This first week in the month has brought with it change. The tip in the season is mapped in the scoring of luminous hazel catkins, their streamers hatching verticals into the backdrop of dark wood and hedgerow. These catkins are one of my favourite moments, catching the push of the cold easterlies and the sun when it breaks through the grey. And at their feet, pushing up leaf mould, the snowdrops have made their claim on the shortest month.
Despite the evidence that the grip of winter is loosening, I am always happy to have planned for more. Be it a small effort in the fullness of the previous autumn, a few pots of Iris reticulata are an essential. Just a handful of bulbs is all that is needed to bridge the need for new life and the trickle of spring which, by the time the iris are over, will be sure to be moving and constant.
Hailing from the Middle East, where they bask in winter sunshine when they are in leaf and bake whilst dormant in summer, they are difficult to keep here in the damp of Britain. That said, the bulbs are cheap and easy if you are open to the fact that they are fugitive, so the act of throwing the bulbs after they are over is less guilt-inducing. Plant them deep, to the depth of a trowel in free draining ground and you may have success, but on our hearty soil here they make nothing but leaf in the second year. I prefer the surety of an annual order and the promise they bring to the kitchen table.
I’ve learned over the years that, if you are growing them for display, less is definitely more and that three to five bulbs is enough in a six inch pot. Plant any more and the flowers collide and become confused. The greater part of their charm is in their exquisite outline, slim as pencils when in bud and then pure and finely drawn in their asymmetry once in flower.
Potted in a free-draining compost and kept in a protected place such as the closeness of a house wall or a frame, they need little attention in the first half of winter. Come January, you will see that the spears of foliage have already broken the compost and, towards the end of the month, the tissue-paper sheath reveals the presence of buds held tightly in the base of the leaves. When you see the colour of the buds through the sheath, it is time to bring them in to a cool room to force the flowers and steal a march on the season.
In the warmth, the bud pushes free of its papery protection and rises a little, like a champagne flute on a pale, fine stem so that you can see the full outline. This happens fast when they are ready, over a day or two days at most and, if you are patient, you might witness the flowers open. One fall first, the next and then the third, jerking quietly out and then down to reveal the inner markings. These are exquisite, and variable in the many named varieties, some spotted and flecked, others pure colour broken only by a flame in the throat and the pollen of stamens. Inside, in the still and warmth of a room, you will also catch their delicate perfume. As welcome and as soft as that of primroses and easily lost outside in the blow of an easterly.
Every year we experiment with a new variety or two, buying ten bulbs of each and three or four varieties at most. We have found our favourites over the years. The slim, dark elegance of ‘J S Dijt’ is one that I would grow every year, and I generally prefer the rich plums of ‘George’ and ‘Pauline’ to the royal and denim blues of ‘Edward’, ‘Gordon’ and ‘Cantab’. However, we loved ‘Blue Note’ last year, with its narrow petals of deepest midnight and ‘Harmony’ (main image) is the quintessential blue spring iris of Japanese woodcuts.
I also have an enduring fondness for the curiosity of ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ with her washed-out, pale blue flowers with greenish veining and yellow leopard spots. Though we do not have it this year, the ghostly mother-of-pearl whiteness of ‘Finola’ is a recent find that I would like to revisit. It is always worth growing something new as there are many to choose from and a wealth of potential future favourites if you see each year as an opportunity for discovery. I already have the clear, sherbet-yellow ‘Katherine’s Gold’ and palest blue ‘Polar Ice’ picked out for next year.
As you perfect the art of knowing when to bring them in, you can relay your pots for succession. Though the flowers last just a few days inside, if you have a half dozen pots and keep half in a shadier spot than the others, you will have flower for a fortnight to three weeks. Time enough to bridge the seasons.