The trees of Heene Cemetery

Botanic Gardens Conservation International published a landmark State of the World’s Trees report in 2021, the culmination of five years of research. Of the world’s 60,000 tree species, they found that 17,500 tree species are at risk of extinction. The trees of Heene Cemetery are a miniscule part of that enormous picture, yet that context is worth bearing in mind as we consider this small corner of Worthing.

Looking down on Heene Cemetery in the verdant month of May, its one acre rectangle is a tangle of green growth. It’s hard to tell grass and flowers from bushes and trees. Yet the trees dominate the cemetery, many of them emerging from the gaps between graves, gradually shouldering masonry aside as they have burgeoned over the years. They collectively provide a green canopy for the cemetery that is an essential part of its natural charm.

This post attempts to map the cemetery’s trees photographically, whilst exploring what value each species of tree has to the cemetery as a whole.

Heene Cemetery, viewed from above, May 2022. Image courtesy of Matt Standing.

The cemetery, of course, has not always looked like this. Although we do not have photographic evidence that is a hundred percent comparable with this aerial view, there is an aerial photograph of part of the cemetery taken in 1924:

Heene Cemetery and its immediate surroundings, 1924.

Time has wrought some dramatic changes. The monochrome view above was taken when the cemetery was still in use, no doubt with a small team of people devoted to its maintenance. Its tidy appearance – even from several hundred feet above – is striking. Most of the trees in this photograph look to be growing either along the verges of St. Michael’s Road or Manor Road, rather than inside the cemetery itself. Those that seem to be within the cemetery’s walls, appear not to exist today.

The most obvious thing about this 1924 view is that there is no sign of the three Monterey Cypress trees that today dominate the north-east corner of the cemetery. Careful checking of the position of trees in this old photograph shows that they don’t match those of the cypresses that are there today.

Heene Cemetery and its immediate surroundings, 1924 – with tree codes.

The three red dots in the photograph above show the position today of the three Monterey Cypress trees. The tree whose canopy is circled blue in the above photograph no longer exists, although what might be the stump of that tree can be seen today; somewhat amazingly, a mature Holly tree is today growing out of it.

These images tell a fascinating story about the emergence and disappearance of the cemetery’s trees. Although it could be said that their greatest ‘predator’ is man with his axes and chainsaws, if left alone, they are extraordinarily tenacious.

Except for various trees planted in the last ten years, the majority of the trees in Heene Cemetery were NOT planted by man. Instead, wind blew in their seeds or squirrels buried them or birds deposited them. Over time, these miniature natural grenades have exploded into life and forced their way up into the space above the graves and headstones. See this for yourself:

A Monterey Cypress emerging from the grave of Sarah Maria Wood, buried in 1897, (left) and a different Monterey Cypress emerging from the grave of Sarah and John Collet, buried in 1928 and 1931, (right).
A Monterey Cypress emerging from the grave of Edgar, Elizabeth and Caroline Harvie, buried in 1910, 1930 and 1936, (left) and a Goat Willow emerging from the grave of Sybil Manwaring, buried in 1919, (right).
A Goat Willow (now sculpted) emerging from the grave of James and Isabella Rumsey, buried in 1901 and 1929, (left) and a Silver Birch emerging from the grave of Amy Rowe, buried in 1921, (right).
A Goat Willow emerging from the grave of Thomas and Margaret Cooper, buried 1912 and 1935, (left) and an English Elm emerging from the grave of Mary Emily Parr, buried in 1908 (right).
A Holm Oak emerging from the grave of Edwin Henry Crafer, buried in 1917 (left) and a Holly emerging from the grave of Christopher Andrew and Sarah Williams Sennett, buried in 1906 and 1908 (right).
A Goat Willow emerging from the grave of Violet Clarke, buried in 1921 (left) and a Silver Birch emerging from the grave of Kathleen Butler, buried in 1924 (right).

All the above trees – and many more – planted themselves long after the burials in whose graves they now grow.

We can now return to the aerial view of Heene Cemetery’s trees today. Below is the same 2022 aerial photograph, showing tree codes (not to scale) which are explained below.

Heene Cemetery, viewed from above, May 2022 – with tree codes.

Tree codes are: apple (Ap), ash (A), bay (B), elm (E), elder (Eld), goat willow (GW), hawthorn (Hw), hazel (Hz), holly (H), holm oak (HO), Irish yew (IY), large-leaved lime (LLL), Monterey cypress (MC), pedunculate oak (PO), rowan (R), silver birch (SB), spindle tree (Sp), wild cherry (WC), yew (Y).

Note that along the north wall (on the right-hand edge of these photographs) there are various trees outside the cemetery, planted on the south side of St. Michael’s Road. Although their branches protrude into the cemetery, these trees have not been listed here, although one – a sycamore – is inevitably parent to many saplings in the cemetery.

