The Iris unguicularis arrive at precisely the moment it becomes apparent that winter is here to stay. Spearing clear of their strappy foliage whilst the world around them is in retreat, the tightly rolled buds provide untold good feeling. Their intermittence is welcome, the flowers appearing in the mild weeks and not in the cold ones from now until February snowdrops.
Although I have never seen the Algerian iris growing in the wild, I hanker to do so. To follow them one day on a journey through Greece, on into Turkey and all the way through to Tunisia. It would be good to see exactly where they grow in these rocky landscapes and why the best advice in this country is to plant them at the base of a south-facing wall with their backs against the reflected heat and their foliage basking in sunshine. This was exactly how my great friend Geraldine grew them, close to but not in the shade of a twisted fig and with nerines that shared their need for a baking. This was a treasured spot in her garden and I remember her justifying their neglect as she pulled me up a piece one autumn, conjuring, as she did so, their homelands and intolerance of cosseting. No food, no water and certainly no shadow. They prefer, she said, to be growing in rubble.
Although I have long since lost the original plant she gave me when I was a teenager, I can see them like yesterday on her kitchen table. Plucked in bud, to get the benefit of a long stalk and savoured expectation, they sat on their own in December and then, as the winter deepened, with witch hazel, pussy willow and wintersweet. The pale buds, with their picotee edging and tease of the sumptuous interiors, unroll in a matter of minutes once brought inside into the warmth. If you are lucky, you will witness the unfurling, but unless you make the time the transformation happens when you have your back turned.
Up close and inside in the warmth, their delicate perfume makes you wonder why they are happy to live with our wet and grey, scowling winters. In the wild, of course, where wet days are reliably followed by a week of bright sunshine, they are forage for bees when little else is blooming.
The plants I have here in Somerset came by way of a gift from the great nurseryman Olivier Filippi. I had been tasked by the National Trust to re-imagine the Delos garden at Sissinghurst and I had gone to see him in France to seek advice about the best plants for the job. The climate near Montpellier could not be more different from Kent, with low rainfall in the winter and months without it during a long summer. The garden alongside the nursery is remarkable and it was here that I came upon the Algerian iris providing their bright wintery flower under pines on the periphery of the garden. It was a surprise to see them out of my imagined context, not amongst rocks, but growing through pine needles so, where we augmented the soil at Sissinghurst with 50% grit, I have experimented with them in a range of conditions, including open shade.
My plants from Olivier are his own selections, a pale mauve-pink called ‘Bleu Clair’ and the much darker ‘Lucien’ which is the bud we plucked today. The old gold reverse gives the merest hint of the darkly rich flowers in the finely drawn edge to the reverse of the petals. More readily available here is a fine form called ‘Walter Butt’, which is truer to the species and the colour of a clear wintery sky. I have this plant at the London studio and plan to bring some here and find it a place nearby so I can enjoy them together.
Here, on our hearty loam, I have not been tempted to grow them in anything but full sunshine for fear of our West country wet being their downfall. They are planted in a free-draining position, with plenty of air and paired only with plants that do not smother their growth in summer because their rhizomes need the opportunity to store energy for winter flower. Erigeron karvinskianus and violets make good company. I have also not been tempted to do as the books advise and cut their evergreen leaves in the autumn to reveal the flowers clear of their foliage. Although it is often described as tatty, I like the flowers sitting pure and wild amongst it.
So, here they are on the gravel drive to lighten our daily movements on this well-trodden path. When darkness descends and it is still the afternoon, these small things count.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 12 December 2020