Cotswold nurseryman Ed Brown didn’t hesitate when he heard that a National Collection of nerines needed a new home but it turned out to be a far bigger commitment than he’d anticipated.

‘I thought for probably 40 seconds,’ he says. ‘I thought “I could fit that in. There are only about 200 different varieties”.’

In fact, the collection had 694 different nerines and, as holders must keep three of everything, it meant finding room for more than 2,000 plants.

Ed wasn’t the only person who was interested in rehoming the collection, but he was chosen partly because his Cotswold Garden Flowers nursery at Badsey near Evesham is almost in the centre of the country, making it easily accessible for many people; National Collections have to be open to the public. He also jokes that at 48 he was the youngest to apply.

The collection of Nerine sarniensis, or Guernsey lilies, had been built up by a Devon grower who kept it in glasshouses at the estate where he worked. Leaving the job meant giving up the nerines.

Moving the plants from Devon to Worcestershire just as lockdown started in February 2020 was a challenge – ‘I thought “How am I going to get to it because it’s going to disappear?”’ recalls Ed.

Great British Life: The nerines make a colourful display at the nursery. Photo: Mandy BradshawThe nerines make a colourful display at the nursery. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

In the end, Plant Heritage, who run the National Plant Collection scheme, had to apply for a special permit to allow Ed to drive during the lockdown, resulting in the surreal experience of being the only vehicle on the M5.

The collection is now housed at the nursery in Badsey and at its private Offenham site that deals with the mail order side of the business.

At Badsey, Ed has modified a polytunnel with sides that can be rolled up, lowering the existing benches to display the nerines.

Great British Life: The nerines are kept in a polytunnel with sides that can be rolled up. Photo: Mandy BradshawThe nerines are kept in a polytunnel with sides that can be rolled up. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

‘It’s so that you can look down on them rather than look into them,’ he explains.

And they are beautiful to look at with colours ranging from pearly white through shades of pink to oranges, deep reds and purples, with reflex petals that can be a single shade or striped. Plants are all roughly the same height of between 45cm and 60cm.

'Rosa Stevenson' has soft pink flowers, ‘Peeress’ has tomato red blooms while 'Lady Cynthia Colville' is sugar pink with a central darker stripe.

‘The colour range is mind-blowing, and the flowers smell of white chocolate, a sort of vanilla scent.’

Great British Life: Nerines make a colourful late season display. Photo: Mandy BradshawNerines make a colourful late season display. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

Many of the varieties also have a glittering ‘dust’ on their petals, giving them the appearance of being covered in crystals that catch the light.

‘It looks like they’re artificial but they’re not, obviously. It’s there to attract bees or wildlife to pollinate them.

‘If you put them in the sun, you’ll see that they shine.’

Nerine sarniensis is a native of South Africa and while it will stand some cold, it’s not as tough as the more commonly grown N. bowdenii.

Great British Life: Some of the nerines have beautiful markings. Photo: Mandy BradshawSome of the nerines have beautiful markings. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

‘They can cope with a bit of frost and temperatures down to minus five but below that they don’t like it,’ says Ed, who also holds the National Collection of Sambucus, or elderberries.

He recommends either growing N. sarniensis in a pot, which can be moved into a cold greenhouse or porch with good light levels if temperatures fall, or planting them in a sheltered position against the house where warmth from inside will help to get them through winter.

Great British Life: Nerine 'Quest' Photo: Mandy BradshawNerine 'Quest' Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

‘They don’t need to be warm. They just need to be not completely frozen solid.’

Drainage is important as they hate being waterlogged and Ed suggests adding sand to heavy clay soil before planting. He grows his nerines in the peat-free compost that’s mixed specially for all his nursery’s plants by his Leicestershire supplier.

Keeping them cool over summer is critical to getting them to flower well – Ed refutes the widely held view that the bulbs need to be constricted – so a spot that gets either morning or evening sun is better than one where they will bake in the heat of the day.

Great British Life: Nerine 'Stephanie' x 'Moscow' x 'Nevis' Photo: Mandy BradshawNerine 'Stephanie' x 'Moscow' x 'Nevis' Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

‘The bulb temperature must not go over 28 degrees internally because otherwise they abort flowering. So, when people say their nerines aren’t flowering, they’ve got too hot.’

Last year’s heatwave meant he was watering his bulbs regularly during the dormant season just to keep them cool.

Normally, his containerised bulbs are watered every two or three weeks from the end of August to ‘wake them up’ through to May when the foliage dies off.

Great British Life: Nerine 'Smither's Seedling'. Photo: Mandy BradshawNerine 'Smither's Seedling'. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

The blooms start to appear before the leaves around mid-September with the flowering reaching its peak in mid-October and some varieties not beginning to bloom until the beginning of December.

‘On Christmas Day, I still have some varieties in flower.’

He feeds them only once during the growing season with a high potash feed – tomato fertiliser is ideal. Any more, he says, risks encouraging fungal problems and promotes lush growth that will attract pests.

Great British Life: Nerine 'Natron' Photo: Mandy BradshawNerine 'Natron' Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

Generally, nerines are trouble-free, not liked by vine weevil, and with mealy bug the only real problem, although no more than any other plant. They will happily grow in a pot for three to five years before they need repotting.

With a National Collection, keeping the varieties pure and stopping any cross-pollination is vital so Ed carefully removes spent flowerheads. This is done with a large pair of scissors that are dipped into alcohol to sterilise them and prevent any cross-infection.

There are many ‘ready to go’ National Collections that are looking for a new home because the current holder can no longer look after them: ‘People don’t fall out of love with a collection, but they lose their ability to keep it for health reasons, or moving home, or financial reasons.’

Great British Life: Ed Brown stepped in when the nerines needed a new home. Photo: Mandy BradshawEd Brown stepped in when the nerines needed a new home. Photo: Mandy Bradshaw

Ed has no regrets about taking on the commitment, which has no financial benefit, and he’s already added to the collection and now has 706 different varieties.

‘National Collections are wildly undervalued,’ he says. ‘You’ve got one grower growing a specific variety of plants and it’s a pool of plant knowledge collected continuously from all the other breeders all over the world and it’s available in one location. That becomes a resource for gardeners, for nurseries and the one resource that’s probably going to be really useful in the future is for pharmaceuticals.’

But his real passion is for the nerines: ‘They’re beautiful and I love them to bits.’

The National Collection of Nerine sarniensis is open to the public. See the Cotswold Garden Flowers website for details of opening hours.

More information on the National Collection scheme can be found on the Plant Heritage website.

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