A peony with a rocky past

The little-known tale of a spectacular peony whose 60-year journey to Wisley spanned half the globe

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Paeonia 'Highdown'Paeonia ‘Highdown’. A specimen growing in the Dry Borders at RHS Garden Wisley propagated from the plant that still grows at Sir Frederick Stern’s old garden near Goring-by-Sea, Sussex, and descended originally from plants encountered by Joseph Rock in Gansu, China. See also photo at the end of this article.

Joseph Rock

Joseph Rock (1884-1962). Born in Austria, Rock (centre) emigrated to the USA in his early 20s. He became an expert on the flora of Hawaii before going to Asia to collect plants where he found adventure among the warring peoples of the Tibetan borderlands. A scholar as well as a man of action, Rock’s published studies of the culture and language of the Nakhi people of northern Yunnan stand testament to his learned and enquiring nature.
A portrait dated 1920 of Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), the first Director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum (left) and founder of its library with the donation of six thousand of his own books. Sargent’s obsession with dendrology and the development of his arboretum was legendary and it was he who sent Joseph Rock to Gansu and Tibet to collect botanical specimens unknown in the West. His published works include a number on the forests and trees of North America.

Sir Frederick Stern (right) in military uniform on the occasion of his being awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1940.
Sir Frederick Stern at Highdown
Sir Frederick Stern (1884-1967, far right) at his garden at Highdown, Sussex, which he developed from a disused chalk pit. This picture was probably taken fairly shortly after his purchase of the Highdown Estate in 1909. Stern saw active service in the First World War in Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine, rising to the rank of Colonel and receiving the Military Cross. However, it is for his gardening exploits that he is most remembered. He was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1940 and a Knighthood in 1956 for his services to horticulture. Among his publications is A Study of the Genus Paeonia (1946).

Peony 'Highdown' at Wisley

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