Irises of Winter

January 1st, 2011

by Tom Fischer

Yes, OverPlanters, it’s been a long time. One has been very, very naughty; but on the other hand, one has been very, very busy, and one will try one’s best (really!) to post regularly.

So, irises. I think it’s safe to say that midwinter is not usually thought of as prime iris season. But there are a few species that, for whatever perverse reasons of their own, choose this time to bloom. Maybe they hate competition.

Iris unguicularis 'Ginny Hunt'.

The best known is Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, and it’s just the thing to lift your spirits when you’ve finished off the last of the eggnog and realize that spring won’t be arriving for another three or four months. As its common name suggests, it’s native to northern Africa, but can also be found in Greece and the Greek isles. It thrives in poor soil and baking sun, so do what you can to make a nice little Mediterranean microclimate for it. Usually considered hardy only to Zone 7, I planted it in my Zone 6 Boston garden up against the concrete foundation of the house in a south-facing corner, and it did just fine. Once established, it’s very drought-tolerant—my clump gets no supplemental water during our dry summer months and doesn’t seem fazed in the least. The folks at Stonecrop Garden in Cold Spring, New York, say that it makes a good pot plant as long as it gets a summer baking and is brought inside before the weather turns really cold, so there’s hope for those of you in the chillier zones.

The leaves are about a half-inch wide and evergreen, but the clump (which gets about three feet across and two feet tall) can get kind of ratty-looking by summer’s end. To deal with this, I use a trick I learned from my friends at the Elisabeth Miller Garden in Seattle: in September or October (no later or you’ll damage the flower buds!), shear the clump to the ground. New growth will soon begin, and the flowers will be unencumbered by the old leaves.

Ah, the flowers! They’re three to four inches across and a medium lavender-blue, with white stippling and a narrow yellow signal on the falls (the droopy lower petals). And, unusually for an iris, they’re mildly fragrant, sort of yeasty-almondy with a hint of something sweeter. You can pick them in bud, put them in a small vase in a warm room, and they’ll open in less than an hour. (They last only about a day; sic transit and all that.) Honesty compels me to admit that the floral display, even of an established clump, is not what you’d call overwhelming—usually you get two or three flowers opening at a time. But they continue over a long period, and hey, it’s winter, so don’t complain.

Our gardening brethren and sistern in the British Isles can choose from several named cultivars, including ‘Walter Butt’ (pale lavender with large flowers), ‘Mary Barnard’ (with short, comparatively tidy leaves), and ‘Abington Purple’ (whose flowers have narrow falls). These are nearly unobtainable over here. Most annoying. I was happy to discover, though, that Plant Delights Nursery currently offers three selections: subspecies cretensis, a dwarf form whose flowers open above the leaves; ‘Great White’; and ‘Logan Calhoun’, said to be exceptionally vigorous. The form I grow is called ‘Ginny Hunt’, after the charming owner of Seedhunt, and is quite robust; I bought it at Cistus Nursery here in Portland. Joy Creek Nursery has the plain species.

Iris lazica.

Superficially similar to Algerian iris is I. lazica, from Turkey. (Zone 7? 6?) It’s said to like a bit more shade and moisture than I. unguicularis, but my clump gets full sun and no summer water and doesn’t seem the worse for it. The main differences I’ve noticed are that the foliage stays much neater and the flowers appear later (sometimes not until March) and much more abundantly (although, unfortunately, they’re borne below the foliage). There are at least two named selections in Great Britain—‘Richard Nutt’ and ‘Joy Bishop’—that aren’t available here. Actually, the ordinary species isn’t easy to find, either. Someone please get to work on that.

Iris foetidissima in a vase. Nice, huh?

The last species I want to mention is Iris foetidissima (Zone 6), commonly known as gladwyn or stinking iris. (You’ll remember from your Latin that foetidissima means “most stinky,” which in this case is not quite accurate. The evergreen leaves, when crushed, do smell, but I find the scent vaguely meaty rather than out-and-out nasty.) You don’t grow this for the flowers—they’re small, lavender or (in the variety citrina) washed-out yellow, and utterly negligible. In fall, however, the plant redeems itself by producing seed pods that split open to reveal large, scarlet seeds. Very dramatic, and quite wonderful when picked and placed in a vase. There are forms with orange, yellow, and even white seeds (‘Fructo Albo’), but they don’t have nearly impact of the ordinary red-seeded form. Oh, and good luck tracking them down if you want to try them (Plant Delights has the plain species.) Iris foetidissima likes some shade, such as that beneath a not-too-dense deciduous tree, and a reasonable amount of moisture. Gardeners in Seattle have reported problems with rust disease, and the species appears to have escaped from cultivation in the Bay Area, so take note.

As I sit here at the keyboard, I have a single Iris unguicularis flower in a bud vase next to my laptop. It has almost made me forget that, New Year’s Eve notwithstanding, it’s not such a good idea to drink single-malt scotch on top of red wine and champagne.

Happy 2011, everyone.

5 Responses

  1. It’s unfortunate people not only ignore this, but twist it and say that based on interpretation, what they really meant was that the US WAS founded on the Christian religion

  2. I’m going to be following on from the blog. =)

  3. Jim Fox says:

    Another I. unguicularis here in the U.S.: ‘Kathryn Wormsley’, mid violet in color.

    Try them from seed to see what you get. A Seattle grower produced very good color forms this way, including a good, unvirused white. Some UK cultivars are infected to the point of being barely growable- ‘Walter Butt’ and “the white form” (not the same as PD’s offering) to name two – at least here in WA. ‘Mary Barnard’, however, is the best all round here. Some clumps had up to 15 blooms a day last week.

    Ditto Graham’s comments on Iris foetidissima. I’ll add the superb variegated leaf form of I. foetidissima. Great broad white and green striped leaves growing in drought and shade. Like a small phormium. The old Heronswood sold a seed strain as taller, larger flowered, and yellower. Can’t recall the name. Golden Goblet/Cup comes to mind It didn’t seem an improvment, however.

    Carol you should give I. lazica a try. It is much hardier than I. unguicularis. Grown from seed from mid to northern European gardens should produce one or two plants of good hardiness for you.

    Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend sells all three species, Tom, and some forms. That’s where I got I. lazica.

  4. Graham Rice says:

    Thanks for telling everyone about Iris foetidissima, an unsung hero! A superb dry shade plant and, as you say, one with an unexpected range of variation. I think it’s a bit harsh to describe var. citrina as “utterly negligible”, I find it quite bright. I’d better send you a few seeds, the flowers are lovely. You can see them here There’s also a rare yellow-leaved form but it looks a bit anaemic…

  5. Carol says:

    Reading this has made me wish that my Zone 5 garden was just a tiny bit warmer in the winter time…

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