Exbury excellence

Spectacular autumn foliage at Exbury Gardens

October days are rather special at Exbury Gardens, not only for autumn colour, but also for their amazing collection of nerines. You may remember I visited last spring for their centenary year; it's always good to return in a different season to see what a garden has to offer. A gorgeously sunny day last week and the trees nearing their peak autumn colour meant it didn't disappoint.

Part of the impressive nerine display at Exbury gardens

Before we have a proper wander around the garden, The Five Arrows Gallery is the place to be with its special exhibition of Exbury's nerines. These are the stars of the collection this year and includes a selection of the new hybrids picked out by garden director Nicholas de Rothschild and Theo Herselman, who heads up the Nerine and Lachenalia collections. There are also plants to buy here, some of them available for the first time. They are that new.

Theo at the nerine exhibition

Here's Theo just after this year's exhibition opened, photo courtesy of Chris Stephens of Otso Creative. I bumped into Theo at the glasshouse entrance where he was waiting to welcome a group from the local Alpine Garden Society. He spared me a few minutes to enthuse about Exbury's collection, which is mind bogglingly huge, consisting of hundreds if not thousands of hybrids. It's the largest collection in the UK.

Part of the nerine collection at Exbury Gardens

If you think nerines are just baby pink, or possibly white then think again. As you can see there are nerines in an immense variety of pastel shades - ice-white, peaches, pinks, lavenders, and apricots all feature; some are a single colour, others stripey. Look more closely and stronger coloured reds, oranges, purples and mauves are also on view. These aren't the familiar Nerine bowdenii from our gardens, but the more tender (hence the glasshouse) Nerine sarniensis. Both plants hail from South Africa, where the native bulbs of the nerines we're visiting have orange blooms.

Nerine showing off its sparkle

Let's look more closely at those blooms, especially on the bottom left in the photo. These nerines sparkle, due to the reflective nature of the cells on each petal's surface, which are angled in various directions and thus primed to catch the sunlight. I called them the Strictly of the plant world at the time, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find a glitter ball above our heads as there was a serious amount of plant bling on view. No wonder they're sometimes called the 'Jewel Lily'.

If you want to grow them for yourself, Theo's top tips are to ensure the bulbs grow in a frost-free place, usually a greenhouse. Make sure they're baked for a good few months in the summer as you need to mimic the Mediterranean climate they're used to. Cool, wet winters aren't a problem as long as they don't experience prolonged frost. 

Another view of the nerines in the glasshouse at Exbury


Exbury's collection commenced around 100 years ago when Lionel de Rothschild acquired a number of hybrids bred at Borde Hill and by H J Elwes (of elwesii snowdrop fame). Hybrid work continued at Exbury, but then they were sold off in the 1970s. Sir Peter Smithers acquired part of the collection and continued the breeding work at his home in Switzerland. He evaluated each of his crosses for length and strength of the stem; shape and size of the flower head; and the colour, form and size of the florets. Only the best survived to grow another year.

The collection passed back to Exbury in 1995, and was taken on by Nicholas de Rothschild. I could hear echoes of the above process when Theo explained Exbury's breeding programme to his glasshouse visitors. "Does it make me go wow compared with all the other plants around it?", he said, "If it does, it gets grown on and I look at it again the next year to see if it still makes me go wow. Only those plants which are better than those we have in the collection already are selected. Very few get through that process."

Some of the newer plants in the collection

Here are some of those plants, some numbered and others named. Each one considered of potential merit is given a catalogue number first, only those with a continued wow factor are given names. Family and female names form one convention, warrior names another for strong forms. Names from Greek mythology also feature as do names associated with South Africa in some way. 

Theo admitted that with so many plants in the collection now, it's getting harder to find original names, but there is still room for some spontaneity, such as 'That one's a beaut!', a remark which naturally led to the plant being given the name 'Beaut'. By coincidence that was the striking orange bloom I chose to photograph in the exhibition, but my photo doesn't do it justice.

Mass planting of nerines outside the glasshouse at Exbury gardens

Even outside the glasshouses, a mass planting of Nerines couldn't be resisted. This reminds me of trips to Dublin for work many years ago, where the main road from the airport into the city was lined with gardens sporting mass plantings of sugar pink nerines. It makes the lone white specimen in my garden's gravel look most forlorn. 

Spectacular specimen trees at Exbury gardens

Elsewhere in the garden there were beautiful specimen trees and plenty of autumn colour to enjoy. The garden's Instagram account has a wonderful video of a flight around these two striking trees.

Beautiful light in the herbaceous borders at Exbury gardens

I loved the light which highlighted the grasses in the herbaceous borders... and the nerines too...

Glorious asters in the herbaceous border

... with lots more autumnal goodness around to brighten the day. It was a delight to see so many smiles from my fellow visitors as I walked round the garden.

Steam engine at Exbury gardens

And of course, no visit to Exbury is complete without a ride on the steam railway, with more smiles guaranteed. It would be rude not to! 

Me in the glasshouse amongst the nerines at Exbury gardens

Here's a final look in the glasshouse with a strange new variety found amongst the blooms. Thanks to Emma Mason for the kind use of her photo and for getting me a sneak peek in the glasshouse; I do love a good look behind the scenes. She was as excited as I was to be in there 😊

Flower close-ups at the Nerine exhibition


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