Country & Garden: Nymphs in pink tights

Legend has it that nerines were brought here by a fairy. Actually they come from South Africa. Whatever the story, they make a great autumn show

At this time of year, the feet of south-facing walls and hedges in many gardens in the south are made cheerful by the flowers of the South African bulb, Nerine bowdenii. Nerine is the name of a water nymph, and legend has it that, in the 17th century, a ship from South Africa was wrecked; the bulbs were washed ashore, and established themselves there.

Seven, or even more, lily-like florets, the colour of pink sugar mice, form a spherical flowerhead at the top of a thick, fleshy, 50cm-tall stem. This stem leans slightly, but intently, towards you, like an over-eager party guest.

The charm of these funnel-shaped florets with their wavy, reflexed, thick petals, wide, glistening mouths and protruding anthers, is undeniable. (Moreover, they make excellent long-lasting cut flowers for a vase, if picked as the flowers are just about to open.)

Nerine bowdenii is reasonably well known, but it has choice relations which, because they are tender in this country, do not get the attention they deserve. The Nerine sarniensis hybrids have flowers in colours that include white, pink, magenta, smoky purple, glowing orange, vermilion and scarlet; the petals often glisten with crystalline gold or silver flecks. Yet these exotic creatures are within the grasp of any gardener who has a greenhouse or conservatory that can be kept up to a night-time winter minimum temperature of 4C (38F).

Not far from Sandown in the Isle of Wight is Springbank Nursery, owned by Ken and Margaret Hall, and home to Newchurch Nerines. The Halls have run a general plant nursery there for many years, but it was not till Ken visited the famous Sussex garden of Borde Hill in 1984 that his eyes were opened to the beauty of the Guernsey lily and its hybrids. The plantsman owner of Borde Hill, the late Robert Stephenson Clarke, gave him a pot of `Meadowbankii', a brilliant vermilion form of Nerine sarniensis. Ken's imagination was fired, he says, and thus began a career of collecting, growing and hybridising N sarniensis and other nerine species.

He has been assisted by his wife, and by Chris Edwards, a retired scientist and avid nerine enthusiast. In an immaculate glasshouse you can see the results of Ken's breeding work, as well as the many nerines acquired over the years from retired growers, one of whom, Harry Dalton, by chance lived close by. At first sight, these nerines look like a mist of white, pink, warm salmon, orange and deep red flowers, floating ethereally above the staging. When you look more closely you can see that they are held on the top of smooth stems, which bend ever so slightly as they follow the sun's diurnal course. For, unlike Nerine bowdenii whose flowers' stems arise from a clump of green, strappy leaves, N sarniensis blooms while the leaves are still very small, or non-existent.

The other important difference between the hardy and the tender nerines is that the former die down and become dormant in the winter, while the latter are dormant between May and August. That means they need little or no attention in the summer months, except repotting, if they are really pot-bound, in July. Another virtue is the sturdiness of flowers and stems. The Halls have discovered that it is perfectly possible to take pots of nerines to flower shows, packed tightly together. I can vouch for that. Ken generously gave me two of his precious seedlings, still in tight bud so that I would have the excitement of watching them open and discovering their colour; these emerged completely unruffled (unlike me) from a journey across London by Tube at the height of the rush-hour.

Ken has several named hybrids to his credit now, even though it can take as much as six years from seed setting to the first flowering. They are slow to bulk up, so it is small wonder that a flowering-size bulb can cost pounds 12. (Unnamed seedlings sell for less, however.) He has also crossed forms of Nerine sarniensis and N bowdenii and N flexuosa with N undulata. By crossing the latter, it is possible to get varieties with larger flowers than the two species, but with flexuosa's flowering times of November and early December.

By choosing carefully, anyone with a small greenhouse, conservatory or even east-facing windowsill could enjoy a succession of nerine flowers from early August to early December - if, say, they grew fothergillii `Major' (vermilion), `Stephanie' (soft pink), `Dame Alice Goodman' (deep cerise pink), N sarniensis alba (pure white), `Wolsey' (bright red with gold sparkle), `Jenny Wren' (cerise) and, finally, `Konak' (pale magenta pink).

The Halls hold the National Collection of nerines, and the nursery stocks the widest range of old and new cultivars that are available in this country. In the last five years, Ken's work has been recognised by the award of four gold medals for his exhibits at the Royal Horticultural Society's October flower show at Westminster. At the show last Tuesday, he made that five.

He showed a nerine of his breeding of which he is especially proud, a charmer named `Springbank Elizabeth'. The stem is strong and the soft pink flowerhead rounded, with short pedicels (stalks) which ensure that there are no gaps between the large and numerous florets. When I saw it 10 days ago, Ken had hopes of receiving an Award of Merit for it from the RHS at last Tuesday's show. In the event, I am glad to say, his optimism was justified.

For a catalogue, including cultivation notes, send pounds 1.50 to Springbank Nursery, Winford Road, Newchurch, Sandown, Isle of Wight PO36 0JX (01938 865444). Dry bulbs are sent out between late June and August. The glasshouse is open every weekend during October, 10am-4.30pm, and at other times by appointment.

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