A gallery of Heene Cemetery’s trees

Trees are often too large to photograph ‘cleanly’ from short range, especially when different species are bunched together. Instead, the photographs used here look more closely at foliage, fruit or flowers, with just one photograph used for each species. Links are provided to individual species pages on this website, where you may find multiple photographs of each.

Monterey Cypress (MC)

Monterey Cypress, Heene Cemetery, August 2020.

It is a great irony that the three Monterey Cypresses (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa), the cemetery’s largest trees, have the least value in environmental terms. The Victorians – great plant collectors and importers – valued specimen trees, and these cypresses are splendid individuals, their graceful shapes providing shade and sobriety in a solemn setting. Yet, as we have seen above, these trees took root in the cemetery after 1924 and, therefore, don’t date back to the Victorian period.

These natives of the central coast of California cast a deadening shade and create a constant rain of acid needles on the ground below, rendering much of the north-east corner of the cemetery inhospitable to much else. Little will happily grow beneath their spreading branches. They do provide valuable cover for small birds such as the Goldcrest, but that’s about it.

In March 2020, in consultation with the council, the trees were given a light trim, as detailed in one of our blog posts.

Goat Willow (GW)

The catkins of a male Goat Willow tree, Heene Cemetery, March 2021.

There are between 10 and 15 Goat Willows (Salix caprea) in the cemetery. Four or five of these are fully mature trees with large canopies. The remainder form a dense thicket in the south-west corner. We have been given permission by the Council to coppice one of these trees each year.

In contrast to the cypresses, these Goat Willows are immensely beneficial to other species. Their foliage is eaten by moth caterpillars. The catkins on male trees (coated in yellow pollen) and female trees (coated in green pollen) attract hoverflies, bumblebees and bees in huge numbers, this rich food source often being the first available in bulk in early spring. When the catkins eventually fall to earth, they carpet the ground beneath the trees, where they are visited by these pollinators until the pollen has all been taken. The buzzing of these insects, busily feeding, is one of the cemetery’s special seasonal treats. Willows also shelter their own Giant Willow Aphid (which is ‘giant’ only for aphids).

Pedunculate Oak (PO)

Pedunculate Oak, Heene Cemetery, May 2022.

The Pedunculate Oak is the English Oak (Quercus robur). There are three in the cemetery. This is the tree from whose timbers the Royal Navy made their defensive ‘English wall’, the tree under which justice used to be dispensed and couples married, the tree which today serves as logo to the National Trust and the Woodland Trust.

In the cemetery – and across Britain – these oaks support more wildlife than any other species of tree. It is host to hundreds of species, providing an ample supply of food to birds. Grey Squirrels feed on their acorns. Leaf mould supports a myriad of invertebrates. Bats nest in the cracks of the tree’s trunk. Stag beetles are supported by the tree’s leaf mould. As these trees mature, Pied Flycatchers might nest in the bark’s crevices. We are just scraping the surface of what species might be found within the ecosystem of these marvellous trees.

Two types of wasp produce deformities in Pedunculate Oaks: the Knopper Oak Gall Wasp and the Spangle Gall Wasp. The former lays eggs in the tree’s acorns, which then develop deformities; the latter lays its eggs on the underside of the tree’s leaves, which develop rust-coloured flat disks. These are just two of the myriad of species hosted by the venerable Pendunculate Oak.

English Elm (E)

English Elm, Heene Cemetery, October 2020.

The graceful English Elm (Ulmus procera) is surprisingly numerous in the cemetery, although none attain the maturity that was a feature of England’s landscape prior to Dutch elm disease. The dozen or more individuals we have rise to a couple of metres before leaves start to wilt and fall, shoots dying back from the tip. The disease is caused by a fungus which is spread by the Elm Bark Beetle. Neither the fungus nor the beetle are Dutch, although the pathologists who researched the disease in the 1920s were. Afflicted trees will eventually die well before reaching maturity.

Despite this affliction, seeds and leaves provide food for birds, small mammals and moth caterpillars, although any butterflies that had adapted to laying their eggs on elms have declined dramatically since the disease first hit these trees in the UK in the 1960s.

One exception to that is the White-letter Hairstreak, a small, feisty butterfly whose presence was suspected by the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Michael Blencowe on a visit to the cemetery this June. On a follow-up visit, Michael and a group of volunteers were thrilled to witness this rare butterfly engaged in its habitual dogfights above a stand of elms, confirming the value of these trees to very specific species. In recognition of this, we have planted several disease-resistant English Elms to compensate for what will be the inevitable loss of the existing ones. These have been given a home in the north-central section of the Cemetery.

Holly (H)

Holly, Heene Cemetery, May 2020.

