Nerine humilis 

(Jaqu.) Herb.
Family: Amaryllidaceae
Common names: nerine (Eng.); seeroogblom, berglelie (Afr.)

Nerine humilis

Nerine humulis is a very floriferous, bulbous plant. Flower colour varies from almost white to deep pink forms having distinctive, wavy margins to the petals with stamens and styles curving to the one side. They are easily cultivated and ideally suited for container cultivation, making them very popular worldwide.

They are deciduous bulbs, growing up to 400 mm tall with four to six leaves that can be dry or green at flowering and which are strap-shaped, spreading and prostrate, up to 10 mm wide, and dull green. The 1-8 flowers are carried in a loose umbel, appear from April to June and vary from white to deep rose-pink, with darker pink, central keels. Nerine humilis grows in colonies and flowers particularly well after veld fires. Each petal has interesting wavy margins and the flower opens like a hand to expose the stamens and style that all lean to one side with the style always extending beyond the stamens. The fruiting head ruptures as it dries, releasing the oval or round-shaped, fleshy seeds. When seeds land in sandy areas they germinate almost immediately in autumn. The soft tissue surrounding the seeds acts as a food and moisture supply allowing seeds to germinate often when still inside the dry fruit capsule. This species includes N. breachiae, N. peersii and N..tulbaghensis and varies considerably in size and appearance across its wide distribution range. The plants in the east are larger with longer, broader leaves and taller flower stalks; those from around Tulbagh in the west, are much smaller with narrow linear leaves and short, slender flower stalks.

Nerine humilis has a relatively wide distribution and is not a threatened species. It prefers rocky and mountainous areas with loamy and sandy to gravelly soils in full shade or partial sun. It occurs from Clanwilliam (in southern Namaqualand) to Worcester, Bredasdorp, Montagu to Baviaanskloof in the southern Cape. In the western part of its range, such as in the Tulbagh area of the southwestern Cape, the plants are dwarfs and these forms are generally very attractive when grown in containers. Being from the winter rainfall region of South Africa, N. humilis is adapted to dry and warm conditions in the summer, as the plants are dormant during this time of the year. Plants also seem to do well in colder regions but where frost occurs, plants are best grown in pots where they can be kept indoors. What is important is that plants are kept dry in summer, and that they are grown in sunny or partially shaded areas that are kept moist during the active growing season from April to November in the southern hemisphere.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
There is a legend that a consignment of Nerine plants destined for Holland, washed up on the shores of Guernsey in the Channels Islands in 1659 as a result of a Dutch or English shipwreck and apparently these plants flourished there. Actually, the plant was originally thought to have been a native to Japan! However, it was Francis Masson who was credited with the discovery of the real native habitat of N. sarniensis (another Cape species) on Table Mountain during his expedition to the Cape in 1772. It was the cleric and amaryllid expert, Rev. William Herbert (1778-1847) son of Henry Herbert, Earl of Carnavon, who first established the genus Nerine in 1820. It is unclear whether he named it for Nerine, the Greek mythological sea nymph and daughter of sea god Nereis and Doris, or for Nereide the daughter of Nereus, son of Oceanus. By 1821, Herbert recognized nine species of Nerine, and was also the first to work in the field of hybridizing this horticulturally important genus. The family name Amaryllidaceae is from Amaryllus who was a pretty shepherdess mentioned by Theocritus, Virgil and Ovid. Edmund Spenser used the name in 1595 for Alice, an ancestress of the Princess of Wales. The species name humilis refers to the low-growing nature of most forms of this species. The genus Nerine currently consists of 25 species and is closely related to another endemic, southern African genus Brunsvigia. There are mainly three groups of nerines, namely winter-growing, summer-growing and evergreen species. Other noteworthy members in this family are Amaryllis belladonna, Boophane, Cyrtanthus, and Haemanthus.

Because these plants undergo a dormant summer period, they are able to survive long, hot and dry spells. Flying insects such as bees and butterflies easily pollinate the striking flowers that raise the stamens above the flower. The seeds are dispersed as the semi-spherical fruiting bodies are blown along the ground by the wind.

Uses and cultural aspects
No medicinal uses are recorded for Nerine humilis.. The horticultural value of these plants cannot be over-emphasized as they do make extraordinary colour displays in the garden or pot. N. humilis can easily be grown in the open garden provided that the bulbs do not receive general garden irrigation in the summer.

Growing Nerine humilis

Nerine humilis and N. sarniensis are particularly effective when planted in large groups in rockery pockets. It is best to leave established bulbs untouched for at least five years as they don't like to be disturbed. Only when plants have become too overcrowded and the flowering has deteriorated, should plants be moved and divided. The plants also make excellent container subjects and can be used together with N. sarniensis on a sunny patio, or in sunny window boxes.

Excellent water-holding capacity as well as perfect drainage of the growing medium are two of the most important factors when cultivating nerines, especially in containers. Ideally one should use a sandy soil with a little bit of compost and with a slightly acidic pH. For containers, the best soil mix is equal parts of river sand, silica sand and finely sifted compost. The bulbs of N. humilis can be planted with their necks slightly above, or at soil level. Water the plants once a week from early autumn until early summer followed by a completely dry summer dormant period.

The best and easiest way to propagate N. humilis is by means of seeds, which ripen in summer. The seeds are sown in deep seed trays in a well-drained mixture such as equal parts of river sand, silica sand (swimming pool sand), and finely sifted compost. Sprinkle seeds evenly over the surface and cover them with a thin layer of the same mixture. Watering with a fine rose is ideal. When the first leaves appear, water only once every two to three weeks. The little N. humilis seedlings should then be kept dry during summer. Another way of increasing the plants is to simply divide those groups that have become too crowded.

The most important pest encountered with nerines is the lily borer or otherwise known as the amaryllis caterpillar. The tiny caterpillars bore into the leaf, flower or stem tissue and if left unchecked, will bore into and consume the bulb itself. Spraying plants with a carbaryl-based insecticide usually takes care of the problem. Mealy bugs, thrips and snout beetles are other pests that attack nerines. They can form large colonies and often transmit viral diseases. An effective insecticide used as a drench should eradicate the problem.

References and further reading

  • Duncan, G. 2002. Grow nerines. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
  • Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. 2003. Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Ecolab., Cape Town.
  • Manning, J., Goldblatt, P. & Snijman, D. 2002. The colour encyclopedia of Cape bulbs. Timber Press, Oregon, USA.
  • Mustard, P. & Cowling, R. 1997. Southern Overberg. Wild Flower Guide No. 8. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
  • Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria.

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    Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden (Worcester)
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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website