Nerine sarniensis (L.) Herb.
Common names: Guernsey lily, red nerine (Eng.); berglelie, nerina (Afr.)
Nerine sarniensis is widely considered to be the most beautiful of all the nerines.
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.
Based on growth cycle under cultivation in temperate climates, the species of Nerine 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.
The 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 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.
Least Concern (LC), Nerine sarniensis is not threatened.
Distribution and habitat
Nerine sarniensis is restricted to rocky mountain slopes in the Western Cape from Citrusdal to Caledon, where it grows on south- and north-west facing slopes.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This beautiful Nerine has a 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 cleric and amaryllid expert, Rev. William Herbert, established the genus Nerine in 1820. He named it after Nerine, a guardian sea nymph sent by the Roman goddess Venus to rescue Vasco da Gama's armada en route to India, referring to the story of the shipwreck and the rescue of the bulbs. 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.
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.
Growing Nerine sarniensis
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.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
March 2002, updated December 2023
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Autumn
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Red, White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy