fredrick Horniman’s vision of linking the outside to the inside of the Horniman. Linking to the Museum’s Natural History collections, it looks at the connection between domesticated animals and their wild relations, and why people live alongside domesticated animals.

Stop by the Butterfly House, which is a warming comfort in the colder months and full of delightful creatures and plants all year round. Learn about the different species and life-cycles of these beautiful creatures from around the world, in a tropical habitat with over 500 plants.

Step into the Museum and head to the Nature Base, where you can learn about the behaviours of the wildlife living in the city. View insects close up, touch a taxidermy fox or badger, and see the harvest mice scurry. The honey bees are busy in their transparent home, making honey in their special hive.

Down the stairs and in the World Gallery you can leave your thoughts and wishes on the Cloutie tree. In the British Isles people have tied scraps of fabric to trees that grow near sacred wells or springs for thousands of years, to wish for wellbeing or thanks. Look at the wishes of others, and leave your thoughts on the tree or in our feedback area for others to ponder over.

Downstairs we have our Aquarium, where you can watch all manner of aquatic life, from hopping frogs to floating jellyfish.

  • Child at aquarium tank with Jellyfish, Laura Mtungwazi Beaullah
    , Laura Mtungwazi Beaullah

Gardens Walk

Wander through the Grasslands Garden, with wild landscapes featuring spectacular plants from North American prairie and South African grasslands. Its naturalistic planting scheme was devised by Olympic Park designer James Hitchmough and made to complement the World Gallery.

Our Sunken Gardens are a hive for botanical plants.

Admire the old olive trees before taking in the Medicine Garden. Planted in ten ‘body part’ sections, the Medicine Garden features a range of plants used to treat illness in different areas of our body. Some are local remedies that have persisted through time while others have formed the basis of modern medicines.

Next to this is the Dye Garden. Read about natural dyes and the processes used draw the dye from the plants, with different colours grouped between coloured yarn.

Admire the planting in the display around the pond. Built in 1936, the Arts and Crafts style Sunken Garden has spectacular floral displays which area planted for spring and late summer.

Behind this is the Materials Garden, featuring plants used by people around the world to make products as diverse as building materials to textiles and musical instruments.

Take a stroll up towards the Bandstand and you will pass the Pollinator bed. This border opposite the Bandstand contains about 50 different species of plants and has been designed to be attractive to pollinating insects. Pollinating insects like bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies transfer pollen from one flower to another, helping the plants to fruit and set seed.

Follow the path higher and you will reach the Prehistoric Garden, complete with velociraptor. Prehistoric plants and living fossils are planted with information to tell you about which dinosaurs they appealed to.

Walk past the Prehistoric Garden to the South Downs meadow. This is a secluded and peaceful spot that is often quieter, featuring Canadian maple trees and spring flowers, like snowdrops and crocuses. Offering views of Kent on the eastern edge of the site, it’s a perfect spot for a little picnic.

The Sundial Trail

Have you spotted any sundials whilst walking the Gardens? There actually 12 of them and some may be read differently from what you may think. 

Solar time is a bit different from clock time. We use clock time, day to day, based on 24 hours of equal length. However, solar time changes slightly day to day due to the tilt of the earth and its elliptical orbit around the sun. Have a go at finding them all, or cheat a little and use this handy little guide.

This is just a small slice of the walks around the Horniman. Have an adventure and see what wonders you can find. 

New year, new resolutions

It’s a brand new year and usually, that means we say goodbye to our old ways and give ourselves new goals to aspire to. Setting New Year’s resolutions is a tradition around the world, so what resolutions have you made? To give you some ideas, we have rounded up some resolutions to help you get your year off to a great start. 

Be more active


You may not want to sweat out in the gym and purchase that expensive gym membership. So how about a run, walk or even a stroll in our Gardens?

Apart from the health benefits from exercise, a walk in our Gardens is free and, no matter the season, there are always new blooms of life flourishing across our 16 acres of land. Have a play in the interactive sound garden, walk your dogs or discover quiet corners for contemplation.

There are also proven mental health benefits to spending time in nature, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety. So discover what our gardeners and curators have developed outdoors, to coincide with the Museum’s collections.

Read a few more books

Did you know that every 1st Sunday of the month our library opens its doors to the public without any need for an appointment? The collection contains books covering anthropology to illustrated monographs and now has over 30,000 volumes.