There are perhaps 10 Holly (Ilex aquifolium) trees in the cemetery. (There are others that are more shrub-like, being less than two-metres high.)

Their scarlet berries (which are the fruit product of their tiny white flowers being pollinated earlier in the year) are an important food source for birds – and small mammals – in winter. The spring flowers are a valuable food source for pollinators such as hoverflies, bumblebees and bees. The leaves themselves are also an important food source for the caterpillars of the Holly Blue Butterfly, which lays its eggs there.

That the Holly is evergreen is another bonus point, lending the cemetery valuable winter colour, and providing winter cover for small, hibernating mammals.

Large-leaved Lime (LLL)

Large-leaved Lime, Heene Cemetery, May 2020.

There is just the one Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos) in Heene Cemetery but it provides an important food source for aphids, who secrete a honeydew that hoverflies love to feed on. (Note: this is a type of street tree under which you don’t park your car – unless you like it being sticky.) Visit the tree at any time of the year when it’s still in leaf, and a variety of hoverflies will be guaranteed to be zipping about under this lovely tree. Ladybirds are also attracted to these aphids, which they eat in huge numbers. The green-yellow, five petal flowers that appear in spring provide nectar and pollen for bumblebees and bees.

There is a related lime, the Small-leaved lime, which produces suckers from the base of its trunk (whereas this Large-leaved Lime does not). This is an easy way to tell these two lime trees apart.

The leaves of these trees often show red, conical nail galls. (These are just visible in the photograph above.) These are caused by Eriophyes tiliae, a gall mite in the Arachnid class, as it feeds from the leaf’s surface, releasing chemicals which cause this deformity.

Yew (Y)

Yew, Heene Cemetery, June 2022.

There are two Yew (Taxus baccata) trees in the cemetery. Their characteristic red fruits are the only non-poisonous part of the tree, and are eaten by birds and small mammals.

Opinion is divided whether the tradition of planting yews in churchyards and cemeteries was to prevent cattle entering them or provide archers with wood for their bows (in return for tending the graves). At Heene, this is academic, as cattle and archers would have longed predated this 1873 cemetery.

One of the yews in the cemetery (in the east-central section) was planted to mark the millennium. The other (against the south wall) has an unknown history, but is likely to be the oldest living thing there, most likely pre-dating the creation of the cemetery itself.

Irish Yew (IY)

Irish Yew, Heene Cemetery, October 2020.

The Irish Yew (Taxus baccata f. fasciculata) is a variant of the Yew (Taxus baccata), and there is just the one in the cemetery (against the east wall). Its needles grow all around the tree’s twigs, not just in rows; that’s the difference to look for. The Irish Yew was first discovered growing in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1780. It is thought to be a natural mutant of the Yew.

Silver Birch (SB)

Silver Birch, Heene Cemetery, April 2020.

The cemetery is home to at least four Silver Birch (Betula pendula) trees, the largest of which is at the west end of the main west-east path. Its fissured bark makes it valuable to invertebrates; its leaves are attractive to aphids, and these in turn provide food for ladybirds and hoverflies; and its open canopy means that grasses and wildflowers have plenty of light to thrive beneath the tree. They are drought-tolerant. Siskins, greenfinches and redpolls eat the seeds which are borne in the pendulous catkins that appear at springtime. These trees also shelter their own Birch Shieldbug and Birch Catkin Bug.

These trees have an inherent grace, their drooping branches offering catkins like gifts to the world, their pale bark contrasting with the green rustle of the tree’s papery leaves. Whether consciously planted or taken root by the activity of wind or bird, the Silver Birch gives much to those who seek solace in cemeteries.

Rowan (R)

Rowan (or Mountain Ash), Heene Cemetery, July 2020.

The cemetery has one small Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). It is more likely to be found in upland regions than in Sussex’s coastal belt. Its alternate name of ‘Mountain Ash’ (although it is not a type of Ash tree) says as much. Yet it is welcome for its creamy white flowers in spring that develop into bright red berries in summer and autumn. Caterpillars and birds feed on their berries. Birds disperse the tree’s seeds as they eat the berries.

Birds that make good use of the berries provided by the Rowan are redstarts, redwings, song thrushes, waxwings and the Blackbird.

Ash (A)

Ash, Heene Cemetery, June 2022.

Adjacent to the cemetery’s solitary Rowan is an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) that, unfortunately, is not long for this world. It has succumbed to ‘ash die-back disease’ and will soon have to be removed for safety reasons. The disease is a fungus that was introduced to Europe about 30 years ago. The fungus overwinters in leaf litter, producing white fruiting bodies that release spores in late summer. These are then spread by wind, and will eventually kill trees on which they land. It is expected that 80% of the country’s ash trees will succumb to this disease.

