Updated: Nov 7, 2021
I read somewhere that the three most popular French flowering plants are the rose, the peony and the iris –and it is not hard to understand why, especially with the iris. This plant, in its many forms, can be found in flower all year round somewhere in France, but the species which grabs our attention, and which is just finishing a spectacular season of flowering is the bearded iris, or iris germanica, which gives its name to the French symbol the ‘fleur-de lys’.
Iris germanica is in flower from approximately April to June. It is evergreen with fleshy sword like leaves and six petals – three known as falls (the droopy ones) and three known as standards (the ones which rise up and almost meet at the top). Most distinctively, they have a yellow beard at the throat of the falling petal; hence the name. The design of the flower head is such that it is perfectly adapted to insect pollinatin – with the standards attracting the attention of the insects and the falls providing a landing stage for them to settle on. These often have rows of dots or lines guiding insects to the heart of the plant where the pollen bearing anthers and sticky stigma are hidden. The bearded section of the falls give the pollenating insect firm purchase as it moves into the flower.
The bearded iris is a staple of French gardens, especially in the South West where it thrives in hot, dry summer conditions and in the alkaline, or limestone, soils. The common-or-garden form is blue and there must be very few old established gardens in France which do not have a blue, bearded iris tucked away somewhere. Indeed – they can multiply at such a rate that they can become a menace in places. They should be divided about every three years and it can become a challenge to know what to do with the bits of rhizome (root) which you no longer have space for.
Over the years bearded irises in particular have been bred to produce a tremendous range of colours and combinations, to be short or tall and to have ever increasing degrees of flounce and frill to the petals. Personally I am fondest of the more simple shapes, where you can see daylight between the standards as you look at the flower head, rather than the highly ornate flower heads which are a mass of curly edged, multi coloured petals.
Specialist nurseries such as French grower Cayeau (www.iris-cayeau.com/ ) grow a spectacular range of varieties and last year these were some I saw at the show.