The library is also staffed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open to researchers on these days by appointment (please email enquiry@horniman.ac.uk).

Or, if you want to read more with your children, you can find books on our Natural History Gallery Balcony and a reading corner on our World Gallery Balcony.

Spend more time with family and friends

The Horniman offers many free activities, whether you are visiting alone, with a friend or with family.

From photographic displays on our World Gallery Balcony to our permanent collections there is always something to see and to think about.

In the Hands on Base, you can get closer to artefacts and objects. Whether you are interested in Mexican masks or want to learn more about endangered animals, who knows what you will discover in our free object-handling sessions.

Culture has a positive impact on wellness, so making some time for yourself in places like the Horniman, really can help you feel better.

View our Whats On calendar to see current and upcoming events and exhibitions.

Give something back to your community

  • Youth Panel , Balistic
    , Balistic

Volunteering gives an opportunity to give back to your local community, which has social benefits for groups like the over 40s.

Keep an eye on our website for ways to get involved or follow us on LinkedIn to hear about new opportunities.

If you’re aged between 14 and 19 and are interested in making a difference at the Horniman, why don’t you join the Horniman Youth Panel?

The Tallgrass Prairie of the Midwest

Head of Horticulture, Wes Shaw, travelled to the US recently to learn more about prairies, following our Grasslands Garden opening in June.

Our new Grasslands Garden, which opened earlier this year, draws its inspiration from the grassland habitats of the North American Prairie and the South African Drakensburg mountain region.

It was designed by James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University, who specialises in studying wild herbaceous plant communities to create spectacular urban planting schemes.

  • Wes grasslands trip, C Churcher
    , C Churcher

In July, I travelled to the Midwest of the USA to experience the prairie first-hand. I flew in and out of Chicago and, with the help of Marcus de la fleur, a Chicago resident and expert on the prairie, I travelled more than 2,000 miles over two weeks, to see some of his recommended locations.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Wes Shaw
    Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Wes Shaw

The prairie used to cover millions of square miles, from Texas all the way up into Canada.

Sadly, there is less than 1% of this amazing habitat left after early settlers began to plough the land for agriculture, using the nutrient-rich prairie soil. What little is left is now protected and managed by enthusiastic volunteers and conservation organisations, and survives in small pockets amongst corn fields and the suburbs.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Echinacea sp flowering amongst the prairie grass Big Blue Stem Andropogon gerardii, Wes Shaw
    Echinacea sp flowering amongst the prairie grass Big Blue Stem Andropogon gerardii, Wes Shaw

The types and variety of plants in a prairie depend on the geographical features and available water in each landscape, but prairie vegetation predominantly consists of a mixture of grasses and herbaceous plants. The area of the Midwest I travelled through is dominated by tallgrass prairie.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Wolf Road Prairie Reserve, Wes Shaw
    Wolf Road Prairie Reserve, Wes Shaw

I was advised by Marcus that the best locations to see a diversity of flowering plants are sites that were burned earlier in the year, as part of a management schedule.

Prescribed burning mimics natural wildfires that would have been started by lightning strikes, or by the indigenous people, as a method of herding buffalo to migrate and feed on the new growth of burnt land.

Burning is integral to the survival and health of the prairie, as it kills invasive woody plants, clears away dead vegetation, and returns nutrients to the soil.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Prairie-burning in action , M De La Fleur
    Prairie-burning in action , M De La Fleur

The prairie is an important habitat, because it provides an enormous food resource for birds, butterflies, insects and wildlife, ranging from prairie dogs to the mighty buffalo. The prairie was, and remains, very significant to the indigenous people who have a spiritual connection to the landscape, as it provided all the resources required for survival. 

  • Wes grasslands trip, Buffalo grazing in Blue Mounds State Park, Wes Shaw
    Buffalo grazing in Blue Mounds State Park, Wes Shaw

Visually, they are a truly beautiful sight. The prairie has stunning grasses and flowering perennials that bloom in succession from spring into the autumn months – compare that to our own native wildflowers that have all but finished flowering by mid-summer.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Marcus de la fleur enjoying Asclepia tuberosa in full flower, Wes Shaw
    Marcus de la fleur enjoying Asclepia tuberosa in full flower, Wes Shaw

The North American prairie has for some years been an influence on garden designers and horticulturists, with a new perennial movement starting in the 1990s that attempted to recreate the naturalistic look and qualities of the prairie.

