The Guernsey Lilly

The Guernsey Lily (Nerine sarniensis) is generally accepted as national flower of Guernsey.  The first time that the flower was mentioned in connection with Guernsey was in 1664 in a paper called Gardener’s Chronicle. In this paper it was called Narcissus japonica or Guernsey Lily – very rare flower.  In 1729 it was described elsewhere as La Belle Gguerneziaize and in 1738 it was named Amaryllis Sarniensis by the famous botanist, Linneus. 

There are various  ideas about how the flower came to Guernsey. One story suggests that  the first bulbs were washed ashore on the west coast at Vazon from a Dutch ship wrecked en route from Japan. It is said that the bulbs washed ashore and became buried in the dunes or were collected by islanders who planted them in the belief they were onions.

It is also claimed that the second son of Lord Hatton, the then Governor, had rescued them and cultivated them at Castle Cornet - from where - it is suggested - that he had sent many to 'botanists and florists' in England. While he was interested in botany there is a far more down to earth explanation;

It is claimed that the bulb formed part of General Sir John Lambert 's garden at Castle Cornet.  Lambert, was held prisoner in Castle Cornet for ten years following the fall of Oliver Cromwell and the return of the monarchy after the English Civil War. His wife joined him at some stage from London and is thought to have brought the bulbs with her. His daughter secretly married one of the sons of Lord Hatton which caused a family rift . Since Lambert was a man in disgrace, it would not have been seen as desirable to attribute the origin of the Nerine sarniensis in Guernsey to him, so a cover story was created by Hatton's son to explain its arrival in the island. 

John Evelyn was the first man to call what had been known since 1635 as Narcissus japonicus [it was originally thought to be from Japan]  'the Guernsey Lily,' Coincidentally, evidence shows that Hatton and Evelyn were distantly related.

Let me tell you something of their name. The flowerists in England call them Guernsey Lillys: we call them, now, Belles Guerneziezes, Guernsey Beautys. But I remember very well that about 30 or 40 years agon, they were commonly called here, Fleurs d'Indes—Indian Flowers. I think this name is the best, and should be retained; because it agrees with the account of their comng here, according to Tradition.

[From For Mr James Le Marchant scholar in Pembroke College, Oxford, &c., by William Le Marchant, July 22 1730.]

The arrival of the lily has also got its roots in the island's folklore - see Guernsey Folklore

Despite the descriptions above, the bulbs are actually indigenous to South Africa. They grow in the wild on Table Mountain and other south western mountains of the Cape Province. 

As a result, what now seems more likely, is that a homebound Dutch East India Company ship put in at Cape of Good Hope where the crew collected nerines from Table Mountain. Six bulbs were given to Jurat de Saumarez after the vessel was temporarily ‘cast ashore’ on mid seventeenth century Guernsey.