Winter Iris

Iris unguicularis,
Dwarf Winter Iris
aka, Algerian Iris

"You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water."

-from The Wild Iris
by Louis Gluck
(b. 1943)

Dwarf winter iris (I. unguicularis) blooms for us in February & March. It does not bloom all at once, as it seems to be aware it is risking a hard frost by blooming so early. To make sure it has blooms that make it to seed, it produces flowers serially.

Winter IrisThough often called "Algerian" iris, it has a large range inclusive of Greece, islands of the Aegean, & northern Africa.

It has a slowly spreading rhizome. We got it as a very small rhizome from Terri & Jay Hudson of All Things Iris, Fort Bragg, California. They were spectacular iris specialists but have since retired, alas & alak for those of us who got irises from them. It took the small start three years in a rather dry bright shade location to begin blooming.

I remember worrying about it not blooming, & wondering if I should move it, but the top edge of the rhizome was visibly spreading & looked healthy. And its one of those irises that is apt to skip a year flowering if it's dug up or divided, so I tried to be patient.

It might've established earlier in a less harsh area, but it proved hardy as all-get-out, & once the blooms did arrive, it thereafter bloomed wonderfully each late-winter & early spring.

The first year it finally flowered, I was just so excited to see its buds. I went out every morning to see how it was doing, & then the very day buds had fully opened, that very afternoon they were gone!

I felt crushed. But the cutest little nuisance of a six-year-old Asian girl had swiped them, & I remember all too well what I would've done (indeed did do) when I was that age & flowers tempted me.

I caught her a few weeks later when she came traipsing around in our yard making herself a bouquet. As I ran out wondering if I wanted to make myself look like the scary neighborhood witch or not, she took off running. But she was with her baby brother, about four years old, & he stood stalk-still picking his nose & saying, "She steals them, I don't!"

She had to come back to get her brother. I decided instead of being a witch that I would fake a few crocodile tears, which truth be told weren't all that fake. Pointing at some rare bulbs she'd been picking in days before I caught her, I said, "I waited years & years for that to bloom & was looking forward to collecting its seeds. But you killed it! Oh wah, sad for me, wah wah."

What a horrified startled look she got! She was so sad & guilty-looking it was hard not to giggle. I promised to give her a bouquet of things I could spare any time she asked.

As she led her wee brother away home, I wondered if my performance would have any lasting impact. I guess it did, as flowers stopped vanishing, & some while later she knocked on the door & asked if she could have a bouquet of lilacs. Which I helped her cut.

So, this iris has been slowly widening its clump for several years now. I've yet to dig it up to divide it. It has shown no signs of needing it. I'd like to propagate it by division but then I also hate to cause it to skip a year of flowers, so I wait as long as I can.

It's a simple unbearded Iris in that shade of blue most typical of dwarf irises. It blooms as early as the earliest Iris reticulata which it resembles, but whereas these bulb-grown irises seem to slowly fade out of the garden never perennializing as fully as promised, I. unguicularis is immortal in the garden. The dwarf winter iris is also less easily pounded over by a hard rain, compared to the reticulated iris.

Also unlike reticulated, the winter iris's grassy leaves are evergreen. The leaves do get tatty after a while & need trimming back. These are tough slim straps that I sometimes clip one at a time to use as "string" to tie up tippy perennials.

It seems to thrive on light poor soil & needs little watering & virtually no fertilizing. I've become almost fearful of improving the attention it gets, for fear failure to neglect it might cause it to do less well!


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