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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- Bearded or Stinking: How Do You Prefer Your Irises?
- The Mystery of the Missing Irises: Have You Seen Any of These Varieties?
N.B.: See more ideas for an English garden in our Perennials 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.
- Hoping to attract butterflies to your garden? See Asters 101, Lavender 101, and Queen Anne’s Lace 101.
- If you’re drawn to hummingbirds, consider adding Coral Bells 101 or Foxglove 101.
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