It may be me (I was lucky to escape the past few weeks of downpours and howling gales whilst I was away on holiday), but spring seems to have crept up early this year. The light seems suddenly clearer and brighter, the air sweet with floral scents, and the garden is glorious patchwork of gorgeous spring flowers, all jostling for space beside each other.
It is hard to choose which is loveliest. Snowdrops are absolute gems, their dew-covered nodding heads bringing light and sparkle under the trees and shrubs. The Pulmonarias are adding a delicate display of softly hairy leaves and delicate lilac and pink flowers. Just going over are Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconites), which are like early buttercups – shiny yellow cups that catch the low sunlight. They are being closely followed by their slightly later flowering relative, Eranthis cilicica.
But what I love the most at this time of year are the early reticulata irises, dwarf bulbous types that originally hail from the Middle East. The name apparently refers to the netted tunic around the bulb. The flowers have six tepals (a word used for sepals or petals when they are not easily distinguished). The resilience of these tiny delicate plants is quite remarkable. The leaves emerge first – a narrow cluster of grey-green shoots, somewhat triangular in section. Then all of a sudden one of these shoots transpires to be a flower bud and out pops the most amazing miniature wonder. We have a small collection of these early irises, and they are all beautiful. Iris Katherine Hodgkin is one of the earliest, with short, plump pale blue flowers blotched with yellow and dotted and veined with deeper blue. Iris Sheila Ann Germaney is similar but seems more diaphanous, a softer pale blue. Taller, bolder, Iris J S Dijt is a a glorious royal purple with a bold splash of yellow and white on the falls. Our Iris danfordiae seems to be least tough, their bright sunny yellow flowers appearing close the ground yet easily battered by the rain. My favourite of all is Iris ‘Cantab’, a hard to describe pale blue-iolet colour with white and yellow on the falls – simple, elegant and lovely.
There is a huge range of species and cultivars to choose from and you should buy and plant them in the autumn. Considering their origin, they do best in well drained conditions with a warm, dry summer rest. Plant them nice and deep to ensure best flowering. They are terrific in empty border edges and lovely too in pots – either way, make sure you can get up really close and appreciate their miniature beauty.