Practitioners of this style of naturalistic planting include Piet Oudolf, James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, and Beth Chatto.

Many prairie plants have made their way across the pond, and are commonly seen on sale in garden centres and plant nurseries. They make really good garden plants because many flower into late summer and are good at putting up with hot dry conditions. They also look great!

Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Liatris spicata (Blazing Star) and Aster ericoides (Heath Aster) are all plants that you will see in gardens across the UK.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Blazing Star and Rattlesnake Master flowering , Wes Shaw
    Blazing Star and Rattlesnake Master flowering , Wes Shaw

The prairie locations for the connoisseur plant hunter, are the ones that are called 'remnant', meaning they have never been ploughed. These sites give the best indication of what natural prairie habitat would have looked like when most of the Midwest was grassland, and they usually have the best diversity of flowering plants… so more bang for your buck.

Of the surviving prairie, most is restored vegetation rather than remnant. These are the areas that are undergoing work to remove unwanted woody plants and trees in an attempt to recreate the look and diversity of remnant prairie, but this is a slow and difficult long-term endeavour.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Markham Prairie Nature Preserve, remnant, Wes Shaw
    Markham Prairie Nature Preserve, remnant, Wes Shaw

Exploring the prairie isn’t for the faint-hearted: it is a harsh environment full of mosquitos, ticks and chiggers (a type of mite) and is VERY hot and humid in the summer months.

Tallgrass prairie can be over 10ft in height, and can be difficult to navigate.

A prairie explorer needs to be well-equipped in the field. The following equipment is essential: bug spray; long socks to tuck trousers into (a tactic used to avoid ticks, but not a great fashion statement); water; hat; sunglasses; and sun lotion. Finally you need a good field guide so you can recognise the huge assortment of flowering plants and grasses.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Me demonstrating just how tall, tall grass prairie is
    Me demonstrating just how tall, tall grass prairie is

My two-week exploration of the prairie was an amazing experience, and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to appreciate first-hand such an amazing habitat. I was able to see many of the plants we are growing in the Grasslands Garden in their natural habitat, which for a horticulturist is priceless to understand how they grow and relate that to our own garden display.

I was very lucky to have Marcus as my prairie guide – he gave up a lot of his time which I am very grateful for.

I also have to thank the Royal Horticultural Society for funding my travels through their fantastic bursary scheme.

I hope this blog will encourage readers to come and visit the Grasslands Garden and perhaps, if they ever travel to the Midwest, to look out for those last remaining pockets of prairie.

Growing a Garden from Scratch

Damien from the Gardens team fills us in on the challenges of growing so many plants from other environments right here in Forest Hill.

With the help of Professor of Horticultural Ecology James Hitchmough, our Gardens Team has developed a new Grasslands Gardens and that has meant planting 5,000 perennials from North America and South Africa. 

It’s particularly satisfying for us to see so many plants emerge in our Grasslands Gardens because we produced most of them from seed or cuttings in the Horniman’s own nursery.

  • Grasslands Garden, The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher
    The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher

Roughly 95% of the North American and 40% of the South African species for the display were produced in-house.

Planning for production began in February 2017 when we sat down to look over the final plant list for the beds. Plant production in the Horniman nursery in the past had been mostly bulk crops of annuals – perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 plants per crop - for bedding out the Sunken Garden, so the numbers we saw on the list weren’t a worry for us.

  • Grasslands Garden, The planting plan, Damien Midgley
    The planting plan, Damien Midgley

The largest crops for this project were Echinacea paradoxa, Echinacea tennessensis and the prairie grass Sporobolus heterolepis. These were to be grown in crops of 300 plants each, with most crops under 100 plants.

The big difference with this project was that we weren’t producing quick-growing annuals: plants that complete their life cycle, germination to death, in a single season. These are slower, more demanding perennials for a permanent display. This meant adjusting the growing techniques that the nursery was used to, and getting to know some unfamiliar species, in a short space of time.

James Hitchmough guided us on suitable soil mixes and this, combined with our own research along with information provided by seed suppliers, guided us on timings and conditions for sowing specific crops.

Our sowing mix was equal-parts potting compost, coarse sand, and horticultural grit. For reasons of space, we chose to sow into seed trays rather than individual pots.

