Exbury’s unrivalled collection of sparkling Nerine sarniensis or ‘Jewel Lilies’ will be on public show at Exbury Gardens throughout October. Not to be confused with the outdoor pink Nerine bowdenii, (which can also be viewed at Exbury) these autumn-flowering bulbs once received the accolade as “the greatest Empress of the Flowery World”.
Lionel de Rothschild first developed and hybridised the tender greenhouse-loving Nerines at Exbury in the 1920s and ’30s, coming up with many classic blooms. The collection was dispersed in 1974 when the best bulbs were acquired by enthusiast and plantsman extraordinaire Sir Peter Smithers, one-time MP for Winchester and Secretary-General of the EU in Strasbourg, holder of 8 RHS Gold Medals for plant photography and the Veitch Gold Memorial Medal for contributions to horticulture, at his garden at Vico Morcote in Switzerland.
Sir Peter had selected only the best and most beautiful jewel lilies for his breeding programme, holding annual ‘beauty contests’ on the balcony of his house overlooking Lake Lugano. Here a selection of his friends would be asked to judge his blooms, using the sole criteria of their “beauty as a flower.”
In 1995, Sir Peter felt he had gone as far as age and space would allow. His prodigious breeding programme had outgrown his limited greenhouse. Having always been an admirer of Exbury and having known Lionel de Rothschild personally, he felt it appropriate that the vastly improved collection came back home to Exbury in a full circle. Now Nicholas de Rothschild, Lionel’s grandson, has taken up the challenge of continuing the strain, and the glasshouse at Exbury is home to Sir Peter’s new hybrids now named the Exbury/Vico nerines.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the plants we have produced and delighted that I am able to continue where Sir Peter left off. Picking up the thread my grandfather started so many years ago is an honour and a challenge,” he said.
Originally found on Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town in South Africa, the jewel lilies flower in a spectrum of colours from their original oranges, scarlet and white through new purples, pinks, mauves, reds, scarlets, copper and bronzes where they scintillate in the sunshine with gold or silver crystalline flecks that make their petals sparkle. Nicholas has since produced well over 100 new hybrids and collectors and visitors to Exbury may buy nerines that have never been seen before.
Gardening guru Alan Titchmarsh visited the Nerine Exhibition in October 2009 and recorded in his Saturday Express Magazine column: “After 40-odd years of gardening, I like to think that I’ve seen some remarkable spectacles, but I can honestly say that few of them rank with the sight of a vast greenhouse full of flowering Guernsey lilies at Exbury last autumn. There, Nick de Rothschild presides over thousands of potted bulbs whose glistening flowers of white, pale pink, lilac, purple, orange and scarlet entrance all who see them. If you want gosh-factor in your autumn greenhouse, Guernsey lilies have it in shiny spades.”
The Exbury/Vico collection will be displayed throughout October in the Five Arrows Gallery, where their extraordinary beauty will be shown off to best advantage. A wide range of nerines will be available to purchase, with growing instructions included.
Admission to the exhibition is included with entrance to the world-famous Gardens, which will be looking spectacular with brilliant autumnal colour. Exhibition open from Sat 4 Oct – Sun 2 Nov 2014, 10am – 5.30pm