In an exciting new development, the following post can now be enjoyed as a podcast as well as in text and photographs.
Cultivars of Iris reticulata have enjoyed regular and enthusiastic coverage in this blog over the years. There are two good reasons for this. First, they bloom in February when few other plants are making an effort, thus providing a subject to write about while the rest of the garden is waking. Second, they are not snowdrops. Snowdrops, whilst undoubtedly charming, are almost exclusively white and green. (Galanthophiles will relish the opportunity I have just presented to inform us that there are, in fact, both yellow and pink snowdrops, if you are interested in such subtleties.) White is a shade without which no garden would be complete*, but I am drawn to bright colours like a magpie. Iris reticulata, Iris histrioides, their cultivars and hybrids, come in a delightful spectrum of colours from ice white through to deep purple and clear blue, enlivened by flashes of yellow, gold and orange. Such visual riches are not to be overlooked, particularly during the winter months.
A third reason for loving these diminutive spring flowers would be price: a couple of hundred bulbs might only set you back £10 or so. For a modest outlay one can create an eye-catching display only a few months after planting. Over a few seasons that display can be expanded into rivers and pools of saturated, velvety colour. It’s impossible to plant too many, and I generally curse myself for not having been bolder. The picture below, taken from Monty Don’s Instagram feed, demonstrates precisely why more is more when it comes to these little gems.
Because of their height – often no more than 4″-6″ in bloom – reticulated irises are best featured in rock gardens, gravel beds, troughs or pots. If you hope for them to come back year-after-year they should be planted in well-drained soil that dries out in summer. This is because the original Iris reticulata hail from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the Caucasus, where they might typically be found flowering along the snowline on a remote mountainside. Such harsh habitat implies, correctly, that Iris reticulata are both hardy and tolerant of snow (already in bloom, Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’ barely flinched at a week of subzero temperatures and thick snow, perking up the second the thaw began). In the summer and autumn months, dormant plants are deprived of water and baked by the sun, ripening the bulbs in preparation for a long, cold winter. Each bulb has a netted casing, hence the species name ‘reticulata‘, which means ‘divided or marked in such a way as to resemble a net or network‘.
Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’ is an especially pretty cultivar, displaying rich purple colouration adorned with attractive white and inky-blue blotches. She is slim and bolt upright, presenting her Cadbury purple standards (upright petals) and aubergine falls (splayed petals) with effortless grace and elegance. A more poised and balletic bloom it is hard to imagine. Her bee guides are egg-yolk yellow and not as pronounced as some other varieties. Her leaves are slim, grey-green and grassy in appearance. The hooked, white tips help them to pierce the snow as it recedes. Whilst her foliage starts out nicely in proportion to the flowers, it quickly becomes long and straggly. For that reason I normally plant the bulbs so that they are hidden from view after flowering. ‘Pauline’ appears to be one of the earliest irises to flower, during the first weeks of February. Depending on the weather, each bloom might last for a couple of weeks.
For pot culture, or a guaranteed colourful display every year, new bulbs should be purchased from a reputable source each autumn, and either disposed of or planted out in the garden after flowering. Iris reticulata cultivars will not rebloom reliably from one year to the next unless all their needs are met, although cultivars of Iris histrioides are reputedly more reliable in this regard.
So, take heed, this summer, when you place your spring bulb order, put a generous number of Iris reticulata bulbs in your shopping basket …… then double the quantity, then double it again. When spring arrives, you may still wish you’d been braver, but you’ll be happy you didn’t skimp. TFG.
*Be it a fleeting blossom, a sparkling reflection, a gauzy summer cloud or a pristine garden bench, one can’t escape white in any landscape.