I don’t know about you, but my green fingers fail me when it comes to keeping early spring irises flowering from one season to the next. The tiny bulbs, mainly cultivars and hybrids of Iris reticulata and Iris histrioides, are about the size, shape and colour of a garlic clove (‘reticulata’ refers the the protective net of fibres on the exterior of the bulb). They reward me in the first year with blooms aplenty, only to disappoint the next when they produce nothing but tufts of narrow, nondescript leaves. Over many seasons I have learned that there’s absolutely no point nursing these lovely little irises through the summer months and so I put them unceremoniously in the bin after flowering and start again with fresh bulbs every autumn.
Thanks to breeders such as Alan McMurtrie, the number of reticulate irises available to gardeners is steadily increasing. Gone are the days when the choice was between shades of blue and violet; the spectrum now extends to white, yellow, brown, orange and even pale lilac. It takes 10-15 years to bring a new variety to market, so no surprise then that the bulbs can initially be rather expensive. I’ve indulged in a few, including I. ‘Spot On’ (below) and I. ‘Eye Catcher’ (above), but for everyday planting in spring containers I tend to opt for cheap, cheerful and easily replaced cultivars, in particular Iris histrioides ‘George’.
George is a hardy fellow, tolerant of cold and wet weather, producing velvety, royal-purple flowers at about the same time as the snowdrops and aconites. (They would make a very fetching threesome planted cheek-by-jowl, although the irises prefer to be dry during summer whilst the others like to stay damp.) Just today poor George has withstood rain, sleet, hail and strong winds off the sea, coming out the other side looking distinctly better than I. This is why George has an AGM (Award of Garden Merit) and I do not! If the weather had been calm enough I’d also have been able to detect a subtle perfume, another element of George’s allure.
I like my irises planted in pots so they can be displayed on a table or staging where I can really appreciate them, but in the right conditions they will flourish, and even repeat flower, perfectly well in the ground.
If you are interested to find out more about these lovely little irises then I can recommend this month’s edition of ‘The Garden’ and forthcoming March issue of ‘The Plantsman’ which will take a more in-depth look at Alan McMurtrie’s hybridising work. On Tuesday and Wednesday this week (February 16th and 17th 2016) we’ll be treated to more stunning displays of reticulate irises by Jacques Amand International at the RHS Early Spring Plant Fair in Central London (picture of I. ‘Blue Note’ below, taken here in 2014). Naturally all reserve will go out of the window and I’ll set my sights on a bevy of new iris varieties to plant this autumn …. and shall do so, safe in the knowledge they’ll be another one hit wonder.
Other posts about early spring flowering irises:
- Portrait of a Lady: Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’
- Daily Flower Candy: Iris reticulata ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’
- Daily Flower Candy: Iris reticulata ‘Spot On’
- Daily Flower Candy: Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’