Ken Hall has brought his Nerine sarniensis hybrid collection – or a very little part of it – to the RHS Halls in London for the Autumn show and this display is undoubtedly been the highlight of the show for me. The bar was not set very high, I should say – it was a drear display generally – but this collection leapt way way up above and beyond –
On Newchurch Nerines –
A little light reading for growing Nerine sarniensis
How to grow: Nerine sarniensis
The sparkling flowers of Nerine sarniensis that brighten late October and November must be the best-kept gardening secret I know.
The shocking pink Nerine bowdenii may be more familiar because it grows outside in sunny spots, but sarniensis is even classier and more varied in colour and form. N. sarniensis, related to amaryllis, are sometimes referred to as jewel, or diamond lilies, because their petals reflect light -exactly what is most needed in the dreariest months of the year. Victorian growers described this phenomenon as gold, or silver, dusting. Some varieties have wavy petals, which intensify the effect of refracted light.
Last October I went to the Isle of Wight for a design job. It was a revolting day – grey skies and freezing wind – but we made a detour to Springbank Nurseries, where Ken Hall, the owner and holder of the National Collection of N. sarniensis, has built up a spectacular display of diamond lilies. He has more than 600 varieties and his greenhouses were full of sparklers in brilliant party-dress colours.
Intensive hybridising over the past 100 years means that these exotic bulbs now have a much longer flowering season, from August through November, and come in all shades, from fiery reds through salmon pinks, and in variations from deepest purple to white. Breeders have been concentrating on strong stems, floret count and a better colour range, with free-flowering qualities. Some are two-tone and some are very spidery, but the ones I like best are strong, single colours. ‘Wolsey’ (cardinal red), ‘Berlioz’ (another good red) and ‘Blanchefleur’ (pure white), particularly appealed.
Some of the hybrids are very congested. I prefer the ones where you can see air between the florets, but ‘Fothergillii Major’, with extended anthers, is outstanding.
Ken Hall, who started gardening in the Lake District for Lord Lonsdale at Lowther Castle in the 1940s, was given a bulb of the vermilion Nerine ‘Meadowbankii’ in a pot more than 20 years ago. Once it flowered he was hooked. He still thinks ‘Meadowbankii’ is a good nerine for a beginner.
The snag to these thrilling flowers is that they cannot be described as easy to grow. But if anyone can tell us how to make N. sarniensis perform, it is Ken Hall. He says that, with proper care, they will give many years of pleasure and colour in the right conditions. Unlike most forms of N. bowdenii, N. sarniensis must be grown under frost-free glass. A temperature of 8C-10C (46F-50F) is ideal, but the bulbs can survive short periods of freezing if they are in deep pots.
Because N. sarniensis is summer dormant, bulbs need to be kept dry during their resting period. You could put them outside, because they like to be in an airy place, but heavy rain, as we have had this year, would rot them.
Controlled watering is critical from April to August. The foliage matures early in the new year and, once it turns yellow and dies down, the nerines need just enough water to keep the bulbs plump. In hot sunny weather this might mean soaking the pots about once a fortnight, but a precise rule on the timing and amount of water will depend on the weather. Too much and the roots will rot, too little and they will shrivel.
Once the flower spikes begin to grow, which depends on the variety, watering must be increased and continue until the leaves have died down. But Ken Hall’s advice is that only really dry plants should be watered. A sunny place and good light is also important in winter, with as much ventilation as possible.
The formula for the compost used at Springbank is one part John Innes No 3, one part grit sand and two parts peat with 25g of Osmocote added to every 10 litres of compost. The bulbs go into 11cm pots with two-fifths of the bulb above the level of the compost. The pots do get extra rations of fertiliser (use one with high potash and low nitrogen, such as Tomorite) in the middle of the growing season.
The time for repotting is before regrowth starts, so July or early August is about right. Plants should not be left in old compost for more than a couple of years. Top-dress with fresh compost annually.