When healthy, ash trees provide perfect conditions for woodland plants, seeds for a range of birds and bark that is a perfect host habitat for moss and lichen.

Hazel (Hz)

Hazel, Heene Cemetery, April 2020.

There are several Hazel trees (Corylus avellana) squeezed into the denser parts of the cemetery, although none of these are substantial. Left to their own devices, these trees can grow to a height of 12 metres; coppicing traditionally prevents them attaining that height. Male catkins appear in early spring before the leaves and, pollinated by wind, the female flowers produce clusters of fruits that develop into the famous hazelnuts that are associated with the Grey Squirrel.

Hazels are of great value to a wide range of creatures. Various species of moth caterpillars have it as their nursery habitat. Ground-nesting birds use its shelter-providing protection. Dormice feed on the hazelnuts, as does the Wood Mouse, and woodpeckers, tits, Woodpigeons and Jays.

Elder (E)

Elder, Heene Cemetery, May 2020.

A solitary Elder (Sambucus nigra) growing up against the cemetery’s north wall is all that we see of this glorious tree, its creamy flowers providing pollinating opportunities for insects, the resulting near-black, sour fruits appearing in late summer. If the berries aren’t gathered for wine (and they never are here), birds and mammals take them. Earlier in the year, a variety of caterpillars feed on the tree’s bright green foliage.

Bay (B)

Bay, Heene Cemetery, April 2022.

Two Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) have found a home in the cemetery: a small one against the north wall, and a large one in the south-east corner. Both provide shade under their evergreen foliage. As their Latin name indicates, they are also Laurel trees, the ones that furnished the leaves for the wreaths worn by champions in the games of Ancient Greece and, later, by Roman emperors. These days, the leaves have a more humdrum culinary use, where it is used for seasoning.

Although this shrub is poisonous to cats, dogs and horses, it is valued by various birds. Insects tend to be repelled by the smell of this shrub, although the Honey Bee is thought to tolerate it when its essential oils are used to deter the varroa parasite in bee hives.

Hawthorn (Hw)

Hawthorn or May, Heene Cemetery, May 2020.

Two Hawthorn trees (Crataegus monogyna) burst into spring flower in the south-central area of the Cemetery, their delicate petals attracting a buzz of pollinators in May. The tree’s alternate name is, appropriately, the May-tree. The creamy-white blossom beguilingly conceals the tree’s sharp thorns. These trees may be common, but they are no less valued, the pollinated flowers turning into red haw fruits in autumn.

These trees support a very wide variety of insects and birds, including caterpillars, dormice, bees and other pollinators. It even shelters its own Hawthorn Shieldbug.

Cultivated Apple (Egremont Russet) (Ap)

Cultivated Apple (Egremont Russet), Heene Cemetery, July 2020.

The main beneficiary of the Cultivated Apple (Egremont Russet) (Malus domestica) is man. We munch on the dessert apples that they produce. The yellowish-green fruits, slightly flushed with shades of brown and red, are dusted with the russet that gives them their name.

Second in the pecking order are the pollinators that frequent its pink-tinged, white blossoms at springtime. After them are the ‘pests’: aphids, mites, moths and caterpillars, all of which allow us to think of these trees as hosts that support biodiversity. Aphids, remember, are food for hoverflies; moths and caterpillars are food for birds. Everything is part of a grander food chain!

A further cultivated apple, a Peasegood’s Nonsuch was planted in the south-central section of the Cemetery on October 11th 2022. This is in recognition of Emma Peasgood and John Peasgood who are buried nearby. Their biographies are worth reading. (This planting took place after the aerial photograph above was taken.)

Spindle (Sp)

Spindle Tree, Heene Cemetery, June 2020.

There’s a solitary Spindle Tree (Euonymus europaeus) in the centre of the cemetery, planted around 2019, and supported by a metal frame. It has yet to show its pink and orange, popcorn-like fruits; we need to be patient. They can live for a hundred years.

With luck, this specimen will have a bright future, attracting pollinators to its gaudy flowers every spring. It may even become a favourite host of the Holly Blue butterfly, a not unreasonable hope, given that there is a Holly tree nearby that already provides that service. It may also become home to Green Lacewings.

Of course, all things must pass. Cemeteries, more than most other places, remind us so. We can see this happening with specific trees when viewed once more with a drone’s-eye view later in the year:

Heene Cemetery, viewed from above, August 2022 – with tree codes. Image courtesy of Matt Standing.

Tree codes are: ash (A), goat willow (GW), parts of a Monterey cypress (MC), silver birch (SB).

These trees are destined to either be felled or to be left for their value as habitats for invertebrates and insects, and perhaps their sculptural form. Although they will not be replaced like-for-like, other trees will be planted to help retain the Cemetery’s varied and very special, albeit town-centre, character.

Written by Rob Tomlinson