As a general rule perennials are better sown into deep individual pots (nine centimetre pots are ideal) for quick, undisturbed root development but this takes up a lot of bench space. Other demands on the greenhouses in April meant space was at a premium, and sowing in trays bought us some time until plants for other projects left the nursery.

  • Grasslands Garden, Seeds and seedlings starting to grow, Damien Midgley
    Seeds and seedlings starting to grow, Damien Midgley

By mid-May, the nursery was starting to empty as plants for other displays went out into the Gardens. We finally had some bench space to work with, and some well-developed seedlings ready to be transferred to nine centimetre pots.

At this stage, our soil mix changed to four parts potting compost, three parts sand, and three parts grit. The higher proportion of potting compost reflecting the plants’ increasing nutrient requirements as they developed, while the sand and grit kept the growing medium open, oxygen-rich, and free-draining.

The process of moving the seedlings from shared seed trays to individual pots, known to gardeners as pricking out, was a major job for us at a busy time of year. Over 2,500 litres of soil mix had to be made up, thousands of pots filled and put into carry trays, hundreds of labels written, and of course, those thousands of seedlings carefully lifted from their trays and potted up one by one.

Once they were potted up the plants spent another fortnight in the greenhouse, recovering from their root disturbance in sheltered conditions. During the second of these two weeks, all the greenhouse vents and doors were left open 24 hours a day, gradually acclimatising the plants to outdoor conditions.

  • Grasslands Garden, Progress of the seedlings over time, Damien Midgley
    Progress of the seedlings over time, Damien Midgley

Finally, at the start of June, they were moved to the outdoor standing ground in the Horniman nursery to grow on to planting size under the watchful eye of the Gardens Team – aphids, snails, and slugs are a constant nuisance.

It was a long process but now that the beds are bursting into life for the public to enjoy we have no doubt it was well worth it.

We hope you’ll come by to visit this beautiful and constantly evolving new display garden.

  • Grasslands Garden, The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher
    The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher

Bird watching in London

David Darrell-Lambert has been working with the Horniman for years, leading the Dawn Chorus Walks. He has just published a new book about Bird Watching in London, so we caught up with him to find out more about his spots around the capital and how he got started.

When did you start bird watching? 

I started in the early 1980’s, my junior school teacher Ms Anderson took us on a trip to Rye House RSPB up the Lea Valley. The warden there explained to us that Coots (a type of water bird, all black bar a white bill with a white shield above it) have webbing between each section of their toes. They can then dive under the water to evade predators.

  • Coot in Hyde Park, Coot in Hyde Park, David Darrell-Lambert
    Coot in Hyde Park, David Darrell-Lambert

Moorhens (another type of water bird, black with white stripe down the side and a yellow and red bill, very smart) have long thin toes which they can use to pull themselves under the water and only leave their bill above the water, so they can breathe but the predator can’t get them. Well this just ignited my passion.

I dashed home from school and ask my dad to take me out every possible day to go birdwatching.  So by bus, tube and train we went off birdwatching across the capital and the UK.

What is your favourite spot to see birds in South London?

Oh, hard to choose there are so many. Clearly I have a massive fondness for the Gardens at Horniman. A lovely variety of trees, the big open slope and a great view north, I’ve seen so many lovely birds here and twice located Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest!

Crystal Palace Park is great too: lakes for ducks and gulls, mature trees for breeding birds, plus a massive vantage point to watch migrating birds flying over the capital. A bigger version than the Gardens at Horniman.  

What is your most unusual London bird spot?​ 

So many odd places to go!

Beddington Farmlands: it used to be a sewage farm for many years and then they started using it as rubbish tip and now unfortunately as an incinerator. Not happy about that!

It gets some amazing migrant birds there from a Citrine wagtails from Eastern Europe, to a Glaucous-winged Gull from the west coast of America. This year they had a Hoopoe which is European bird turn up in the spring.

  • Citrine wagtail, Citrine wagtail, David_Raju (Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0)
    Citrine wagtail, David_Raju (Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0)

It is used to hold the only Tree sparrow population left in the capital with fifty plus pairs but due to their habitat being destroyed they are down to a few pairs.  

What do you hope to see in the capital?

There is so much to see in the capital from Little or Tawny owls present in many parks and woods, to rare breeding birds such as Peregrines which are now doing very well in the capital.

