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The Japanese Water Iris – ideally suited

to the soggy south-west by Gill Heavens

The Japanese Iris was very popular but fell out of favour. In recent years they have returned to the limelight with many modern cultivars being bred in the United States

There must surely be an iris for every taste, with between 260- 300 species and thousands of cultivars and varieties to choose from.

This varied genus ranges from the delicate Iris denticulata, through to elegant Iris sibirica and onwards to the blousy Pacific Coast Bearded. The same can be said for every position in the garden, from the desert loving Aril to Iris laevigata, quite happy with its toes in the water. Iris unguilularis blooms in the depths of winter, whilst Iris germanica will be flowering at midsummer.

The iris perhaps especially suited to us in the soggy south west of the country is Iris ensata commonly known as the Japanese Water Iris. It is also sometimes incorrectly referred to as Iris kaempfer after the German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer. Unfortunately for Herr Kaempfer it was given his moniker a century too late and he had to concede to the former name.

This rhizomatous beardless iris is endemic not only to Japan but also China and Eastern Russia and can reach between 0.5m and 1.25m tall dependent on cultivar and growing conditions. The flowers are held horizontally and have a distinctive flat appearance making them relatively easy to identify.

Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and this is sublimely appropriate as these members of the Iridaceae family come in a myriad of colour ways: blues and lilacs, pinks and whites, the only colour missing is pure yellow and I’m sure someone is working on that! They have been hybridised by the Japanese for 500 years, and latterly in the USA, transforming them from the original three petalled cultivars to six, nine or even 12 petalled forms. They can be single, double and even peony flowered; marbled and bi-colour; striped and spotted; some are the size of a dinner plate. Ensata means sword-like which refers to the shape of their elegant leaves.

Iris ensata are not difficult to grow as long as you abide by a few golden rules. They enjoy a slightly acidic soil, between

5.5 – 6.5 pH, containing plenty of organic matter; thin or limy soils are not Iris ensata’s friend. Although they enjoy damp conditions, especially in the spring when they are doing most of their growing, ensure it is moist rather than water logged. The irony is that these water irises can succumb to root rot if too wet over winter. They will appreciate division once every three to five years, or their “flower power” will begin to wane. They further enjoy a deep mulch of garden compost or well- rotted manure once a year which will guarantee healthy plants and prolific blooming.

In Japan they are known as hanashobu where they grow in large colonies in the wild; most impressive when blooming en masse. Culturally they are very important to the Japanese and historically this iris is considered as a purifier and a protector against evil. For this reason hanashobu is often used as a motif on kimonos and are grown around temples.

The Japanese Iris was very popular in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, but fell out of favour during the Depression and World War II. In recent years they have returned to the limelight with many modern cultivars being bred there.

These Iris reach their peak between the end of June and the beginning of July and the perfect place to marvel at their beauty is Marwood Hill Gardens in North Devon. This garden is Iris ensata heaven with its lime free soil, valley position and three lakes, all of which add up to the ideal growing conditions required by the Japanese Iris. Indeed a National Collection of these beautiful and varied plants is held and nurtured here by head gardener Malcolm Pharoah.

Iris ensata have been popular across the globe for centuries, and deservedly so. One of my favourite gardeners, William Robinson, sums it up in in his book The English Flower Garden first published in 1883 “... but yet to be mentioned as among the grandest are many Irises, I. Kaempfer (sic) in particular.” The goddess Iris was believed by the ancient Greeks to be a messenger for the gods and provided a link between heaven and earth. I hope you will agree that on one of her visits she left behind a little bit of heaven in the form of these beautiful flowers.

Country Gardener 41

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