Every autumn, with late September sun on my back and the prospect of this very moment in mind, I spend an afternoon potting up the winter-flowering iris. A winter without them would be a winter without this particular prospect. A spear of optimism that pushes life regardless, into the dark months.
Here I save my hottest, driest spots for autumn-flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae, Amaryllis belladonna, Sternbergia lutea and the perennial, strappy-leaved Algerian Iris and so keep to the habit of growing the bulbous winter iris in pots. We are now spoiled for choice as there are so many named forms. The earliest to flower is Iris histriodes, which is distinct for having slightly shorter growth and wider flowers than Iris reticulata. There are also crosses between them and the yellow-flowered Iris winogradowii. Of them all I prefer the elegance of the Iris reticulata, which draw a more finely-penned line, but they are all worth exploring and every year we trial two or three new varieties and return to a favourite or two to reacquaint ourselves.
I have learned over the years that growing them in pots is the best way to grow them here. Hailing from Turkey, where they have a summer bake ahead of them, they make the most of the winter rains and the short and furious growing season. A winter which is all about readying for spring and where rest is not an option. They bring all of that energy with them and are more than happy to do their best in our benign climate in Britain, but our summer is their downfall. Like tulips, they need the bake and the dry come the summer and you have to find them a free-draining site which emulates their homeland if you are to be successful in keeping them long-term in open ground. The damp of the West Country, in combination with our heavy soil, means that I have the tiniest slivers of such ground at the base of south-facing walls that would see them doing well. This is not to say that it is not worth trying, but if you do have the right position, plant them deep at 15 to 20cm so that they are below the runs of mice and voles.
The bulbs are small and you need no more than five to a pot. Any more, or plant them too densely, and the elegance of the flowers is lost in the crowd. The bulbs are planted deep in the pot and put in the frame to keep them on the dry side and with just that little bit of extra protection to steal a week or perhaps a couple on the winter. The first spears of foliage were visible at new year this year. These early signs draw you back regularly to check on the shift which takes place rapidly as soon as you see the papery, translucent sheath that protects the flower buds. If you wait until this moment and bring them into a cool room in the house, the pointed buds will rise fast and silently in a day. If you are prepared to cheat again and bring them into slightly more warmth you can witness the petals unfurling like a Chinese fortune fish that curls in your hand.
Inside the flowers last for no more than a weekend, but you do get to witness them up close and intimately as I am doing now as they sit in front of me on my desk. Then you will also be able to take in their fine but certain perfume, like a cross between primroses and distant violets. This year, the tallest of the three that have come together this weekend is ‘Painted Lady’ (main image), the first to flower. Yellow, speckled buds open palest lavender, the blue leopard spots staining the tips of the petals as if they were bleeding. Next to flower was ‘Frozen Planet’, again pale but well-named for the ice-blue cast that intensifies to colour the whole of the falls. Last of the three is ‘Fabiola’, a substitute made by the nursery. Although my “no substitutes” rule is usually hard and fast, I am pleased to have this one. It is always good to have a dark form in the group, so as to have the gold flare in the throat set off by rich royal purple velvety falls.
We love them all, but I do not have the heart to keep them inside for long, since they last a fortnight outside in the shelter of the house and we return to them daily to enjoy their every moment.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 1 February 2020