The Empress of the Flowery World

Nerine sarniensis ‘Sir Peter Smithers’

The Empress of the Flowery World is just one of the names given to Nerine sarniensis, the Guernsey Lily or Jewel Lily. This autumn-flowering bulb comes originally from the Cape region of South Africa. It was brought to Europe in the mid-1600s and found its way to Guernsey, some say as a gift from the grateful survivors of a shipwreck, where it thrived. The name Nerine comes from a nymph in Greek myth, while sarniensis means ‘of Guernsey’.

Lionel de Rothschild, the founder of Exbury Gardens in the New Forest, was an avid collector of the nerines – not to be confused with the summer-flowering Nerine bowdenii. He began creating prize-winning hybrids in the 1920s and ’30s and after his death, his son Eddy carried on his work. In 1974, the collection was sold to nerinophile Sir Peter Smithers, who took it to Switzerland, but in 1995, Sir Peter returned it to Eddy’s son Nicholas.

Together with Theo Herselman, Nicholas has reorganised and catalogued the entire collection, which is added to by collecting seed from the best mother plants to see whether any new plant worthy of naming comes along.

Throughout this month, the Exbury nerines can be seen in the Five Arrows Gallery at Exbury Gardens. They are dazzling against a plain black backdrop, as they earn their name of jewel lilies from the reflective cells on the surface of their petals, which give the appearance of gold and silver glitter.

I came away with a couple of new crosses of my own which I will keep in a plastic pot in our lean too (plastic is better than clay pots as it helps the plants to conserve their energy for growing and they need to be over-wintered in a conservatory or glasshouse).

Here is a taste of the beauties on display.

Nerine sarniensis ‘Arabian Nights’
Nerine sarniensis ‘Lysander’
Nerine sarniensis ‘Peach Sprinkles’
Nerine sarniensis ‘Blanchefleur’
Nerine sarniensis ‘Titan’
Nerine sarniensis ‘Paphos’