Even before the 21/2 acre walled garden’s rebirth in the 1990s,West Dean gardens and park had long been known as a training centre in conservation and the arts, due to the personal passions of its founder and benefactor, the landownerEdward James(1907-1984).
James spent 25 years of his later life in the Mexican rainforest at Xilitla, where he built a series of Surrealist, temples, pagodas and fountains.
The chillicollection isthe most comprehensive collection of fiery capsicum species in this country, and was gathered in recent years by husband and wife team Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, the garden’s managers.
‘Historically, 100 aubergine plants were grown here at the turn of the century,’ Miss Wain says.
‘So we thought we would grow some other exotics such as tabasco or cayenne. Then one of the tutors in the college asked if we would grow more chillies for a botanical illustration class, and I grew six varieties in the second year.’
The collection has expanded annually ever since, and now totals162 pepper varieties(135 of which are hot) in a range of colours from ivory white through yellows, oranges, scarlets, dark purple, chocolatey brown, brilliant lime and deep forest green.And their shapes are as varied: from round, tight little berries to boxy bonnets such as Habanero; from pendent scimitars of Cayenne, to the curly-fruited corkscrew known as Bangalore Torpedo.
West Dean Gardens, West Dean, Chichester, West Sussex (01243 818 210) are six miles north of Chichester on the A286. The gardens are open May to September, daily, 11am-5pm.