The tiny bulbs that appear round the main bulb can be carefully detached and potted up to make new plants, but nerines can also be grown from seed and will take up to four years to flower. Mealy bug is the worst pest under glass.
These plants do not share the limelight. Impress visitors by showing them off in terracotta pots on a tiered stand in the conservatory, or on staging in the greenhouse.
Where to buy
- Springbank Nursery, Winford Road, Newchurch, Sandown, Isle of Wight, PO36 0JX (01983 865444). Bulbs are available by mail order between, June to August. Nursery open 9am-5.30pm daily.
For Nerine bowdenii – a little light reading –
How to grow: Nerine bowdenii
With its tall scapes, terminated by a loose umbel of five to 10 trumpet-shaped, shocking-pink flowers, it must surely be the most exotic autumn-flowering bulb. Each flower has six narrow perianths with flamboyant wavy edges, which in certain lights appear to have been sprinkled with gold. And their faint musky scent carries on the autumn breeze.
Grown as a block or a thick row, Nerine bowdenii is a lively addition to an autumn border.
It flowers outdoors from September to early November, depending on temperature and site, with stems 30cm-50cm (12in-20in) tall. The flowers are long-lasting in the garden and keep going when cut for indoor decoration. The strap-like leaves emerge after flowering and survive the winter undamaged.
The genus Nerine, named after the sea nymphs of Greek mythology, belongs to the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis) family of herbaceous perennials, as do daffodils and snowdrops, although the flowers look more like lilies.
For many years it was thought that nerines came from Japan, but their native home is, in fact, South Africa, especially the Drakensberg mountains. There are about 30 species, but only a couple are reliably hardy outdoors in the Britain — N. bowdenii and N. undulata.
The former can withstand freezing temperatures, as low as -15C. N. bowdenii bulbs were first brought to Britain from South Africa by Cornish Bowden in 1903, hence the name.
A number of species are grown under glass for cut flowers, especially in the Netherlands. Among them is N. sarniensis var. corusca ‘Major’ and the white-flowered N. flexuosa ‘Alba’. N. sarniensis became naturalised when a ship from Japan was wrecked on the coast of Guernsey in the 17th century.
Nerine bowdenii is a floral firework — a welcome flash of colour as the temperature drops and the days get shorter — that will brighten any garden.
The bulbs are quite large, elongated and shaped like old-fashioned Chianti bottles.
When buying bulbs, ensure that you get true, hardy N. bowdenii. Care taken when selecting a suitable spot in the garden will be repaid by rapid establishment and early flowering. Choose a sunny, well-drained spot such as the base of a south-facing wall. Nerines thrive in hot summers but struggle in cold, wet winters.
Opinion is divided about planting depth; some say that you need 6cm (2in) of soil above the bulb to protect from frost damage, others prefer the bulbs to half-emerge from the soil. A clump in my garden has flourished and multiplied for more than 20 years almost at the soil surface. Once planted, try not to disturb them — they like to grow in a dense clump. Don’t worry if the flowering is poor in the first year after planting, just be patient.
Bulbs should be planted in autumn or early winter, spaced 7-10cm apart. Give them a good mulch to protect from frost in the first year until they are fully established. In the wild, nerines grow in very poor soil. Plants grown in richer soil grow bigger with more leaves, but at the expense of flowers. A well-drained coarse, sandy soil, low in nitrogen, is recommended for a maximum number of iridescent blooms.
If the nerines are at the base of a south-facing wall, a star jasmine, such as Trachelospermum jasminioides, could provide long-term interest if planted between the nerines and the wall.
Star jasmine is an evergreen woody climber with glossy dark-green leaves that produces fragrant creamy-white flowers in mid to late summer, followed by long seed pods. In a cottage garden, nerines are sufficiently tall and bold to be added to a mixed border.
from the Jacques Armand International stand …
and the rest of the RHS Autumn Show …
….and from the grey walk to the Show and back to the station – Vauxhall to Waterloo – with a little light touristy-stuff going on too –