Pink has always been one of my favourite colours in the garden. I know some view it as a bit of a ‘girlie’ colour but pink is the colour of summer and makes me feel happy. In early summer the garden is awash with pink and nowhere more so than the Rose Garden where there is every shade of pink rose from the palest shell pink to the most vibrant ‘Barbie’ pink. All secret pink lovers can come and wander around in a happy haze of roses and paeonies.
But as summer creeps inexorably towards autumn, the colour palette shifts and the garden becomes full of hot, intense colours. The Cottage Garden is flaming away with the stunning Hedychiums, Cannas and Dahlias all in peak flowering condition. Deep orange, bright red, bronze, golden yellow and tangerine, the colours are bold and intense and are typical of the late summer.
Beautiful though these are, a pink lover needs a fix and at Sissinghurst the answer lies with a South African bulb; the nerine. Nerines belong to the amaryllidaceae family along with daffodils and snowdrops although superficially they look more like lilies. At Sissinghurst we grow Nerine bowdenii and three more cultivars of this species. They all have beautiful, bright pink flowers, each bulb bearing a single stem terminating in an umbel of flamboyant, star-burst flowers. The petals are strongly recurved and wavy along the edges, even the long stamen curl like long eye lashes.
The bulbs are summer dormant and flower in September before their leaves emerge afterwards. Since nerines originate from the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa only two are reliably hardy here in Britain – N. bowdenii and N. undulata. Even then they need a sunny spot with well-drained soil; the base of a south facing wall is ideal. Like most South African plants, nerines will thrive in heat but may struggle with our cold, wet winters. Once planted, don’t disturb them as they don’t like to be moved and actually flower more if they are congested. The Nerine bowdenii that were planted about two years ago at the top of the Rose Garden are only just starting to flower well as they do not reach maturity until year 5 or 6.
The other cultivars that we grow are N. bowdenii ‘Praecox’, N.bowdenii ‘Marjorie’ and N. bowdenii ‘Fenwick’s Variety’. There is a bit of a connection between Sissinghurst and ‘Marjorie’ because it is a seedling selected at Edinburgh Botanic Garden by Jim Marshall. He named it after his late wife, Marjorie. However, Jim used to be a Garden Advisor for the National Trust and regularly visited Sissinghurst; perhaps a little too regularly because romance blossomed between Jim and Sarah Cook, the Head Gardener and they are now happily married. The colour of the cultivars tends to be darker and more intense than the plain species, making them a real focal point in the border.
As for planting partners, Christopher Lloyd recommends planting them with Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ which is a classic partnership. However, I really love the combination that we have at the top of the Rose Garden where N. bowdenii is planted with deep mauve Verbena rigida and lime green Asplenium scolopendrium. It is, as Sarah Raven once wrote, the classic combination of the Bride, the Bridesmaid and the Gate Crasher. She was referring to flower arranging when she wrote this but I always think of her phrase when I look at these three plants together.
So is the nerine for you? If you like pink then definitely ‘yes’. Even if you live in a cold, wet part of the country, try growing them in a pot and if you are lucky enough to have a warm spot in your garden, plant some nerines and enjoy a shot of intense pink every autumn.