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Cornucopia - Iris - the Rainbow Flower

Iris - the rainbow flower
Gwen Scott

Irises have been grown and valued from earliest recorded times. An image of an iris appears in a fresco at Knossos in Crete and pictures of irises appear in many tomb wall paintings in Egypt. In mediaeval England, irises were used as part of the religious symbolism in paintings of the Virgin and Child. In addition to being grown from very early times because of their beauty, irises were valued for the medicinal and perfumery value of the rhizomes known as Orris Root.

The iris was of particular importance to the early Christian Church because it was believed that the iris flower’s tripartite structure represented the Trinity. Every iris flower has three 'falls', the lower petals (really, sepals) which generally curve downwards; three 'standards', the true petals, which are usually upright but do point down in Juno irises and may be just tiny bristles in some hybrids; the division of the style into three petaloid arms which arch over the falls; even the ovary is divided into three compartments for the ovules.

Today the iris is deservedly growing in popularity as a garden flower. The gardener can have any colour, apart from true red, and almost any combination of colour when growing some of the newer Iris germanica, the large bearded iris which most people think of as the garden iris. The gardener can also have an iris in flower for every month of the year. As I write in February I have I. unguicularis, I. histrioides, I. reticulata and Hermodactylus tuberosus flowering in my garden and I look forward to seeing my Juno irises and some of the dwarf bearded in the next few weeks.

Broadly speaking, irises are divided into two groups. The Pogon, or bearded irises, have a line of soft hairs on the upper parts of the falls, the hairs often being quite brightly coloured, while the Apogon or beardless irises do not have the hairs but usually have a patch of different colour or pattern on the falls. The difference is easy to see and very useful because the two distinct groups do best in rather different growing conditions. Generally the bearded irises flourish in sunny, well-drained soil and prefer neutral to slightly alkaline conditions. An application of lime will help those growing in more acid conditions. They also like a summer baking so shade will lead to a loss of flower power. There are beardless irises for almost anywhere in the garden but it is more important to learn the requirements for each species as some will like their feet in water, e.g. I. ensata, some will prefer damp soil, e.g. I. sibirica and all will grow in some shade whilst liking sun for at least part of the day.

The easiest irises to grow are probably the bulbous irises, including the little spring bulbs and the Dutch and English irises, I. xiphium, which have been developed to produce such beautiful colours and combinations of colour in the last few years. There are plenty of irises for the non-specialist grower among the many I. germanica and I. sibirica varieties which will give stunning beauty and colour and you may want to try something a little more exotic like I. evansia.

Some people say that iris flowers do not last long enough - well, they could stick plastic flowers in the ground - they last. But if you want real beauty, something that lifts your spirits, then grow irises and marvel at their form and the intricacies of their colours and patterns.

First published in the Nottingham Group Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Gwen Scott

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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