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Cuttings from the Flower Garden - Iris

Cuttings from the flower Garden - Iris

My mother has just given me a piece of her Iris unguicularis (stylosa) as it used to be called. I can remember picking the tightly furled buds in winter as a child and bringing them inside. I delighted in watching the violet petals begin to unwrap until a perfect, delicate flower was revealed. It always seemed such a miracle that even when the weather had been quite cold, this determined and tough plant would not fail. It gave me great pleasure to go out and count how many buds there were on the plant, sometimes as many as thirty.  My mother trimmed the leaves of her plant this year in the autumn and was rewarded by a deep pile of flowers forming a wonderful mat of lilac.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

Iris seem to flower in most months of the year. Many people can be frustrated by the fleeting blossoming of these plants, especially the well-known bearded varieties that are in full blooming mode at the moment. But I think they are wrong. The bearded iris usually has many buds on one stem and, as the top flower dies, another takes its place. The delight of the iris is that it comes in so many colours, hence its association with the rainbow. Iris was the messenger of the Greek gods and the personification of the rainbow. Reds, oranges, whites, yellows, mauves, lilacs, blues, browns, purples and all shades in between are now available and as a florist I would love to be able to use the bearded iris more widely. I enjoy the Dutch iris, sold regularly by the cut flower trade. The elegant, tall blue, purple and white flowers with their vivid yellow flashes are a welcome addition to any flower arrangement or bouquet of flowers, and they can look especially striking when massed together in a bunch. I have grown these bulbous plants for a number of years in my garden and their flowers are especially good this year and have held for a long time. I have also planted them in the cutting garden that I run for a client and their buds are fattening up nicely. I am hoping to be surprised by the variety of colours that appear.

Dutch Iris

But what of their cousins, the bearded? The short bearded iris begin to flower in April and when the predominant colour in the garden is yellow and white, they come in such amazing hues of mauve, purple, deep crimson and peachy pink. They are followed by their bigger brothers and sisters, the intermediates, and then the talls.

Short Bearded Iris

I was amazed last year when I worked on the Cayeux Iris stand at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, how well the bearded iris that Richard Cayeux brought from France as cut flowers lasted. I had arranged them in their vases on the Sunday before press day and, when I returned to the show the following Saturday, six days later, they still looked very good indeed. As somebody said, you just need to do a bit of housekeeping by nipping off the dead flowers and allowing the next bud to open. You do have to be a bit careful as the stem can bleed from where you have taken off the dead flower, and this can cause staining. This little bit of grooming of your flowers is well worth it.

Cayeux Iris stand

 I think iris flowers need close inspection. As I look out of the window the cow parsley is massed in delicate, lacy whiteness and the may blossom is etching the hedgerow with its delicate flowers. These flowers are fairly insignificant if taken individually, but an iris flower has such depth. In the sunlight their falls and standards take on an iridescence and as the light fades the colours become richer and their beards, often contrasting with the petals, can be dazzling. I think the beards are what first drew me to these flowers. My mother had a white iris with a hint of mauve and the beards were a soft yellow. These reminded me of furry caterpillars and just seemed to be asked to be stroked. What a welcome mat they are to the bees that visit these flowers.

Iris 'brandy snap'

Iris 'mythology'

I have also grown one or two species iris this year. I first came across Iris acutiloba in a magazine article some years ago and I was struck what looked like a black and white stripy flower. It is, of course, very dark brown, but I tore out the page and still have it in the back of my diary all these years later. And it didn’t disappoint. It flowered for me this year and it was as special as the picture I had first fallen in love with. Another iris I have grown is Iris stolonifera Vespasianus, this is a flower of the earth and sky. Its blue/mauve petals are edge with a rich brown and I delighted in watching each of the three buds expand in to what I can only describe as quite incredible flowers.

Iris acutiloba

 Iris stolonifera Vespasianus

Sissinghurst Castle is devoting this month to its collection of iris and describes the iris as ‘the shooting star of the plant world, lighting up the garden for one brief but spectacular moment when they flower’. I went to take a look early in May and a few of the iris were out, and in the South Cottage and the summerhouse were arrangements containing iris, including Pacific Coast Iris.

Sissinghurst Castle

South Cottage

Pacific Coast Iris

I have yet to fully explore the vase life of Iris 'sibirica' and Iris 'spuria', but I intend to do this and see if I can encourage more people to use them as cut flowers and open a whole new area of colour, fragrance and texture to the world of floristry.

Iris 'sibirica'

Bearded iris with aquilegia
Posted by Sophie Leathart

Sophie Leathart of Black Knight Flowers is a freelance florist with 30 years’ experience. 


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