The Guernsey Lily (Nerine Sarniensis), has been an island favourite for more than 350 years, and before the days of greenhouses, carnations, freesias and clematis, the Guernsey Lily was the island’s great flower export. It was first mentioned in print in 1664 by John Evelyn in the Gardener’s Chronicle, and the great botanist Lineus named it the Amaryllis Sarniensis. There is a letter from July 1730 held at the Priaulx Library from William Le Marchant to his son James, who was studying at Pembroke College Oxford, in which Mr. Le Marchant kindly encourages his son to tend carefully to the plant and to tend likewise to his studies. In this letter Mr. Le Marchant refers to the lily as the "Belle Guerneziaize", the name used by most Guernsey people at the time. He also states the common belief that the flower was a native of the Far East, possibly Japan, and was introduced to Guernsey when a ship sank off the coast at Vazon, the bulbs washed ashore and became buried in the dunes or were collected by islanders who planted them in the belief they were onions. Later it was said the plant originated from South Africa, but from wherever they hail they have made Guernsey their home and seldom thrive well in any other location.
Many years ago there was a beautiful young woman called Michèle De Garis, daughter of a poor family who lived in a cottage near Vazon and often foraged the hedgerows, banks and beaches for food and fuel to supplement the family’s meagre supplies. One day as she neared Vazon Bay Michèle disturbed a man who was fast asleep under a hedge, a man who looked like no man she had seen before. He was fine-featured with a calm, reassuring manner and dressed in strange green clothes with a plumed hat. Upon seeing Michèle the man knew he was in love and wanted her to be his wife. He introduced himself as John, and told Michèle that he was the son of the King of the Fairies, and lived far across the sea. Michèle was not afraid and when he told her he wished her to be his princess she readily agreed, but worried for her parents and two brothers and wanted to leave them a message. He told her not to worry, and took from his pockets some small bulbs which he planted carefully in the dunes. He then took Michèle by the hand, led her to his boat and they sailed off to his homeland. Mr. and Mrs. De Garis and their two sons soon came looking for Michèle, but found only her headscarf on the ground. As she picked it up her daughter’s scarf Mrs. De Garis feared the worst and cried, her tears falling onto the sandy soil where a beautiful flower sprung through the earth, its petals as red as Michèle’s lips and dusted with magical fairy gold dust. As she picked the flower some of the gold dust blew into her eyes, and she saw that Michèle was well and happy. The family prospered but remained in their small cottage near Vazon, and each year at the time Michèle went away the beautiful flowers bloomed in their garden and across the island, reminding the family of her and through the magic of the gold dust they knew she too was well and happy.
In John’s homeland Michèle was adored and every man in the fairy kingdom wanted a wife like Michèle. Some time later the fairy army made its way to Guernsey.
The flower has appeared as a design on Guernsey's first post-decimalization five pence (5p) coin, and before that on the island's eight Double (penny) coin.
- de Sausmarez, Rosemary, The Guernsey Lily and how it came to Guernsey, Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, Summer 1970
- Frost, L C, PhD, The History of the Guernsey Lily, Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, Summer 1968
- Lanoe, Andrew, Nerines (2 parts), Review of the Guernsey Society, Spring/Summer 2011