Iris confusa: bamboo iris, 扁竹蘭
As the fig, olive and bay have matured, our seaside garden has become partly shaded. Where once plants basked in full sun, there are now spots that remain in cool shadow for most of the day. Having fought against the prevailing conditions for a few seasons, I have seen sense and sought out plants that will conjure up an exotic feel without needing a daily roasting. I have found that many plants, namely Isoplexis canariensis, Geranium maderense and Solanum laciniatum do just as well in dappled shade, producing bigger, lusher leaves. Light levels in Thanet are typically high, giving us a long growing season and, whilst Him Indoors bemoans the lack of sunbathing opportunities, the offending trees are responsible for keeping the garden frost-free in winter.
In my search for flamboyant shade lovers I’ve discovered an unusual iris from Asia, the bamboo iris, Iris confusa. I purchased three plants last autumn from the gardens at The Salutation and bedded them out in November rather than keep them in pots over winter. In the space of six months they have already made handsome, healthy clumps. The iris’ common name is apt as the plants produce pale green “hands” of foliage from short dark canes, strongly resembling the young shoots of a dwarf bamboo. (The Latin epithet “confusa” is applied to plants which appear to be something they are not.) The picture created by the splayed fans, arching gracefully outwards from the centre of each clump, reminds me of the vegetation I’ve seen growing along roadsides throughout Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. The bamboo iris itself is from Western China.
In northern counties of the U.K. Iris confusa might be considered tender, but a good winter mulch should be enough to protect against fatal damage. Given shelter from strong winds, the foliage is a year-round pleasure and reward enough for one’s time and trouble. Then in spring the bamboo iris produces fine, arching sprays of orchid-like blooms – the stuff that floral artists’ dreams are made of. A single spray displayed in a slender bud vase would be elegant enough, but mixed with larger flowers and cascading foliage, or in a wedding bouquet, they could look sensational. The blooms of Iris confusa can be any shade from pure white to Wedgwood blue, each time emblazoned with golden signals. My plants all bear white flowers with a tender flush of violet. Their flattened countenance is unusual when compared to the extravagant falls and standards of bearded irises and the individual blooms are small, measuring only 6 or 7cm across.
Although I grow Iris confusa in a shaded spot, it is an unfussy plant, demanding nothing more than reasonable drainage and shelter enough to prevent the leaves being torn or desiccated. It is a spreader, but not outrageously so, and you will not be without friends willing to take a “hand” or two from you. Cuttings root easily in a glass of tap water. As a relatively drought tolerant shade plant the bamboo iris really comes into its own, spreading slowly, providing a nice contrast to more conventional leaf shapes and producing flowers that some might mistake for something far trickier to grow. The ideal planting companions are other oriental treasures; hostas, bamboos, astilbes, acers, ferns and mosses. Named varieties exist if you want to be sure of flower colour, although they are not widely available: I. confusa ‘Martyn Rix’ bears clear blue flowers and ‘Chengdu’ has prettily frilled edges to its light blue petals. My recommendation would be to grab a handful of rhizomes from a friend with a generous clump and simply get going as soon as you can.
For more on this lovely perennial, I enjoyed this blog post on The Creative Flux which provides lots more detail and beautiful photographs.