Look at the nerines. Autumn stars, these are.
We grow a few different species but what is coming into bloom now are what we refer to as the N. sarniensis hybrids. I will admit that I do not know what they were hybridised with. As they appear to have been popular in both Europe and Japan by the 1600s, I am guessing the genes are pretty mixed by now but dominated by the species, N. sarniensis.
All nerines hail from areas of southern Africa and there are currently 24 species recognised. Notwithstanding that origin, the common name internationally is the ‘Guernsey lily’ owing to that island in the English Channel adopting the flower early on as its own and establishing a cut flower trade with it. I have no idea if it is fact or legend that a ship carrying a load of nerine bulbs to the Netherlands was wrecked nearby and the bulbs floated to the shores of Guernsey Island and naturalised themselves on the coastline. It is a good story and bulbs had to get there somehow.
The history of nerines in cultivation seems to be pretty murky, maybe because it goes back over 400 years. I had always assumed – based on the photos of the Guernsey lily that appeared to be predominantly red – that sarniensis in the wild was red. Mark thought it was orange, based on Nerine fothergilla major (which has now been reclassified as sarniensis, just to confuse us further) but it appears that the colour may be variable in the wild.
Our nerines range from pure white through pale pink, pink and white bi colours, mid pinks, coral shades, shocking pink, cerise, crimson, shades of orange and scarlet.
“Oh lord,” said Mark, looking at the purple ones on my flower lay, “the phone will ring next week with people wanting a purple nerine. Reader, they don’t open purple. Mark spent a bit of time crossing and selecting to get the blue and purple lines in the flowers and those ones age to purple. We never named any of them and we don’t know if other breeders have similar shades which they have put on the market, which would seem likely. Whether any are available in New Zealand is another matter.
Very few of our nerines have ever been sold commercially. We have a few named cultivars originally from the Exbury collection in the UK (where they have to grow them under glass), Felix Jury named a few but not many and I think Mark named one that we once sold. It is all a bit academic now because we just enjoy them in the garden and it doesn’t matter to us whether they are named cultivars or unnamed hybrids.
These nerines are deciduous and they put up their flower spikes before putting out the fresh foliage. I don’t love the foliage in spring when it is getting tatty and tired and we have some quite big clumps of them, but they make up for it in autumn. Because they have foliage through the winter, sarniensis nerines are frost tender and they struggle in cold, wet conditions. They need to be in full sun with sharp drainage and the large bulbs nestled into the soil but with their top half and necks exposed to bake in the sun. They are quite particular about conditions and won’t flower if they don’t like them. Nerine bowdenii which flowers later is much easier, hardier and less particular but only comes in pink, I think.