Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Nerine - The Legendary Guernsey Lily

Far in the East, and long to us unknown,
A lily bloom'd, of colours quaint and rare ;
Not like our lilies, white, and dimly fair,
But clad like Eastern monarch on his throne.
A ship there was by stress of tempest blown,
And wreck'd on beach, all sandy, flat, and bare;—
The storm-god bated of his rage to spare
The queenly flower, foredoom'd to be our own.
The Guernsey fisher, seeking what the sea
Had stolen to aid his hungry poverty,
Starts to behold the stranger from afar,
And wonders what the gorgeous thing might be,
That like an unsphered and dejected star
Gleam'd in forlorn and mateless majesty.

-Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Thus did Coleridge tell the story of The Guernsey Lily in poetic verse.  To substantiate it, he included a quote from Beckman's Inventions, Vol. III.

The Guernsey Lily was also a plant of interest to The Rev. William Herbert (1778-1847), botanist, poet and Anglican clergyman.  Herbert was an expert in the Amaryllidaceae family, and he recognized the Guernsey lily as a member.  Furthermore, he was well aware that Francis Masson (1741-1805) had collected specimens during his botanical exploration of the Cape of South Africa (1772-1775) for Kew Gardens.

It's quite possible that Guernsey lilies were found in Japan.  Foreign trade was far more widespread and sophisticated prior to the 18th century than we give credit for.  Or Kaempher and Thunberg, whom Beckman referenced, might have mistaken Lycoris (also in the Amaryllidaceae family) for Guernsey lilies.

Nevertheless, the tale of the ill-fated ship and the introduction of the plant to the rocky shores of Guernsey apparently caught the fancy of Herbert.  Being a scholar and poet himself, he must have known lines such as these:

Often in autumn-time when the grapes are ripening, a Nereis climbs the rocks, and under cover of the shades of night brushes the sea-water from her eyes with a leafy vine-spray, and snatches sweet clusters from the hills. Often is the vintage sprinkled by the neighbouring foam; Satyri plunge into the waters, and Panes from the mountain are fain to grasp the Sea-Nymph as she flies naked through the waves.
-Statius, Silvae 2. 2

So, Herbert named the autumn-blooming genus Nerine (pronounced ne-REE-nee), the patronym of the watery nymphs known as Nereids, daughters of Nereus, who lived with him in a silvery cavern beneath the Aegean Sea.  In Greek mythology, Nereids were patrons of seafarers, often coming to their rescue from shipwrecks.  Shipwrecked or not, sailors were always glad to see women, even if they smelled like fish.

The genus consists of about thirty species.  Colors range from white to pink and red.  They are effective in container gardens, bulb gardens and borders.  Guernsey lilies are wonderful for cutting.  (Incidentally, the island is legendary for the Guernsey cut flower industry.)  They are also superb for naturalizing. 

Nerines need very little attention.  Plant them in spring.  After blooming in fall, the leaves persist throughout the winter, and turn yellow in late spring.  The bulbs are dormant during summer.  During blooming and while foliage is present, they require moist, well-drained soil.  Drier soil is good during dormancy.  In fact, nerine tolerate summer drought quite well.  As with all bulbs, allow the leaves to turn brown before removing them.  Early removal prevents the bulbs from storing reserves for the following year.

Plant hardiness differs according to species, but generally hardy from USDA climate zones 8 to 10, requiring full sun to partial shade and soil high in organic matter.  Recommended pH is from 6.1 to 7.8.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 10" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 12" deep.  Common soil amendments include sulfur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil.  Bone meal is especially good for bulbs.  Which you should use depends upon the recommendations of the lab analysis based upon your particular circumstance.

Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations.  A good practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Don't let synthetic fertilizer come into direct contact with plants.

Plant nerine bulbs about 8 inches deep and 8 inches apart in spring.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.

After long winters, we yearn to be rescued by spring flowers.  But we often forget that when autumn-time comes we need those strange lilies that appear like stars in our gardens.  Consider planting Guernsey lilies this spring.

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