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Irises: gift of the gods


Staff member
Mar 21, 2024
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Irises: gift of the gods

Iris, mythological messenger of the Greek gods, also personified the rainbow. So it seems entirely possible that she’s also the inspiration for the name of these intriguing flowers with their astonishing range of colours. From deepest purple to icy blue, burgundy through magenta to pale whispery pink, burnt orange, peach and yellow, and snowy white to nearly black, they can be used in every colour scheme. Add their unusual structure and striking, strappy foliage and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular and often much in evidence at the Chelsea Flower Show.

All flowers are rewarding when they bloom but there’s something particularly exciting about irises, and with blooms rich in nectar and pollen, they’re also a big hit with butterflies, moths, bees and other insects. Most iris flower in late spring and early to mid-summer but the reticulatas appear in early spring.

The flamboyant bearded iris have their origins in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern areas, but we also have two native species in the UK; bog-loving, bright yellow flag iris, I. pseudacorus, often seen rising up from the edge of natural ponds, and the unflatteringly-named, but quietly beautiful stinking iris, I. foetidissima. Both are tolerant of some shade as well as sun and will do well in difficult soil conditions.

Iris reticulata will thrive in pots as well as in the ground, and others should do well in containers too, given the right care and conditions.

There are about 300 species and thousands of cultivars so there are plenty of substitutes on the market if our stores don’t have the few listed below. Our staff will be happy to suggest alternatives.

For early spring flowers

Diminutive Iris reticulata grow to about 15cm tall and need full sun and poor, well-drained soil. Blooming around February and into March, they’re a boost to the garden during lean times. Most are blue or purple but there are also a couple of yellow forms. ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ is pale blue with darker striations and yellow markings. ‘J.S. Dijt’ is deep mauve with sunny yellow splashes. ‘Harmony’ is deep violet blue with white and yellow tiger markings. ‘Katherine’s Gold’ is pale yellow and white with tiny, deep blue/grey spots.

For dry, sunny sites

Bearded iris take their name from the short, furry-looking hairs which grow in the centre of the falls (downward dropping petals). They have bold, grey-green leaves that often curve like scimitars. Plant with the top of the rhizome exposed (ie above the soil), but the roots firmly in the ground. They originate in the Mediterranean and Middle East and love to bake, needing hot, dry conditions and well-drained soil. Add plenty of grit and organic matter to the planting hole if your soil is heavy. Some gardeners recommend planting them on a north-south orientation with the foliage end pointing north and the rhizome pointing south for maximum exposure to the sun. If in doubt as to whether they need a drink, it’s better to under than over-water as they may rot if they sit in the damp for too long.

These are just a few of the cultivars available:

‘Black Swan’ is midnight purple.

‘Metolius Blues’ is sky blue.

‘Sublime Velvet’ is a rich deep rose pink with purple tones on the falls.

‘Century Pink’ is pastel pink.

‘Carnival Time’ combines pale and burnt orange.

‘Darley Dale’ is white with touches of yellow at the base of petals.

‘Benton Apollo’ is pale gold.

‘Benton Olive’ featured in Sarah Price’s award-winning garden at Chelsea last year. It’s palest yellow with caramel and mauve tones and delicate darker caramel markings.

For damp or boggy places

Look no further if you have a pond or bothersome boggy area in the garden which never dries out. These plants thrive in a few inches of water at the edges of ponds or soggy soil/bog gardens. Unlike many iris actually they enjoy having wet feet.

Iris ensata has vibrant royal purple flowers with a discreet yellow splash near the base of the petals.

Iris laevigata is more blueish in tone with a white splash.

Giant of the iris world at 1.2m tall, with striking sword-like foliage, Iris pseudacorus is daffodil yellow with tiny chocolate markings.

  1. ensata and I. laevigata both need lots of sun but I. pseudacorus tolerates light shade.

For part-shade

Evergreen Iris foetidissima is happy in a sunny spot as well as in part-shade. It’s sometimes dismissed as having a ‘dull purple flower’ but this does it an injustice. The blooms, which usually last only for a day, are a pale, silvery lilac with darker purple veining and bronze tints towards the base of the petals. However, colours vary from plant to plant and are sometimes more lemony than purple. In autumn the large seed pods open to reveal glowing, bead-like, large orange seeds that last into winter. One of the few plants to thrive in dry shade and tolerant too of salty winds, its delicate appearance belies its toughness. Known as the stinking iris, its leaves and roots are said to smell of roast beef when cut or crushed. It self-seeds freely.

Adaptable yet tall and elegant, Iris siberica prefers moist soil but will grow in most conditions. The gorgeous late spring flowers are violet-blue with contrasting tawny tones at the base of petals and delicate white markings. It does best in full sun but also perfectly well in part-shade.



Allow the leaves to die back before removing them – they provide valuable food for next year’s blooms.

As they age, irises become congested and the number of flowers they produce gradually declines. To give them a new lease of life they can be divided and the outer parts replanted. https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/iris/dividing

For more advice on how to grow and care for them: https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-grow-iris/

Happy in sun or shade, wet or dry soil – choose wisely and you’ll find an iris for almost any area of the garden. Rainbow-hued, adaptable and certainly never dull, they add immeasurable style and substance to our outdoor spaces.

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