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Posted by portugalpress on March 24, 2016
Iris atropurpurea / Filippo DiMatteo
Iris haynei / Filippo DiMatteo
Iris kirkwoodii / Filippo DiMatteo
Iris reticulata Halkis / Bob Nold
Bearded iris ‘Barocco’
Iris ‘Refiner’s Fire’
Iris tuberosa / Filippo DiMatteo
Iris unguicularis / Audrey Driscoll

Hundreds of species, thousands of cultivars and almost as many variations in colour: fitting that the genus Iris takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow, and its associated goddess, who symbolised the link between heaven and earth and served as messenger to the gods.

The spread of irises perhaps began with King Thutmose III’s conquering of Syria in 1479 B.C.; captivated by the abundant flowers, he brought them back to Egypt where they were immortalised in temple sculptures that survive to this day. The Egyptians investigated the use of iris tubers for medicine and perfume, and burned the roots (orris root) as fragrant offerings to the gods.

Alexander the Great, on his marches east, gathered iris species as he went; today the flowers mark his legacy in their names: Iris mesopotamia and I. cashmiriana; I. trojana, I. cypriana and I. junonia. Later, in France and Italy, orris root was hung in barrels to keep wine and beer fresh, with tradespeople of the regions adopting the fleur-de-lis as their brand.

Frankish King Clovis I adopted the fleur-de-lis as his emblem in the early 500s, and the device has since been included in the heraldry of many monarchies. A possible explanation is its connection to Christianity, the three upright petals representing the holy trinity.

The iris offers us not only a rich history, but also excellent qualities for the garden: a wealth of colour and superb drought tolerance. Many of them are native to the Mediterranean and thrive in the Algarve. Bearded iris (I. germanica and cultivars) in particular are trouble-free garden plants, offering a staggering range of different heights and colours. However, there are a great many more species worth trying, some of which suit naturalisation in wild borders, meadows or rockeries. A brief list follows of some of the best.

Iris xiphium

Native to Portugal and Italy, this species is not easy to find in the trade but is simple to raise from seed, flowering in just a couple of years. Its very fine foliage makes it an excellent choice for naturalising among other plants; the only thing you notice about it is the splendid flowers, dancing above.

Iris reticulata

Reticulata irises are native to Russia, the Caucasus, and northern Iran, but are widely cultivated and have given rise to numerous cultivars. Rarely exceeding 15-20cm in height, they develop into friendly groups, displaying masses of jewel-like flowers in early spring. Their diminutive stature makes them good choices for growing beneath deciduous shrubs or in herbaceous perennial borders which are cut back over winter.

Iris japonica

This evergreen, mat-forming iris will cover metres, making an excellent ground-cover for dry shade. Even in our hot summers, provided it has protection from the sun it needs only occasional watering to thrive. The delicate flowers are a bonus in early spring.

Iris douglasiana

Native to the west coast of the USA, I. douglasiana is a distinguished mid-height plant for borders or naturalising. Appreciative of a little shade, but tolerant of full sun, plant them in swathes for a show-stopping display of flowers. From the original blue or white flowers of the species, several delicate shades of pink and mauve have been developed.

Iris germanica and associates

Surely the queens of the genus, the bearded iris offer almost limitless combinations of colour (have a look at www.iris-cayeux.com if you don’t believe me - you may want to have your wallet handy!) They are also one of the best plants for mediterranean-climate gardens, full stop. Unfussy about soil as long as they have adequate drainage, they are totally drought tolerant and maintain a shock of blue-green leaves even when the showy flowers are not around, making an attractive contrast with low rounded shrubs such as lavender and nepeta. It is one of the great mysteries, for me, why this plant is not seen in every garden.

Iris unguicularis

This is a clump-forming iris with narrow, evergreen leaves. The flowers appear over a long period in midwinter, and have the curious habit of hunkering close to the plant - some people find this annoying, but I find it rather charming - you are forced to look closer, or at least have a good excuse to pick and put them in a vase indoors, where you can enjoy the flowers and delicate scent at your leisure.

Iris tuberosa (syn. Hermodactylus tuberosus)

One for the lovers of weird and wonderful, this rather unusual species is another Mediterranean native and makes a delicate companion for many plants. Sun or part shade, where it will light up the shadows with its contrasting lime and nearly-black flowers.

Iris hollandica

Dutch iris are somewhat graceless plants but well worth including in the garden for cutting: they are easy to grow in our climate and will last at least a week or more in a vase. Pick some in bud to enjoy their unfurling indoors.

Rarities

Here, a few names to conjure with: these are not always easy to find or to grow but, I hope, illustrate something of the diversity and beauty of this genus. I. palaestina, I. atropurpurea, I. subg. Scorpiris (Juno iris), Iris schelkownikowii, Iris lortetii... and a few more can be seen in the photos accompanying the article.

By Marilyn Medina Ribeiro
|| features@algarveresident.com

Marilyn Medina Ribeiro has degrees in Graphic Design and Landscape Management and has worked in nurseries, parks and private gardens. In 2008, she moved to the Algarve, managing hotel gardens and later founding her own company to promote sustainable land management.
waterwise.marilyn@gmail.com

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