Or even the specialised Black redstart, a small Robin like bird which the males are mostly black all over with a bright red tail which they shimmer! Most of the time I am happy to see almost anything in London, from discovering a new population of House sparrows somewhere, to listening to a Wren nesting next to bus stop or the fruity song of a Blackbird singing in the evening on a TV aerial.

  • Black redstart, A Black redstart, David Darrell-Lambert
    A Black redstart, David Darrell-Lambert

I really like finding a migrant bird, so in October I love to heard sharp thin zeep calls of Redwings migrating at night, which pile out of northern Europe and cross the capital heading south to escape to freezing northern winters.

What are ways we can help the capital’s bird population? 

Firstly, make your garden as wildlife friendly as you can or willing too.

Plant native species such as hawthorn which are great for insects and then a great good source for our birds.  Put up feeders for birds, whether many or just a few, and remember to keep them full throughout the year and vary what you put in there. In my garden the House sparrows love the mixed seed whilst the Greenfinch and Goldfinch love the sunflower hearts.

  • Birds at a bird feeder, Birds at a bird feeder, Phil Burrows via Pixabay
    Birds at a bird feeder, Phil Burrows via Pixabay

Put out some water. You don’t have to build a pond, you can just put a bowl out or hanging bird bath which will used to wash in and drink from.  I have the last two and the other day a young Magpie sat right in the middle of the bowl for a wash!

If you want to do more then offer your free time to a local wildlife charity. You can join a working party to create or manage habitat, do some fundraising, help with their admin or just become a member. This means they will get more money, and the more money they get then the more work they can do.

What should we should stop doing?

Rubbish and plastic! Recycle as much as possible so we don’t have as much rubbish that gets buried or burnt, neither of which are good for the environment. Try to use less plastic - the less we use, the less will end up in our rubbish regardless if it is recycled or not.

Oh yes, and never feed birds bread. It is no good for them and can pollute the water too if throw in to a pond or a lake.

How would you recommend someone gets started with bird watching in London? 

There are so many ways possible but I would say these two options.

Firstly, join a guided walk, whether it is via somewhere like the Horniman, where I have lead many early morning walks, listening to the explosive dawn chorus. Or your local wildlife group who will also do walks, such as the London Natural History Society. They run many across the capital throughout the year.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert
    Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert

Secondly, go to one of our premier reserves in the capital such as the London Wetland Centre run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Rainham Marshes run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or Walthamstow Wetlands run by the London Wildlife Trust. They will be able to tell you where you can see birds on their sites and at some you can hire binoculars for the day too. Some places even have guides position around their site so you can ask them what is about or what you can see in that area.  

Remember always to just have fun and enjoy the day.

David Darrell-Lambert is a Ornithological Consultant and author. Find out more about Birdwatching London.

Stars of the Grasslands Garden

Our Grasslands Garden is now open to explore and our Gardener Damien has picked some of his favourite plants in the display. 

Regular visitors to the Gardens may have noticed that the central beds of our new Grasslands Gardens are bursting into life. 5,000 North American and South African perennials planted by the Gardens team last year are waking from their dormancy, and I thought I’d highlight a few of my favourites.

The earliest flowers have bloomed already but there is plenty more to come, with many of the species at their best in late summer. So do come along and visit.

Dodecatheon meadia, ‘shooting star’

I love Dodecatheons so my heart did a little somersault when I saw this on the list for the beds. Dodecatheon meadia is a spring-flowering, summer-dormant relative of the primrose from eastern North America. Its hanging purple flowers have strongly reflexed petals – so much so that they remind me of falling shuttlecocks. Its common name, more poetically, is 'shooting star'.

After germination Dodecatheon seedlings grow for a month or so before doing what, to the uninitiated, looks like dying. They’re actually entering dormancy, which is quite unusual for a plant at such an early stage of development. After spending summer and winter as tiny dormant buds in the soil, they then emerge again the next spring. The first flowers usually come in the third year from sowing.

Time to see in flower: April-May

  • Dodecatheon Meadia, C T Johansson (CC BY 3.0)
    , C T Johansson (CC BY 3.0)

Castilleja integra, ‘wholeleaf Indian paintbrush’

Another from North America, this time from the south-west. Also, a slight tease as it isn’t in the display just yet. The reason for this is it’s a hemiparasitic plant that draws most of its nutrition from the roots of other plants which is tricky to establish in cultivation.

