Nestled in the New Forest in Hampshire, Exbury gardens are well known for their collection of Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias. They also contain an amazing number of rare and beautiful trees from all over the world. What is perhaps less well known, is that Exbury also hosts an incredible collection of Nerines.
At this time of the year, Nerines are just about to emerge. When they do, these floral fireworks are a flamboyant addition to the autumn border. The genus Nerine. named after the sea nymphs of greek mythology, belong to the Amaryllidaceae family. This group of course includes their larger cousins Amaryllis, along with Daffodils and Snowdrops.
The most common member of the group is Nerine bowdenii. A clump of these bulbs in flower truly lifts the spirits on a dull autumn day. The flowers are shocking pink , arising from tall scapes, with up to a dozen wavy edged flowers.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet up with Nicholas de Rothschild who is the president of the Nerine and Amaryllis Society in the UK. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the incredible Nerine collection at Exbury. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of thousands of Nerines in full flower in an incredible range of colours. I had seen Nerines growing in gardens before, but these flowers were on a completely different level. They were breathtaking!
Many of these hybrids have the species N. sarniensis to thank for their spectacular hues. Native to South Africa, in the wild N. sarniensis can be found in forms ranging from oranges and reds through to pinks and whites. Through inspired hybridizing with other Nerine species, this pallet has been extended into deep purples, coppers and bronzes, some with stripes and streaks through the petals.
The only downside to Nerines which have been bred using N.sarniensis is that most are not hardy and so have to be kept under glass. However, seeing them in all their spectacular glory you will almost certainly want to have a go at nourturing these slightly tender bulbs.
During my visit to Exbury, one of the most fascinating things Nicholas showed me was a phenomenon called diamond dusting. The petals of some hybrids literally sparkle and reflect light as though they are encrusted with jewels. When you see this beautiful aspect of these flowers up close for the first time it is almost hypnotic.
Nicholas has been developing new hybrids continuing the work of his grandfather started in the 1920s and '30s. These hybrids are housed in a huge greenhouse where the breeding work continues. Only the very best flowers are chosen as parents for use within the ongoing breeding programme.
During October the finest of Nicholas’ hybrids are moved into an exhibition room where the extraordinary beauty of these wonderful flowers can be appreciated by the public. As a nice contrast, outside in the gardens are beds of N. bowdenii. There is a also a bed of the latest bowdenii hybrids from Holland, showing a wider range of colours which are being bred into the more hardy Nerines. It was comforting to see these new hardy cultivars alongside the exhibition to give a realistic alternative to the more spectacular tender hybrids.
From the time I spent looking around the Nerines at Exbury, it was obvious that Nicholas is completely smitten with these remarkable plants. His enthusiasm and pride in his spectacular hybrids is contagious, and in the time since my visit I have started my own little love affair with these autumnal gems. As the days get shorter and cooler, I can’t wait to see my new acquisitions come into flower over the next few weeks.