December 1, 2020

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Algerian Iris will turn your garden into a winter landscape of wonder

IT’S ALMOST WINTER. Half past fall foliage and not yet time for precocious witch hazel blooms and early snow crocus. The garden is dark and sodden — and then the Algerian iris begins blooming. Even though the plants in my garden are ancient, every year I gasp in delight at the sight of the first blossom. Some wonders never grow old.

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) flowers when few other plants dare. Blooming in an uncharacteristic season yet familiar in form, 2-inch lavender-purple flowers with white and deep gold markings first begin to appear in early November. Blossoming continues on and off throughout winter, pausing only for exceptionally cold spells when temperatures drop into the teens.

Dense clumps of strappy leaves that grow to around 18 inches tall are attractive in every season, and the plants happily bloom for years without division. Perhaps in a concession to weathering winter conditions, flowers appear nestled deep within the foliage. While the foliage is pest-proof and rabbit- and deer-resistant, if left unchecked, slugs and snails will devour every blossom.

Out in the garden, I’ve taken to cutting the evergreen foliage back in fall to better show off the blooms. I (attempt to) manage marauding mollusks with organic iron phosphate slug and snail bait, but even the nibbled blossoms make dreary days brighter. While I’ve grown Algerian iris for years, just last winter I began harvesting the long-necked blossoms — technically, those “necks” are pronounced perianth tubes that are up to 8 inches long — as a cut flower. The blooms have a delicious honeyed fragrance and hold well in a bud vase for days. So far, the slugs haven’t followed the flowers indoors.

While Algerian iris is not commonly grown in America, the Royal Horticultural Society has named Iris unguicularis one of the top 200 plants of the past 200 years. Perfectly well-suited to temperate gardens in mild regions, this winter-blooming iris deserves space in Pacific Northwest gardens. Plants are best sourced through specialty nurseries, plant sales and mail order. Those of you who are already growing this choice plant, please consider sharing. We need more blooms in winter.

Divide plants in fall, or wait until flowering has finished in spring. Dig clumps, and use your hands to pull them apart into good-size sections to avoid excessive root disturbance. Replant the divisions at once, placing them at the same depth that the parent plant was planted.

Native to regions of the dry Mediterranean, Algerian iris thrives in hot, sunny locations and well-drained, even impoverished soil. Once established, Iris unguicularis needs little to no additional water during the growing season and is perfect for planting in dry conditions at the foot of a wall, along the foundation of your house or in other parts of the landscape beyond the reach of the hose. Just make sure to site at least one plant along a pathway where you’ll be sure to see the flowers during winter’s dark and sodden days.

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