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Gardens Blog

My favourite plant… March

Iris unguicularis - Jardin botanique Henri-Gaussen

A few years ago, the delightful elderly lady who lived in an even more elderly cottage across the lane from us, took the difficult decision to move into a care home and enlisted my help in the task of editing her possessions down to a core collection which would fit into her new surroundings. Having dealt with all the books and other items, she then turned her attention to her dearly loved garden and dispatched me outside with a trowel while she directed operations through her open window.

I was sent to a sheltered corner of the house, south facing, where there grew a large clump of narrow green leaves. This clump was dug up and I was given clear instructions as to its future care. All she knew of it was that in spring it produced green stems like pencils topped with slender scrolled blue buds which opened out into unexpectedly large pale blue, scented iris flowers. If one could bear to pick them, and as she lived indoors, she did, they scented a warm room very sweetly and lasted for a few days in a vase. She loved these flowers and was determined that, no matter what happened to her cottage, her favourite plant, which she had brought with her from a previous garden some twenty years before, would be cared for.

So I took my new clump home and, hedging my bets, divided it carefully and planted the pieces in a bed which was as similar in aspect to their old home as I could manage. And waited patiently. This year, four years on, I am delighted to say I have two flowers and can categorically identify the mystery plant as Iris unguicularis.  Formerly known as Iris stylosa, or the Algerian Iris, this plant thrives in sunny sites and although they will tolerate poor, rocky soils,  they do even better in good ones. They appreciate a good watering and a generous feed in late summer and, if you need to move them, they will adapt with least fuss in the autumn when they form their new roots.   They do tend to hold onto their leaves over the winter though these gradually dry out and wither so just rake your fingers gently through the shaggy plant to remove any dead bits and pieces and wait for the pointed flower spikes to emerge. The long leaves (30-40 cm long) which protect the flowers do unfortunately also offer shelter to snails and these should be picked out before they do damage to the buds.

A number of varieties are available: Iris unguicularis Alba is slightly more tender than its blue relative and is also rather difficult to find. Marondera is larger and a darker blue, while Mary Barnard is gorgeous; a velvety purple-blue with yellow markings on the falls. Walter Butt is a heavily-scented, paler variety. All these can be ordered from Avon Bulbs in Somerset for dispatch in September.

In terms of planting companions, mine are in a hot sunny bed backed by a brick wall which also shelters nerines – currently hibernating – and a Romneya coulteri which comes up in a different place every year. None of these offer any competition to the little Iris and I am happy to let it flower, surrounded by its fresh green leaves, reminding me of my lovely friend who, I think, would be content with the way her precious plants have established themselves in their new home.

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