February might not seem the month to choose irises as my favourite plant.
In late spring and early summer Turn End garden is a jewel-box of many-coloured bearded irises, baking in the sun and fluttering above their grey-green daggers of leaves. We also have an enthusiastic and showy clump of white, water-loving Iris in the house courtyard pond.
But it’s the tiny bulbous iris of early spring that are my favourite varieties of this lovely flowering plant. Poking through frosty ground and even peeping above a layer of snow, it never fails to amaze me how these delicate looking wonders survive the most bitter weather.
There are many varieties available to the gardener, derived from wild species such as Iris reticulata, Iris histroides and Iris danfordiae. These plants are native to Turkey, the Caucasus mountains and parts of the Middle East. Hailing from well-drained but cold hillsides indicates the conditions they like in gardens – they are hardy but like a sunny position and well-drained soil. They grow well in our free-draining clay-loam, especially in the raised beds of our dry garden. You can add generous quantities of horticultural grit if the soil is heavy but they like a warm dry rest in summer so won’t like places that are retain moisture.
One of the earliest varieties here is Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’. It forms robust clumps of compact grey-blue flowers with a broad yellow blotches on the falls. Up close it has wonderful china-blue and dark-blue striations and spots- a colour combination not to everyone’s taste. A little less showy but similar is pale blue Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germany’. Another early plant is I. danfordiae with pretty-lemon yellow flowers. It will flower well in its first year but then I usually find it declines and needs topping up with new bulbs every few years.
Our Daisy Garden is in full bloom in late summer and autumn, but has little permanent structure over winter. Cutting back and mulching in early winter leaves a blank canvas for what I’m trying to gradually develop – a tapestry of small, colourful spring bulb – including Anemone blanda, Crocus, Scillas, Leucojum, dwarf Narcissi and tulips and of course bulbous iris. A long-time resident here is Iris ‘J. S. Dijt’, tall and slender with wonderful imperial purple flowers with bright white and yellow spots on the falls. I’ve also recently introduced Iris ‘Blue Note’, which is a wonderful sapphire-purple with white spots on the falls.
One of my enduring favourites is Iris reticulata ‘Cantab. The flowers are clear lavender-blue, the tips of the falls are darker so they look as if they have been dipped in ink.
There are dozens of other varieties to chose from, popular choices can be found at garden centres in autumn or order direct from a specialist bulb company for a wider selection. New cultivars are being bred with unusual colours, including jade green, white and egg-yolk yellow. The pointed bulbs are small but plant them deeper than you think – at least 10cm deep, and about 10cm apart in autumn. Their diminutive size lends them to planting at the front of borders or in alpine beds and rockeries. They do well in pots and can be top-dressed with horticultural grit to prevent the soil splashing the flowers.
Jackie Hunt, Gardener, Turn End