Birthday Blues

This may not be an especially significant birthday (there are no 0’s or 5’s involved) but I still hadn’t planned to spend it at home in bed with a cold. It looks like I am swapping Bollinger for Benylin, dressing up for a dressing gown and a night on the town for a night in front of the telly.

Among my presents from Him Indoors is Monty Don’s ‘Gardening at Longmeadow’, so that’s my afternoon on the sofa accounted for. I like to read Monty’s books with his mellifluous timbre running through my head: more soothing that hot lemon and honey. Meanwhile I need to muster the energy to call the nice man from RV Roger to pay for three espalier apple trees which are already out for delivery. I am sure he’ll be delighted to hear me coughing and rasping down the line.

Whilst I do have a touch of the blues on this dull, wintry day, life is not all bad. At least I am warm, dry and safe, unlike so many people in the world. Hence I have chosen an off-blue flower to head-up this post, the incomparable Iris unguicularis.

Better known as the Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis can also be found growing in Greece and North Africa. I call it incomparable because I know of no other plant like it in terms of habit or flowering behaviour. Despite its Mediterranean origins the Algerian iris is perfectly hardy in the UK and thrives on neglect. On the roughest, stoniest piece of ground you can find (preferably alkaline) plant it in full sun and then forget about it. From a coarse tussock of slim evergreen leaves will emerge a sequence of scented mauvey-blue flowers from Christmas until April. Each is as fine and gossamer-thin as the most delicate summer bloom, and sweetly scented too. Cannily, Iris unguicularis produces flowers sporadically so as to avoid them all being damaged by adverse weather. A wise strategy for any plant growing in a UK garden.

A purple flowered variety named ‘Mary Barnard’ has slightly shorter leaves than the species and is therefore tidier, whilst heavily scented ‘Walter Butt’ produces ice blue and lavender flowers in abundance whatever the elements have to throw at it. A pure white variety, ‘Alba’, is less vigorous than the species and is available from Avon Bulbs. This gold medal-winning nursery also offers a cultivar of Zimbabwean origin called ‘Marondera’ which carries larger, darker flowers than most. Brighton Plants, a specialist in rare and unusual plants for dry, alkaline soils, offers a sublimely elegant variety named ‘Peloponnese Snow’ (image below – I want one!) as well as another garden-worthy species, Iris lazica, which boast neater foliage than I. unguicularis and tolerates a degree more shade and moisture.

“Patience seems to be the only manure these irises need”, observed the great 20th-century gardener and plantsman E.A. Bowles “the older a clump grows, the better it flowers”. My parents have had a clump in their garden for 34 years, never touched, and still it flowers heartily every winter. Patience seems to be what my cold needs too, albeit the older I get the worse the colds become!

Iris unguicularis 'Peloponnese Snow' (image: Brighton Plants)
Iris unguicularis ‘Peloponnese Snow’ (image: Brighton Plants)