Easy irises

Sunday, 04 September 2011

Iris wattii

Not all types of Iris are easy to grow in our warm temperate climate, and I broke my heart in my early gardening days over some of the exquisite ones I read about in English gardening books - such as the fruit-scented Iris graminea, blue Iris reticulata, the strange Iris foetidissima with its spectacular red seedpods and any number of other ones whose names now escape me. Most of them hailed from places like Spain and Turkey, with climates very different from ours, and their failure in my Sydney garden now makes eminent sense to me. But there is still something about Iris flowers that I find irresistible and I have sought over the years to find species that will grow well here.

White form of Iris japonica

Some of the easiest of all to cultivate in Sydney flower in late winter and/or early spring and are known as the crested (or Evansia) types of Iris - so-called because they have a 'crest' or ridge on their three larger outer petals (or 'falls') instead of a 'beard'. The majority of these crested types come from Japan and China, and in general, they grow very well here. Instead of wanting baking sun in summer and cold winters like the Mediterranean types, they are denizens of a semi-shaded woodland setting and are generally not as frost hardy as other Iris species. The most well-known form is Iris japonica, blooming now, with evergreen leaves formed into fans 45 cm in height, which multiply quickly into a thick clump via surface-rooting rhizomes. Pale blue or white ruffled flowers appear on branched spikes to 60 cm tall. Iris japonica will cope with quite dry, neglected conditions; however, they will do better if they are given some moisture (but not too much, as they may rot if drainage is poor), a yearly feed and a blanket of mulch every so often. They are said to dislike lime. They grow well under trees or shrubs such as Camellia japonica and Rondeletia and they are good companions to some of the smaller shade-loving flowers of late winter and early spring, such as hybrid hellebores, snowflakes, azaleas, Crassula multicava and bluebells. They look effective grown along the edges of paths in shady parts of the garden.

Iris wattii with Helleborus argutifolius in early spring

Iris wattii is a taller plant (ht 90 cm tall) with much bigger frilled flowers that are out now, coloured a lovely lavender blue and carried on bamboo-like canes that can be 1-2 m tall. They have the same growth form of leaf fans as Iris japonica, and make a good evergreen clump. They grow in the same conditions as Iris japonica and would probably grow well in a pot. I am enjoying one clump growing nearby a pale pink miniature Camellia and bright blue-spired Plectranthus barbatus; another clump has companions of the pale green saucer flowers of Helleborus argutifolius and the dainty lime-green bells of Nicotiana langsdorffii. Iris confusa is a similar tall Iris, with masses of near-white flowers; Iris japo-wattii is a cross between Iris confusa and Iris japonica, with flower stems up to 2 m in height and beautiful iced-lilac blooms. I haven't ever seen or grown these ones, however.

White form of Iris tectorum

Later this month, another crested Iris that does well in Sydney - Iris tectorum (ht 30 cm) - will flower. This comes from China and enjoys the same conditions as Iris japonica but will also grow in full sun. They have fans of ribbed leaves and pretty blue-lilac or white flowers; they multiply fairly quickly to form a clump. They do best if given plenty of fertiliser and water, but will still do well without them. The white form is said to be less vigorous, but I have found it to perform just as well as the blue. Iris tectorum is known colloquially as the roof iris because in Japan it is grown on the ridges of the roofs of thatched houses. Legend has it that this was because during a famine many years ago, only food crops could be grown in the ground so somewhere else had to be found to grow the Iris, the roots of which were made by the women into a face powder. Another theory is that the plants were so used because their roots helped to bind together the thatch and the wet clay used to construct the roofs.

Other crested irises include Iris gracilipes from China and Iris cristata, Iris lacustris and Iris tenuis from North America - they all prefer cooler climates to ours and do not flourish here like the other ones mentioned above.

Reader Comments

  • By Judie 3160 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    They sound perfect for my shady south facing garden. I have a particularly wet patch - can they tolerate wet feet for most of the year?

    I think that Iris tectorum would be OK in that very damp spot but I. japonica and I. wattii might rot off with too much water. Deirdre

  • By Densey 2446 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    I too am an iris lover, and of the extended family, including the three Neomaricas. No luck with favourite Beardeds up here except for the common deep purple one, so self reliant, now mixing beautifully with clove-scented pinks. Also have many water irises in my frog pond. Densey

    Thanks, Densey. The old purple flag iris is one of my favourites here and does the best of all the bearded ones for me, flowering all through winter and spring. The water irises such as Louisiana also do well in Sydney. Deirdre

  • By Marleneann 4556 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    Very interesting Iris information. Can you please tell me the variety of this Iris. It is starting to bloom now. Thanks.

    I think that iris is the blue form of Iris tectorum as mentioned in the blog, especially if it has ribbed leaves (as the pic suggests). Mine are not out yet but should come out later in the month and I will add a pic of the blue one to the plant reference entry on this plant at that time. Deirdre

  • By Marleneann 4556 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    OOOOppppssss forgot link. http://s6.photobucket.com/albums/y248/Orkidees/?actionview¤t1003754.jpg

  • By Anne 2518 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    my tectorum has been blooming for over a week now - have very vivid images of it growing on the roof of a boat going down a river in China - how serendipitous was that! I have just been out to Bathurst - how beautiful the various plum blossoms were & the wattles - love this time of year.

    Thanks, Anne. Yes it is a wonderful time of year! Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Tuesday, 06 September 2011

    thanks to Marleneanns pics I have identified a plant I bought in Bilpin this year without a label!

    That is great! Deirdre

  • By Tracey 2071 Wednesday, 07 September 2011

    Oh Dear! I have just replanted a number of iriss that my darling uncle gave me from Tassie. His Iris garden was to die for. They have never flowered here in Sydney and I thought it was a positional issue...not enough sun. Wishful thinking by the sounds of it! Thank you for such an informative site!

    There are a few other sorts, such as some of the tall bearded irises and Louisanas that do OK in Sydney, and sometimes a microclimate can be found where the cooler-climate ones grow so don't worry too much - see how they go in the sunnier spot. I am a bit lazy these days and want things that grow without too much effort from me! Deirdre

  • By Chris 2071 Wednesday, 21 September 2011

    Thanks for the excellent info on irises. Having been inspired by Monets garden in France, I have planted heaps of them in Sydney without much success.Where is the best place to purchase the varieties you recommend? Chris

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