Floral and Horticultural Heritage
Guernsey has a rich and diverse floral and horticultural heritage that reflects the changing culture of the export market. The 'Guernsey Tom' is by far the island's most well-known and well-loved export.
Glasshouses first started appearing around 200 years ago as a way of growing less hardy plants and bringing on seedlings for transplanting out into the garden. Improvements to transport links to and from the islands heralded the start of the export industry, with the first commercial crops of flowers and grapes exported from the mid-1800s. Grapes were the most important crop of the time and greenhouses are still referred to locally as 'vineries'.
It was local boat builders and carpenters who first used their skills to create shelters for small areas of growing. Glazed wooden 'lean-tos' were traditionally put up against gable walls of farmhouses and cottages, and those that remain are not only a nod to the past but a sought after addition.
As demand strengthened, growers moved on to building full span greenhouses and, later on, cast iron heating pipes were added to the glasshouses, extending the season for local growers.
Grape vines were usually planted outside, growing through holes into the greenhouse. This enabled the plant to take up moisture from outside and meant less watering for the grower. It also freed up space to have a secondary crop in the greenhouse.
Guernsey has a long-standing history of earning a living from the land. Over the centuries, islanders carved out not only an industry but also their own methods of working the land which are still seen today.In fact, locally-grown tomatoes can still be found for sale on the island's ‘hedge veg’ stalls and in supermarkets.
While horticulture no longer plays such a major role in the island's economy, there is still a buoyant export market in the flower industry, including freesia, Guernsey lily and award-winning clematis.
The Guernsey Lily was the first Nerine to be cultivated in Europe and is reported to have been grown in Paris in 1630. 200 years later and the Nerine blooms were among the first flowers to be exported to London in the infancy of the island's horticultural industry. The Guernsey lily or 'Nerine sarniensis' was so-named because Sarnia was the name given to the island by the Romans.
The bulb is indigenous to South Africa and grows in the wild on Table Mountain and other south western mountains of the Cape Province of South Africa. There are about 30 known species of the lily, or amaryllis, growing wild in South Africa and some of these have a number of cultivated forms. In its natural state it has several colour forms ranging from scarlet to crimson, but can also be found in white.
Local legend states that the first bulbs were washed ashore on the west coast of Guernsey from a Dutch ship wrecked whilst en route from Japan. Another story claims that it was introduced by green fingered Roundhead General Lambert, during his imprisonment in Castle Cornet. 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 17th century Guernsey.
Guernsey Lily - the Folklore Story
There is another, more intriguing, version of how the 'Guernsey Lily' came to the Island.
Legend holds that a handsome fairy prince met and fell madly in love with Michelle de Garis, a beautiful Guernsey girl. Michelle left her cottage early one morning to see to her cows. As she entered the meadow, she was surprised to find a young man asleep on the grass. He had a particularly small stature, was finely proportioned, and remarkably handsome.
Michelle stood and admired the small man dressed in green armed with bow and arrow. When he awoke he told Michelle that he was a fairy prince from England and asked for her hand in marriage, as they had both instantly fallen in love. She agreed but as they headed to Fairyland she asked that she leave a token to reassure her family. The prince gave her a bulb, which she planted.
Michelle's mother later discovered a beautiful flower above Vazon bay, on the west coast of Guernsey. It was the colour of Michelle's shawl and sprinkled with elfin gold - the Guernsey lily.
Some time later, many fairy men came from Fairyland, entranced by Michelle's beauty and looking for a Guernsey girl of their own. They asked that Guernseymen gave up their wives and daughters, which ended in many battles between the fairies and Guernseymen. The Rouge Rue (Red Road) is said to have been named after a particularly fierce battle.
Each October there is a Nerine Festival in the Guernsey events calendar. Hundreds of varieties in a wide range of colours are shown at the lower glasshouse in Candie Gardens, St Peter Port. The bulbs form part of the Guernsey National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens