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Gardening 101: Iris

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Gardening 101: Iris

September 24, 2019

Iris: “The Bearded Beauty”

In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow. This is a fitting literary connection for the iris, a genus whose members—bearded, beardless, or crested—can appear in all different colors of the rainbow, from the classic purples and blues to red, orange, pink, and yellow. The goddess Iris’s multicolored gown that stretched across the sky is reflected in the reticulation, or veining, that marbles the petals of some iris species. These petals are made from gown-like material, thick and velvety, with ruffles around the opening of the blossom.

 Photograph by Clare Coulson for Gardenista. In early summer, the deep maroon Iris ‘Indian Chief’ (at Left) shimmers in the soft light in a border filled with irises at the Jacobean manor house Tattenhall Hall. For more, see Garden Visit: Flower Borders in a Colorful English Garden.
Above: Photograph by Clare Coulson for Gardenista. In early summer, the deep maroon Iris ‘Indian Chief’ (at Left) shimmers in the soft light in a border filled with irises at the Jacobean manor house Tattenhall Hall. For more, see Garden Visit: Flower Borders in a Colorful English Garden.
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Above: ‘Sugar Magnolia’ made an appearance at a recent Chelsea Flower Show in designer Ulf Nordfjell’s garden. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

The iris is one of the most visually striking plants in the garden, with its perfectly straight spears of foliage and undulating petals that meet in an arc at the top. But examine the iris closer, and what you may find is a bearded lady. The “beard” is even a scientific term used to describe this genus of flower. If we peer into the iris’s interior, we can see a small, well-groomed patch of hair. However, like the artist Frida Kahlo who painted a mustache in her self-portrait, the iris is beautiful as a bearded lady. She has inspired famous artwork of her own; Vincent Van Gogh often painted irises, saying that they helped him stave off insanity.

Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista, from Bearded Irises: A Lost Generation of Flowers Has a Moment.
Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista, from Bearded Irises: A Lost Generation of Flowers Has a Moment.

Cheat Sheet

  • Irises bloom best in a special bed of their own, but can also look beautiful in rock gardens, where orange or yellow neighbors like marigolds that complement their yellowy orange interiors.
  • The iris’s perfume attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • A favorite in bouquets, irises are deer resistant and drought tolerant.

Keep It Alive

  • Irises will thrive in part to full sun and with no watering while the flowers are in bloom.
  • Irises produce a lot of leaves, which are vital for the plant’s sunlight absorption; no matter how large, refrain from trimming the leaves.
  • For best results, plant in mid- to late summer.
Photograph by Clare Coulson. Iris ‘Monet’s Blue’ grows in a field at Woottens of Wenhaston. For more, see Shopper&#8
Above: Photograph by Clare Coulson. Iris ‘Monet’s Blue’ grows in a field at Woottens of Wenhaston. For more, see Shopper’s Diary: The Iris Fields of Wootens of Wenhaston.

The iris’s pungent scent (which in some varieties, can border on a stink) is a coup to your garden, attracting bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds galore. It must be her goddess powers that allow the iris to resist both deer and droughts. These bearded beauties look wonderful planted in threes, spaced one to two feet apart. If you’re lucky, your variety of iris might turn out to be “remontant” and flower twice in a single spring or summer blooming season.

For more on irises, see:

N.B.: See more ideas for an English garden in our Perennials 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

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