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How to Grow Beautiful Nerines in Your Garden

Nerines are delicate lipstick-pink flowers that explode outward from its stout stem, bringing joy and movement to your garden

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By House & Garden | September 27, 2023 | Gardens

Clare Foster delves into the history of the nerine, chooses the best varieties and advises on how to grow them for colour throughout the end of the season

Nerine ‘Sparkle’ is a hybrid derived from the more tender N. sarniensis, the original Guernsey Lily. Ideal for growing in a conservatory or glasshouse, the sarniensis hybrids have a wider colour range than the hardier species, and typically their flowers appear before their leaves, on a tall, elegant steam.

It is interesting that one of the earliest paintings of a nerine, dating back to the mid seventeenth century, is today widely available as poster art. The renowned French botanical artist Nicolas Robert (1614-1685) painted a single bloom of Nerine sarniensis (then known as Amaryllis sarniensis) soon after it was first introduced to France. Looking at the image today, the vivid, lipstick-pink flower exploding outward from its stout stem has a modernity that transcends history, and the print could almost be mistaken for a contem­porary work. This remarkable painting marks the point at which this distinctive South African bulb arrived in Europe, but despite the exotic appearance of the flower and the interest it generated, its introduction was shrouded in myth and muddle, with much confusion about its origins.

Nerines growing in at the foot of Western Cape mountains. Image via tristanwoudberg/Instagram.

Some botanists concluded quite wrongly that nerines arrived from Japan, while others thought that they came from the Channel Islands, where they had mysteriously appeared and grew prolifically in the wild. Such was the conviction that N. sarniensis was named after the Roman name for Guernsey, Sarnia. Even in the late eighteenth century, some of Britain's most respected botanists were still getting it spectacularly wrong. In his Gardeners Dictionary of 1768, Philip Miller stated that the plant 'was supposed to come originally from Japan, but has been many years cultivated in the gardens of Guernsey and Jersey; in both which places they seem to thrive as well as if it was their native country; and from those islands their roots are sent annually to the curious in most parts of Europe, and are commercially called Guernsey Lilies.' The truth was revealed only a few years later, when the plant hunter Francis Masson discovered flowers of N. sarniensis growing wild on Table Mountain during his travels in South Africa between 1772 and 1775.

As for the mystery of the Guernsey lily and how it had arrived there, no one quite knows. The widely held belief - upheld by the fact that the plant was named after the sea nymph Nerine in Greek mythology - is that boxes of bulbs were cast away from a sinking ship bound for Holland around 1655, and that the bulbs subsequently established themselves in the sand dunes after being washed ashore. Another theory is that they were brought to the Channel Islands by the Cromwellian general john Lambert. A keen gar­dener, 'Honestjohn' was thought to have acquired nerine bulbs from France to grow in his Wimbledon garden, and is supposed to have taken plants with him when he was exiled to Guernsey after the Restoration in 1660. Which­ever story is true, the plant was soon thriving in the Channel Islands, and to this day N. sarniensis is still grown there for cut flowers. For many years, this remained the only species of nerine grown in Europe, and it wasn't until 1903 that the hardier N. bowdenii arrived in Britain, sent back from South Africa by a man called Athelstan Cornish-Bowden to his mother in Devon.

Which varieties of nerine to grow

N. 'Stephanie' is a well-known cultivar with pale pink petals and a very dark centre, with a marked iridescence on the petals. Image via @tristanwoudberg/Instagram

All nerines have tall stems bearing pink, red or white flowers with loose umbels of funnel-shaped petals, some bold and curvy, others delicate and spidery. The flowers rise up 'naked' on leafless stems, with the strap-like leaves developing after flowering. In the wild, there are over 30 species, but only a small proportion of these can be grown outside in the British climate, with just one species, N. bowdenii, being reliably hardy up and down the country. This is the best-known species in Britain, its bright pink flowers bringing a final burst of colour to the garden as the mellowness of autumn descends.

I love colour at unexpected times, but if nerines are grown in an artless clump on their own, they can look artificial and gaudy. Be adven­turous instead, and plant them with late-summer dahlias such as the scarlet Dahlia 'Bishop of Lland­aff' or dark pink D. 'Requiem'. If you baulk at the full-on pinkness of N. bowdenii, subtler pink culti­vars are available, such as N. b. 'Marnie Rogerson'. Other species such as N. undulata and N. flexuosa can also be grown outside if you live in a warmish part of the country. N. flexuosa 'Alba' is lovely, sporting delicate, white flowers with crinkled petals.

It is the more tender N. sarniensis hybrids that offer the widest colour range, however, and these will thrive in pots, provided you have somewhere where you can give them a minimum night-time temperature of four or five degrees in winter. Sometimes called diamond or jewel lilies, many of them have iridescent flecks that sparkle in the sun­light–a phenomenon that the Victorians noted as 'gold or silver dusting'. Starting with the vermil­lion red of N. sarniensis itself, there also are hybrids in shades of orangey red (N. sarniensis var. corusca 'Major'), sugar pink (N. 'Stephanie'), or rich two-tone purple and pink (N. 'Cleopatra').

How to grow nerines

N. 'Koriba' is unusual in that it flowers later than other varieties, so that the leaves appear before the blooms. Image via @emma_crawforth/Instagram

N. bowdenii and its cultivars should be grown in a warm, sunny spot outside, in very well-drained soil that isn't too nutrient-rich as this will produce too much foliage at the expense of flowers. Given dry conditions, they should survive temperatures as low as minus 10-15 degrees. With different types flowering from September to November, they provide strong colour well into autumn. The bulbs should be planted in early spring with the necks of the bulbs just showing. The only thing to watch for is overcrowding as they will eventually die out if they are jostling for space.

N. sarniensis is treated differently and should be grown in pots under glass. Unlike N. bowdenii, it is dormant over the summer months, during which time the bulbs must be kept relatively dry, so although the pots could be moved outside in a mild autumn, it is best to keep them under cover during the summer. Although too much water will rot them, they should be watered occasionally while dormant, otherwise the bulbs will shrivel. After this period of dormancy, the flowers will start to grow in August and September, followed by the foliage, and in this season of growth over winter, the plants should be watered more regu­larly and fed with a potash-rich liquid fertiliser every couple of weeks until April, when they become dormant once again. The bulbs can be grown either individually in small pots, or several in a larger pot, in a proprietary gritty compost. Both N. bowdenii and N. sarniensis last well in water if they are cut just before the flowers open.

This story was originally published on House & Garden