Discovering the Winter Iris

The Winter-blooming Iris may be one of the most interesting plants for the coming months, mostly because it flowers throughout the winter months, from November through March, when gardens often lack color.

Not a rare plant, but certainly uncommon, this native of the Mediterranean basin is well suited for the gardens of the Monterey Bay area.

The Winter-blooming Iris thrives in a sunny location and shrugs off our moderate winter weather. Its strengths include vigorous growth, sweet “honey/lemon/vanilla” fragrance, lengthy bloom period, deer resistance, drought tolerance, and an actual preference for poor soil. Its weaknesses include short flower stems (more about that later) and appeal to snails.

Weighing the plant’s strengths and weaknesses, the Royal Horticultural Society included the Winter-blooming Iris as one of the 200 best garden plants of the past 200 years.

The botanical name of this plant is Iris unguicularis . The species name, pronounced “un-gwee-kew-LAIR-iss“ means “narrow fingernail,” referring to the narrow base of the petals.

The species has medium violet blossoms. Natural hybrids and cultivars include ‘Alba’ (white blossoms), ‘Marondera’ (blue-violet with white patches), ‘Mary Barnard’ (dark reddish purple), ‘Starkers Pink’ (pink), and ‘Walter Butt’ (pale silver orchid).

My garden has three large clumps of Winter-blooming Iris. I acquired one plant from Annie’s Annuals. It soon outgrew its space, so I divided it four ways rather brutally with a hatchet. Each division grew quite large in about three years ago, so last week I carefully separated one clump’s rhizomes into dozens of separate plants for sharing with friends.

Gardeners, even avid growers of the popular bearded iris, are interested in unfamiliar beardless iris species, and they quickly snapped up the rhizomes!

The leaves grow up to two feet long and hide the short-stemmed blossoms. This problem could be increased by my garden’s naturally rich soil, which promotes leaf growth by a plant that is accustomed to lean, rocky soil. Other gardeners, also wanting to enjoy more visible blossoms, have recommended cutting the leaves in October to allow the blossoms stand out.

This approach is counter-intuitive, since we usually let iris leaves yellow before removing them, on the premise that they are feeding the rhizomes. (The same process applies to daffodils and other bulbous plants, Nevertheless, this year I decided to try this drastic strategy. My thinking was that we grow flowering plants in part to appreciate their blossoms, and these plants surely are going to produce new leaves in the spring. In any event. Shearing the old leaves couldn’t be all bad!

In mid-October, the plants were already producing blossoms, earlier than expected by several weeks. This might have been the result of our moderate climate or current drought.

The accompanying photos show one of my Winter-blooming Iris clumps before and after its haircut. (Click images to enlarge.)

The sheared look doesn’t present the plant at its natural best, of course, but its short flower stalks responded almost immediately to better access to light and air. As the bloom period progresses, I will anticipate a continuing display of these unique blossoms. Reportedly, their unusual fragrance can be appreciated best indoors, so this year’s adventure with the Winter-blooming Iris will include cut flowers.

If you want to try this plant is your own garden, now is the time to find plants. Rhizomes for the species is available from Annie’s Annuals and the highly regarded selection, ‘Mary Barnard’ is offered by Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, Washington.

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