We’re currently growing this in the nursery by allowing it to attach itself to pots of Canadian fleabane. The plan is to introduce some pots like this into the display this autumn. We would allow the roots time to make contact with other plants in the display, then remove the fleabane once the Castilleja has established on other host plants.

It usually parasitizes grasses in the wild, so we’re hoping this preference will help wean it off its current dependence on the fleabane once we plant out.

Time to see in flower: June-September

  • Catilleja integra, Wikicommons (in public domain)
    , Wikicommons (in public domain)

Echinacea pallida, ‘pale purple coneflower’

This is one of the real stars of the North American section of the display. Echinacea purpurea, along with its hybrids, is more familiar in UK gardens but Echinacea pallida is a wonderful, strong-growing plant with pale pink, drooping petals. Slugs and snails are a problem with Echinaceas while they’re young so checking the sides and bottoms of pots was a regular job when we were growing these. As you can imagine, a few thousand pots squeezed together provided plenty of hiding places for hungry critters.

Time to see in flower: June-July

  • Purple Coneflower, SEWilco (CC BY 3.0)
    , SEWilco (CC BY 3.0)

Cotyledon orbiculata var dactylopsis, 'pig's ear'

This fleshy-leafed succulent from South Africa was one of the few plants we propagated from cuttings rather than seed. A few people have mistaken this for an Aloe in the display, presumably because of the long, tapering, fleshy leaf. Cotyledon orbiculata’s usual leaf form is actually ovate like its close relative, the popular houseplant Crassula ovata, the Jade plant. They are quite different though and we have a breed with cylindrical leaves, hence its variety name: dactylopsis meaning ‘looking like a finger’.

Time to see in flower: July-September

  •  Pig's Ear, Noodle snacks (CC BY-SA 2.5)
    , Noodle snacks (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Bulbinellaeburniflora, 'Bleekkatstert'

This beautiful, fleshy-rooted plant with striking white flower spikes occurs in the Renosterveld and Fynbos plant communities in South Africa. It is listed as vulnerable in the wild, where its habitat is threatened by agriculture and livestock grazing.

We produced ours from seed but got satisfactory germination only at the second attempt. It germinates naturally as temperatures cool after the summer heat. Our initial summer sowing produced very little but an early autumn sowing a few months later, with warmth during the day but cooler nights, brought a good number of seedlings.

As well as Bulbinella eburniflora we are growing plants of its relatives Bulbinella latifolia and Bulbinella nutans. All are currently growing on the nursery standing ground and should be introduced to the display in autumn or spring, another incentive to keep coming back to see this dynamic, changing display.

Time to see in flower: July-August

  • 800px-Bulbinella_latifolia_var._doleritica_0zz, David Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0-
    , David Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0-

The Colour Wheel

Inspired by Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, horticulturist Nick Gadd has devised a planting scheme to recreate a colour wheel using bedding plants in our Sunken Garden. We caught up with him to find out how.

With nature offering so many colourful plants, how did you choose which ones to include?

We had to choose plants to match particular tones of the colour wheel – the challenge is to achieve the right shade of yellow, not just any yellow for instance. We’ve also chosen plants with a long flowering season, or those that flower repeatedly.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (9), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

How did you cope with green? Are there green flowers?

For the green and yellow-green segments we’re using two plants chosen for the colour of the foliage rather than their flowers – Carex comans ‘Phoenix Green’ and Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Wizard Golden’.

How many individual plants make up each slice?

Because we’ve applied the colour wheel design on to a rectangular area the segments vary in size. The larger corner segments will take about 590 plants each, while we’ll only need around 340 plants in the smaller segments. It’s about 30 plants per square metre.

How many of them were grown on site?

We’ve had to grow the plants for the two green segments on site as they aren’t conventional bedding plants which means they’re not easily available commercially in the size and quantity we need.

Will all the colours flower at the same time? When will the garden be at its best?

There’ll be a good period when all the flowers will bloom simultaneously – roughly from the end of June once it has had a chance to establish itself and then throughout the summer. Some will flower sooner, so we’ll keep deadheading them to encourage more flowers while we wait for the other plants to ‘catch up’.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (4), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

Thank you to The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association for funding this display.

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