Six on Saturday: Explosion of Iris

Iris tectorum, Japanese Roof Iris, grows at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

Many different sorts of Iris have come into bloom over the past week.  After a late, cool spring, finding Iris blooming assures us the season will soon bring roses, peonies and other early summer flowers. 

Iris, like daffodils, tulips, peonies and roses, invite a cult following of devoted gardeners who want to collect until the garden is filled with floral abundance.   There is always a new color, form, hybrid or species newly introduced to the market to tempt one to find space for ‘just one more.’

It was my great privilege to inherit care of an Iris border at our local botanical garden, that was originally developed by a plantsman who specializes in breeding reblooming German hybrid Iris.  It was one of his test beds to determine which species reliably rebloom in late summer or early fall. Since I care for this garden, too, I’ll share a few photos from that Iris border as well as from my home garden this week.

In late 2018, we had to replace the soil in that space that had been populated with some sort of microbe attacking the Iris, and we raised the bed to provide a drier space for the Iris’ roots to protect against future disease.  The past few summers have been so wet, we have not been entirely successful.   We have had difficulties with bacterial rot, which is deadly to clumps of German Iris.   But enough Iris have survived to give us some beautiful blooms this spring.

The Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

In replanting the bed, I included as many of the original reblooming Iris as we could salvage.  We added several more hybrid rebloomers, and then filled out the space with an assortment of different types of Iris so we could have Iris in bloom from late February or early March, with the little bulbs of miniature Iris, all the way through early summer with Japanese Iris. 

We have at least a dozen different species or hybrid groups of Iris in the bed this spring, along with other perennials. We have mulched this bed in gravel to help keep the leaves and rhizomes dry to prevent disease from attacking the Iris and other plants.

The first Iris blossoms emerge from other perennials in our Forest Garden.

We have been planting a variety of Iris in our Forest Garden at home over the last decade, many of them purchased from our Iris breeder friend who sold them at the local Farmer’s Market for many years.  Iris prefer full sun, and our various garden spaces have grown increasingly shady over the past years.  That always happens in gardens with maturing trees.  I find myself moving clumps from now shady spots to places with more sun and space.

Our Iris beds also fill up with exuberant native perennials, greedy for real estate.  A small gift of native perennial plants some years ago re-seeds and creeps outwards year by year to swallow the sunny part of our upper garden.  I will be out there clipping them back, stem by stem, very soon, to give the Iris and other perennials a chance at the sunlight.

German hybrid Iris, with their sweet fragrance, elegant forms and clear, bright colors never fail to excite and delight us each spring.   I stuck a small division into a pot near our back door two summers ago, not even sure whether it would survive.  It bloomed for the very first time overnight last night.  When I opened the kitchen door this morning, I was thrilled to see its first bud fully opened and glowing in the first light of dawn.

The first blossom on this Iris division opened this morning. I plunked it into a pot a few years ago, not sure whether it would survive. It has grown beautifully.

But there are many other Iris to enjoy, too.  I love the Siberian Iris, that bloom a bit later most years, for their slender stalks, delicate flowers, and abundant, luxurious bloom. Tens of flowers bloom at once within their ever-expanding clumps.

Through my work at the WBG, I’ve learned about our native Iris cristata, Iris virginica and Iris versicolor.  There is a hybrid of Iris virginica and Iris versicolor named Iris x robusta, that often grows with purplish leaves.  I’ve included all three of these Iris types in the Iris border there, and we are still waiting for them to bloom. 

There is also the Japanese Iris tectorum, which is grown on thatched roofs in parts of Asia, and a new hybrid between the European yellow flag Iris pseudacorus and the Japanese Iris ensata, called Iris pseudata. It will bloom later in the season, too.

These mystery Iris were sold as Iris chrysographes by a big mail order company. They are something else entirely, most likely a small Iris ensata, but very beautiful just the same.

If I end up breaking my intent to not order more plants through the mail, it will be to order more Iris from Ensata Gardens.  The Iris pseudata plants they sent to me last summer were robust and healthy.  Their customer service was very friendly and efficient. 

After growing the plants in pots over the winter, I have planted them out into our Butterfly Garden this spring. I am thrilled with their vigor and can’t wait to enjoy their flowers.  And yes, I tucked a new Iris pseudata into the Iris border at the botanical garden, too, and another into a large pot, just to see where they perform the best. 

Can you ever have too many Iris in your life?

With appreciation to The Propagator who hosts Six on Saturday each week.


    • Well thank you for saying that, Jim. I feel better knowing that you have had trouble keeping the German Iris going, too. I love just paging through the catalogs marveling at the new colors and patterns released to market in recent years.


  1. I think you have solved the problem of my non flowering irises last spring….too much shade. My garden is relatively new, and the canopy is developing. I love irises too, but I think I like your mystery iris the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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