Easy-to-grow Cornish lily (Nerine bowdenii)

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Nothing lights up a dull, dark November afternoon like the hot, lavender-pink flowers of Nerine bowdenii (pronounced Neh-REEN bow-DEN-ee-eye). Neither from Cornwall nor true lilies, Cornish lilies are native to South Africa where they bloom in April and May; in Canada they flower too late for Thanksgiving and too early for Christmas, conveniently filling in a blank spot on the floral calendar between autumn chrysanthemums and winter poinsettias.

My first year flowers—potted up in March for November blooms.

First introduced in the Edwardian era, I thought that Cornish lilies might suit my Edwardian-esque living room, and duly purchased three Chianti bottle-shaped bulbs in March, 2013, the moment they hit the sales shelves along with other tender summer bulbs like begonias and dahlias.

I purchased what was available, but they weren’t “Size No. 1” bulbs, and if I had it to do over again, I’d spend a few extra dollars and buy premium size bulbs (No. 1 bulbs are available at botanus.com). With only a few exceptions, bigger is better when it comes to bulbs.

The 40-centimetre-tall second year flower stalks bore umbels of larger, more numerous blooms.

Hardy to Zone 8 (or a protected, dry winter-mulched Zone 7), I planted my bulbs in pots: They spent the summer on my south-facing back deck and after the first light frost, came inside to my bright, unheated sunroom. As the days grew shorter, their distinctive, spear-like flower stalks began to emerge. Two or three months after blooming, the bulbs enter their late winter dormant period and the foliage dies back, reappearing again in summer. And because they flower best when the bulbs are crowded, they can be grown as houseplants for many years in the same pot—the more the merrier.

After flowering, my Cornish lilies got pushed to a corner of the sunroom while their foliage matured, and I forgot about them. So imagine my surprise when I began moving overwintering plants outdoors again and discovered that the nerines had not only set some fleshy brown seeds, but in some cases, the radicle (or first, primary root), had already emerged.

Failing to deadhead flowers can sometimes have happy consequences: Notice the emerging radicle on the lowest of the three brown seeds.

Although I hadn’t intended to begin growing tender bulbs from seed, their natural vigour and clear lust for life got the better of me, so I snipped off the dry flower stalks and decided to engage in a spot of impromptu propagation.

Worcester, (my faithful gardening assistant), inspects the seedheads before planting.

Three flower stalks of Nerine bowdenii rendered about 25 seeds, and I achieved roughly 75 per cent germination; ideally, Cornish lily seeds should be planted as soon as they’re ripe, so I was already over 10 weeks late.

Nerine bowdenii seeds ready for planting. The emerging “radicles” (or embryonic roots) are visible on the three seeds at the top of the bowl.

As with any seed, it’s important to sterilise the containers that you’ll be using for germination (terracotta pots in this case) with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Rinse thoroughly in hot water and let dry.

Sterilised terracotta pots drying in the late winter sunshine (Zone 5a).

To avoid potential fungal problems (such as damping-off disease), it’s also important to start off with a sterile seed-starting or potting mixture—never use garden soil. I used a commercial seed-starting mix composed of peat moss, bark chips, perlite and vermiculite. Whether in pots or in a flowerbed, all nerines require fast-draining soil; soggy, moisture-retentive soils will cause the bulbs to rot.

Each 15-centimetre (6-inch) terracotta pot received seven seeds, and remembering how Cornish lilies like to be crowded, I added the remaining four seeds to the original “mother pot” that already contained three mature bulbs.

Sterile, freshly planted pots of Nerine bowdenii seeds (planted one centimetre deep).

Twelve months later, the new Cornish lily seedlings are thriving. In their first year, I didn’t add any plant food or fertiliser—more a case of benign neglect than of horticultural strategy. But this year I’m resolved to feed them regularly, and with any luck, by November I’ll be looking at my first flowers.

When feeding Cornish lilies, use a low nitrogen formulation (high nitrogen will produce lush foliage at the expense of flowers). I intend to feed them with a quarter-strength solution of 15-30-15 (i.e., 1 part nitrogen, 2 parts phosphorous and 1 part potassium). A half-strength fertiliser formulated for vegetables (i.e., 10-10-27) would also work well.

One year old Cornish lily seedlings (the centre pot also contains the three original bulbs).

I’ve been amazed at how easy it’s been to propagate the seeds of a bulbous plant, and how quickly they’ve grown. Many Canadian gardeners are unfamiliar with Nerine bowdenii bulbs which is a shame, given their almost effortless cultural requirements. Of course, they’re a fairly recent introduction to the wonderful world of horticulture, first appearing in commerce about 100 years ago.

A member of the Amaryllis family, Nerine bowdenii was discovered by Athelstan Hall Cornish-Bowden (1871-1942), the British Surveyor General of the Cape Colony (now South Africa). In 1899, he found the plants growing in the Drakensberg (Afrikaans for “Dragon Mountains”) at elevations of about 3,000 metres and promptly sent bulbs back to his mother in Devon, England—as one does. Three years later, a proud Mrs. C-B sent both bulbs and flowers to the Herbarium at Kew Gardens (London, England) along with a request that this new species be named after her son. She spake, and it was done.

Cornish lilies have gained a steady following over the past century, and are extremely popular in the U.K. and northern Europe: The Royal Horticultural Society awarded the plant its prestigious Award of Garden Merit in 1993 and currently lists over 200 cultivars. A white-flowered variety, N. b. ‘Pallida’ (syn. forma alba) is occasionally available in Canada, and once my new seedlings flower, perhaps I’ll find a winner in the bunch—that’s the joy of hybridising your own plants!

When they flower, will my new seedlings bear the standard pink blooms? Or white ones? Or perhaps striped? Anything is possible.

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