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Iris cycloglossa

With some 300 species and who knows how many thousands of hybrids, the irises can provide enough material for several lifetimes of happy exploration. One of the most fascinating byways within the genus consists of the so-called juno irises, which are grouped into the subgenus Scorpiris. The junos are hardy, spring-blooming bulbs with a distinctive habit of growth—the leaves are distichously arranged, which means that an emerging juno looks like a leek or a young corn plant. Until recently, the only juno that regularly appeared in the larger bulb catalogs was the pretty yellow-and-white I. bucharica—if you wanted to try some of the other attractive species—of which there are about 55—you had to track them down in specialist nurseries or through seed exchanges. Lately, however, another juno species has joined the ranks of the easily obtainable, and it’s more than pretty—it’s a knockout. Iris cycloglossa grows to about 22 inches, and can bear as many as nine four-inch flowers (though three or four are more usual), which emerge from the leaf axils. They are a clear medium lavender blue, with prominent standards (unlike most other junos) and large falls beautifully marked with a yellow crest within a teardrop-shaped white zone. On top of that, the flowers have a wonderful spicy scent, which to some noses is reminiscent of clove.

Some junos are touchy, needing a hot, dry summer in order to thrive, but I. cycloglossa is more accommodating, and will coexist happily with plants that require regular summer moisture. Plant the bulbs in the fall about five to six inches deep in full sun in ordinary, well drained soil. A light sprinkling of organic fertilizer around the plants in early spring will encourage a good display of flowers. After the foliage dies down, in midsummer, you can overplant the area with annuals.

There is a poignant aspect to I. cycloglossa, for this lovely plant is native to one of the most war-torn places on earth: a small area of Afghanistan southwest of Herat. It has been collected only twice: the first time in 1949 by the Danish botanist M. Koie, and second (and last) time in 1969 by I. C. Hedge, L. Ekberg, and the great Swedish botanist Per Wendelbo. It is from this latter collection that all the plants now in cultivation are descended. Whether it will ever be possible to see the plant again in the wild—or whether it even still exists there—is anyone’s guess.

The Essentials

  • Type of plant: hardy bulbous perennial
  • Family: Iridaceae (iris family)
  • Origin: damp alpine meadows at 4,800–5,600 ft., southwest of Herat, Afghanistan
  • Height: to 22 in.
  • Leaves: distichous, up to 12 in. long and 3/4 in. wide, medium green, dying down in midsummer
  • Flowers: resembling a Spanish iris, lavender blue with a yellow crest and white zone, up to 4 in. across, scented
  • Bloom period: late spring
  • Hardiness: USDA Zones 5–9
  • Exposure: full sun
  • Soil: average, very well drained
  • Water needs: moderate during active growth; will tolerate moisture during dormancy
  • Planting: plant bulbs in fall, 5–6 in. deep
  • Feeding: light annual application of organic fertilizer in early spring
  • Propagation: by seed (plants will take several years to reach blooming size)
  • Problems: none serious

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 100, no. 1 (January/February 2003).