In the Garden:
Though they nestle close to the ground, the striking blooms of Iris unguicularis brighten the winter landscape.
Irresistible Iris Takes the Chill Out of Winter
Too few Middle South gardeners, including myself, visit garden centers in winter, or purchase plants after the October push to add woody ornamentals, spring-flowering bulbs, and cool-season annuals to our landscapes. As a result, we often miss the opportunity to know and enjoy a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials that bloom in the inhospitable chill of January and February.
Over time, I've "discovered" some of these plants one by one. First, winter daphne (Daphne odora), a shrub that sports a fragrant nosegay of February flowers on the tip of each branch, and then a perennial, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), not at all fragrant, but with graceful nodding flowers that bloom in late winter and lustrous foliage that ornaments the shade garden year round.
I fell in love with winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), and several varieties of witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.), other shrubs that scent the cool-season garden with their sweet perfumes. Then, I stumbled upon the Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume), a small tree of exceptional beauty, and wondered how I ever survived the doldrums of winter without its cheerful flowers and delightfully spicy scent.
Why be surprised, then, to find a winter-blooming iris?
Though I give room to few iris in my garden, my grandmother loved the old-fashioned bearded type more than any other flower and grew them in a circle around her birdbath. I find their soft iridescent colors, along with their dramatic falls accented with epaulette-like beards, astonishingly beautiful, and I never see these plants without remembering the warm spot they claimed in her heart.
I do, however, grow the dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) in my woodland garden. This native plant, preferring light shade and well-drained soil, blooms with blue or white flowers in early spring and displays tiny spears of 4- to 6-inch foliage throughout the growing season. It is the best kind of plant to cultivate, one that requires little care and yet spreads easily.
But the iris I saw last February in the garden of John Elsley was Iris unguicularis, commonly called the winter iris or the Algerian iris. Native to Greece, the Near East, and northern Africa, the plant requires neutral to acidic well-drained soil, coupled with high temperatures and scant water during summer months.
Elsley, a renowned horticulturist and plantsman who lives in nearby Greenwood, South Carolina, pointed out several varieties of the winter iris in his garden, some with pale lavender flowers and others with vibrant purple blooms. Foliage, too, was variable among the different types, ranging from narrow, grass-like spears to wider blades that were slightly more succulent, in colors from bright green to nearly blue.
The flowers of this iris do not grow on a stem but are nestled among the foliage on top of a perianth tube. Although they never last more than a day or two, they can be cut and brought inside for a small floral display. In the garden, I was unable to detect a scent. Some say, though, they have a sweet fragrance resembling violets, strong enough to perfume a room.
A canvas of other gardening buddies revealed that Sharon Thompson, a fellow Master Gardener and writer, also grows the plant. Sharon, who received her iris from a friend, remembers a saw was needed to cut through the plant's fibrous roots.
In her garden in the Midlands region of South Carolina, Sharon says the winter iris is a very worthwhile, easy-to-grow perennial -- one that gets better and better and doesn't need to be divided too frequently. In fact, it prefers to remain undisturbed in a sunny location with well-drained soil where it can bake in the summer heat.
Best of all, Sharon says December's few flowers are replaced by lots of blooms in January and February. I believe she is right. The three plants I added to my garden just months ago are already taking the chill out of the season.
It's a mystery how this irresistible iris, like many other winter-blooming plants, can be overlooked by so many. Lucky for me, gardening friends and the plots they tend are a never-ending source of exciting surprises.
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