- June is the richest month for irises – which come in harmonious colours
- The bearded varieties – the largest and most colourful – are at their best
- The time for lifting, dividing and re-planting is straight after flowering
How can mere words describe the beauty of an iris? Harmonious colours and markings are a start, along with a subtle fragrance. But beauty also lies in the perfect symmetry of these three-part blooms.
June is the richest month for irises. That’s when bearded varieties – the largest and most colourful – are at their best. These are the ones that grow from thick rhizomes, which rest on the ground like knobbly feet.
Colours vary widely, often with contrasting upper and lower petals. You can plant containerised irises when you like. But for bare-roots, the time for lifting, dividing and re-planting is straight after flowering.
How can mere words describe the beauty of an iris? Harmonious colours and markings are a start, along with a subtle fragrance. But beauty also lies in the perfect symmetry of these three-part blooms
This advice applies only to bearded irises. They’re the sunloving ones which require freedraining soil. Non-bearded kinds such as I. sibirica prefer richer soil and dislike it too dry. They’re also beautiful but we must save those for another day.
RAISE THE STANDARD
Bearded irises arrange their sword-shaped leaves in attractive fans. Their flowers have incurved upper petals or ‘standards’ and a conspicuous line of coloured hairs – the beard – along each hanging lower petal or ‘fall’.
Their forebears were Iris germanica and closely related I. pallida. These have been grown since biblical times for orris – the medicine and perfume extracted from the rhizomes. The contributor to modern dwarf varieties was the tiny I. pumila.
Sizes run from modest 15cm dwarves such as tan and dovegrey Hocus Pocus or 20cm greenveined white Green Spot to such towering beauties as midnight purple Black Dragon at 90cm.
Flowering times often relate to height. Dwarf beardeds open from late April whereas the tallest flower deep into June.
Intermediates come somewhere in between. My favourite intermediate is Protocol, which has ruffled white standards and bright yellow falls. I also like Bold Print, with its creamy-white centred petals with deep purpleblue margins and veining.
Tall bearded varieties are the show-stoppers. I love the fragrant Jane Phillips because she looks gorgeous on dull days. Her gentle blue flowers contrast sweetly with the soft tangerine oriental poppy Saffron.
Other favourites include yellow and purple-bronze Rajah, orange-bearded whitepetalled Frost and Flame and shining mahogany Tall Chief. They’re old varieties which I love because they lack the frou-frou ruffles of modern irises.
Specialist nurseries including Claire Austin claireaustinhardyplants.co.uk and Kelways kelways.co.uk have mouthwatering selections.
Bearded irises are easy to manage. I dig mine up every third year as soon as the flowers have died. They can be divided into single or paired shoots. Remove any spent flower stems and trim the leaves to a third of their length. Re-plant your divisions straight away, burying the true roots but leaving the rhizomes on or close to the soil surface.
You may think irises have too short a season. But breeders are addressing that by developing repeat-flowering varieties such as English Charm and Pearls of Autumn. Good news, but doesn’t the fleeting nature of an iris make you treasure it all the more?