Would a Garden with Big, Fragrant Iris Blossoms Right Now Make You Swoon?

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the winter-flowering iris, Iris unguicularis, image provided by Audrey DriscollIf you live in a place where most winter days are above freezing, you can probably grow Algerian iris, which is also found wild in Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, and Greek islands including Crete. The name arose because this species was introduced to Britain from Algeria early in the 19th Century by the bulb collector and botanist William Herbert (1778-1847). Before this, was almost nothing about the territory known? Nope. Algerian flora had been described and explored to a degree by the French botanist Jean Poiret, who published Travel to Barbary (Voyage en Barbarie) in 1789.

title page of the French botanist Poiret's book Travel in Barbary (1789)This species probably has a history of cultivation that goes back far beyond 1789. Some sources state this plant was known and used in ancient times by the Egyptians, who would grind together salt, small bits of dried iris root, mint, and pepper to make a substance for cleaning teeth. It is more likely that they were using orris root, although several species of iris were used herbally or medicinally by many ancient cultures in Europe and Asia. It is unclear what species of iris the Egyptians knew; one source proposes a few types from Syria and Iris pseudacorus, with another mentioning albicans. No authority usually mentions this one. In modern times, there have been studies of compounds in this species that hold promise for diabetics.

Iris unguicularis 'Peloponnese Snow'
Iris unguicularis ‘Peloponnese Snow’

But, as you can see, beyond brightening Egyptian smiles–if it ever did–it has other aesthetic uses based not just on what it does, but when. As contemporary horticulturist and garden writer Noel Kingsbury put it, this iris “tends to flower in splendid isolation.” Kingsbury recommends combining this plant with Nerine, which is brilliant although they don’t flower together–and because of it. They flourish in similar conditions, particularly in poor, stony soil. Where they will survive the winter, you can’t have too many of either!

The evergreen leaves grow up to 2 feet tall, and if you like small sizes, there is a subspecies cretensis that is shorter. (No dinky diminutives for me!) The available colors are purple, pink, and white. Expressed in words, this palette may sound limited, but if you’ve actually grown this perennial, you realize how satisfactory and welcome its contribution is. Plus, those shades of purple are rather like roses that come in so many shades of pink you don’t mind having yet one more.

a photograph of several flowers of a pink antique roseYou might begin turning shades of red once you discover what else likes your winter irises. Carla Lankow tells us slugs “love having flower salad in the middle of winter.” So in growing this iris, whether it’s snow, slugs, or profanity, do prepare to encounter four-letter-words of one kind or another beyond the genus.

Like the rose, these flowers have fragrance, so there is delight for the nose as well as the eyes. After all, what are flowers for? The pastel variety ‘Walter Butt’ is known especially for its fragrance, although some people do find its flowers floppy and others find it weak in growth and reluctant to bloom. Please note that the British horticulturist was alive when it was named after him around 1948 since he lived from 1872 or 1880 (sources disagree) to 1953, but a begonia named for ‘Madame J. P. Walter Butt’ was introduced by 1862, so it commemorates the wife of a different person (ancestor, perhaps?). The cultivar ‘Mary Barnard’ was collected by Mary Barnard in Algeria in 1937 but not registered under her name until 1962. It has since been recognized with the British Royal Horticultural Society’s valuable Award of Garden Merit. This Mary was British, not the American poet. ‘Speciosa’ (that’s Latin for “showy”) tends to show its flowers best. In case you find a single color dull, the splashy effect of ‘Kilbroney Marble’ can help add variety.

The buds will survive temperatures in the 20s and even a short dip into the teens. Once open, however, they are damaged if they freeze, which is why buds open in succession, often from November to March. If that possibility isn’t enough to make you burst, I don’t know what will, but here’s something that comes close. The great early 20th Century gardener Edward Bowles observed: “Patience seems to be the only manure these irises need.” In other words, like peony, Baptisia, and Dictamnus, plants develop slowly, and might not even bloom the first or second year. Bowles added that “the older a clump grows the better it flowers,” and establishing a fine large clump ought to succeed as long as you can neglect it enough.

a plant of Iris unguicularis, showing the leavesThis species can be put in any time you can dig, but like many Mediterranean plants, it begins to grow in the fall, not in spring. The best time to cut back shabby leaves, then, would be to time your trim just before the new ones emerge. Labor Day might be a good reminder, but having a garden journal can help you keep track of chores that need a particular time. Many people only trim them partway to remove the dead tips, then rake the plants to remove old leaves around the base. It’s up to you.

Beyond the wintertime blooms and year-round foliage of our subject species, yet another fine attribute this plant has is that it is very xeric, making it suited to our waterwise times and suitable for planting beyond the reach of the hose–although, I hope, not beyond the reach of your nose!

For more ideas pertaining to the season, read Bowles’s masterpiece My Garden in Autumn and Winter. He rhapsodizes on the seasonal scenes and scents, and–trust me–you’ll be savoring every page. A bit on our iris: “Plant well and generously for permanency [he means plant many of them, not to enrich the planting hole], and wait a year or so in patience for your reward, and then you may reasonably expect it for yourself and for your children after you.” He also reminds the reader that “plants, once established, are best left alone . . .” (which shouldn’t be much of a chore!) First published in 1915, this valuable volume was written in a world far from the one we know; a few names have changed, but the observations are all still relevant.

Image credits:

Top: Audrey Driscoll
Next: Biodiversity Heritage Library
White: peganum, CC-by-SA 2.0
Leaves: Thomas Karwin

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