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ACG Blog 3 Iris: Pro Gallery

Irises and the Power of 3

20th May 2023

ACG Blog 3 Iris: Text

I don’t know whether the fact we’re a compact family of just three has influenced me, but  the number 3 creeps into all the things I like best: many of my favourite pieces of jewellery have 3 stones or 3 chains; I love the Celtic symbol of the triskel and commissioned one carved in granite for the garden; I am addicted to music in triple time, with its lovely dance-like sway, the ultimate expression of which would be the 9/8 time signature (think Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) ie 3 beats each made up of triplets.  

When it comes to plants there are a few contenders but to my mind the perfect triangular flower is the iris.  The blooms are actually formed from 6 petals but, because 3 stand upright (standards) and 3 curve downwards (falls), the impression of a triangle is created.   Irises are a very resilient perennial and come in a wide range of colours (Iris is the Greek goddess of the rainbow after all) though you will not find a pure scarlet one - not yet anyway.  I am a bit anal about colour mixing in our garden but I remember walking into a monastery garden on a holiday in the Pyrenees where there was a huge field of irises of every colour available.  It was breath-taking and made me think I should be a bit less controlling.   Irises are found in the wild in dry, hot deserts, or on cold, stony mountainsides or even with their feet in water at the edge of a pond.  But the thing they all need is sunshine. 

There are more than 300 species, but, for the average gardener like me, there are 3 (and a half?) main types to think about.   The most common group is Iris Germanica; glorious, imposing border plants, which grow from a swollen rhizome.  Bearded irises, the ones which look like they have a furry caterpillar climbing up the lower petals, belong in this group.  The crucial thing to remember about these irises is that the rhizome should not be buried under soil; they need to be exposed to the sun and they love a good baking.  It can feel a bit scary to plant them with just the dangly roots in the soil but don’t worry, that’s what how thrive.  These are robust plants making quite a statement in a border and with fans of blueish-green leaves that are attractive in their own right, which is just as well because flowering is usually over by the end of June.  There is, however, a type of Iris Germanica called ‘remontant’ which have a second flowering in late summer though there are a limited number of these and they are not widely available.

The second commonly available type is Iris Sibirica.  These also grow from rhizomes but are altogether more elegant and refined than Germanicas, though they are just as tough.  Their colour range is more limited, restricted to mostly blue/purple and white shades but these are the type that thrive in damp ground or even in water.  Once flowering is over the flower stems look quite attractive and if they are planted near water can act as a useful resting post for dragonflies laying their eggs.

The third group is Iris Reticulata, miniature irises which grow from small bulbs.  They are a welcome sight in February when they are one of the few things in flower along with snowdrops, aconites and hellebores.  Every autumn, I plant a bowl of a variety called George in memory of two dear family members who are no longer with us, and, when they finish flowering, I plant them out around the garden where these little precious jewels are a delightful thing to discover on a winter walk around the garden.

The ‘half’ group I referred to consists of the two species native to Britain; Iris Pseudacorus - or the common yellow flag - and Iris Foetidissima, the stinking iris.  Nice.  Unless you love bright yellow, flags are not something most people would choose to grow in their gardens but they can look magnificent in a wild setting.  We do have some stinking iris in the garden, not for their insignificant flowers but for their dramatic seedheads in autumn which split open to reveal scarlet seeds.

Irises bloom for a relatively short time so if you are short of space you might think they are a bit of a luxury, but all the best things last for a limited time; that’s part of their appeal. I wouldn’t be without them.

(Footnote: this obsession with the number 3 seems to run in the family.  Here’s a blog that our son, Tom, wrote about how he had ranked countries by their triangularity - as you do:   If you haven’t time to read it, Nicaragua is the most triangular country!)

ACG Blog 3 Iris: Text
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