Nerine sarniensis (L.) Herb.

Family Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllus and Daffodil Family)
Common names: Guernsey Lily, Red Nerine, Berglelie

Nerine sarniensis

Nerine sarniensis is widely considered to be the most beautiful of all the nerines, and it has an equally colourful history. The often-told, but unlikely tale of how boxes of bulbs of South Africa's most famous Nerine, consigned for Holland, were cast away from a sinking ship in 1659 and took root and flourished on the shores of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, has become something of a botanical legend. Whatever the truth is regarding the arrival of Nerine sarniensis on Guernsey, its bulbs have been cultivated there for more than three centuries, and continue to be grown there for their cut flowers.

The highly ornamental endemic, southern African genus Nerine comprises 25 species and is represented in Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and in all nine provinces of South Africa. The cleric and amaryllid expert, Rev. William Herbert, 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. The specific epithet sarniensis refers to the Island of Sarnia, the Roman name for Guernsey, where Nerine sarniensis was at one time thought to have occurred naturally.

Based on growth cycle under cultivation in temperate climates, the Nerine species can conveniently be placed into three distinct groups, namely winter-growing, summer-growing and evergreen species. Nerine sarniensis belongs to the small group of four winter-growing species. It is restricted to rocky mountain slopes in the Western Cape from Citrusdal to Caledon, where it grows on south- and north-west facing slopes.

Colourful hybrids of Nerine sarniensisThe bulbs begin active growth in early autumn with the emergence of flowerbuds, followed shortly afterwards by leaves. The spectacular, glittering blooms are quite unmistakable; the relatively broad petals radiate outwards in all directions and are strongly recurved and wavy along their margins. The inflorescence carries from seven to fifteen flowers and the stamens stand erect and are particularly conspicuous due to the recurved petals. Flower colour ranges from crimson to scarlet and from pale pink to deep rose-pink, and there is also a most attractive, pure white form. The glittering 'gold dust' seen in bright light on the petals of the red forms of this species is caused by the reflection of light by the red pigment present in the epidermal cell layer, which overlays several layers of yellow pigment beneath it. Similarly, the glittering 'silver dust' seen in bright light on the petals of the white form of this species is caused by the reflection and refraction of light at the epidermal cell surfaces, and from within the cells.

The flowers of the red forms of this species are pollinated by the mountain pride butterfly, Meneris tulbaghia, which also pollinates the red forms of other striking bulbous species Brunsvigia marginata and Cyrtanthus guthrieae. The spreading, strap-shaped leaves of Nerine sarniensis vary markedly in colour, from pale to dark green or grey, depending on the particular wild habitat the plant originates from. Towards the end of spring, as temperatures rise, the leaves begin to go yellow and dry up as the bulbs enter the long, dry summer dormant period.

Growing Nerine sarniensis

Thriving in a pot.This species is easily cultivated in a free-draining medium such as equal parts of river sand, loam, and sifted, acid compost. The bulbs are best planted with their necks fully exposed above soil level. It is an ideal subject for shallow containers as well as for rockeries, in positions receiving sun for at least half the day during the winter growing season. The bulbs cannot survive long wet periods during the summer dormant period and must be kept as dry as possible during this time. When watering actively growing bulbs, it is always best to water heavily at well-spaced, regular intervals, as opposed to superficial, infrequent watering. During the growing period, a heavy watering every two weeks is suggested, allowing the soil medium to dry out almost completely in between. No liquid or granular fertilizers are recommended for any Nerine species as these have the effect of encouraging luxuriant leaf growth at the expense of flowers. Although regarded as the most beautiful of all the nerines, and the second-most widely grown species after Nerine bowdenii, Nerine sarniensis is also the most notorious for erratic flowering behaviour. Mature bulbs do not flower reliably every year, but it would seem that certain forms are naturally much more floriferous than others. Nerine sarniensis is not hardy in countries with very cold winter conditions, where it is best grown as a container subject in the cool greenhouse.

For the home gardener, propagation of Nerine sarniensis is best by means of seed and offsets. Seeds are sown as soon as they are easily detached from the capsules, in a sandy medium such as equal parts of coarse river sand and finely sifted compost, in deep seed trays. Cover the seeds with a 2-4 mm layer of sowing medium, place in a shaded spot and water well with a fine rose. Withhold any further watering until the first leaves appear, then water well every two weeks. Seedlings usually flower for the first time during their third or fourth growing season. Offsets are best separated from mature bulbs in early autumn, and are ready to be removed when they are easily separated by gentle tugging. They should not be forcibly broken away as this may excessively damage the basal plate of the mother bulb. The separated offsets should be replanted immediately to prevent the brittle, fleshy roots from drying out. The most important pest affecting Nerine sarniensis is lily borer (Brithys crinii), also known as amaryllis caterpillar. Lily borer caterpillars can be picked off by hand or be sprayed with a carbaryl-based insecticide like Carbaryl. They are most prevalent on Nerine sarniensis from early to late spring.

Duncan, G.D. 2002. Grow Nerines. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.

Graham Duncan
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
March 2002

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.
This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website