Opening an umbrella in the house is considered bad luck but if we are following the suggestion of Vita Sackville West we might be excused.

Some flowers defy the logic of the seasons and open their blossoms when all others are in winter rest. No doubt they have their reasons but it does not always seem to be the most sensible of habits. It coincides with the worst of our weather and with the season when our slugs and snails may have little else to tempt their palates. I speak, of course, of the Algerian Iris – Iris unguicularis (formerly I. stylosa) – which flowers intermittently from November to February. “The erratic flower production” E. A. Bowles wrote “is actually a clever ploy to avoid weather damage – although the buds are frost-proof, the flowers are not.”

Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'
Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’, one of the more commonly available cultivars of the Algerian iris 

Not only has this beautiful plant the peculiar habit of flowering through the winter it is also oddly named for, while it does indeed grow in Algeria, it also grows in Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel yet these receive no recognition. This is because it was first introduced into cultivation from Algeria by the Hon. William Herbert (1788 – 1847), a British botanist, botanical illustrator, poet and clergyman who also served as a member of parliament for Hampshire from 1806 to 1807. He also assisted James Rennie to edit The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.

Iris unguicularis 'Walter Butt'  (3)
Iris unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’ 

Iris unguicularis occurs naturally in hot and dry countries and to grow it successfully in our gardens we must try to replicate these conditions as best we can. They need the hottest, driest and leanest position in the garden. Traditionally, they have been grown in beds built of the rubble of the foundations against house walls where the overhang of the roof shelters them from rain and the reflected heat from the wall provides warmth. I grow them in a raised bed in full sun where the compost is comprised mainly of grit so the drainage is as perfect as possible.  Vita Sackville West wrote, “Kindliness, so far as the Algerian iris is concerned, consists in starving it. Rich cultivation makes it run to leaf rather than to flower. What it really enjoys is being grown in a miserably poor soil, mostly composed of old lime and mortar rubble and even gravel: a gritty mixture at the foot of a sunny wall, the grittier and the sunnier the better. Sun and poverty are the two things it likes.” E. A. Bowles commented, that “the older a clump grows the better it flowers” – the best displays of flower are usually to be seen on congested clumps in old gardens”

Iris unguicularis 'Kilbroney Marble'  (2)
Iris unguicularis ‘Kilbroney Marble’, a cultivar of Irish origin. 

In the garden the plant grows to 30cm high with narrow foliage which is evergreen though often tatty in appearance. The flower colour of the species varies from light lilac to purple while the yellow markings on the falls are very attractive.  The flowers grow on especially long perianth tubes, 20cm long, and when gathering flowers it is best to slip one’s fingers to the base of the tube and pull rather than cut. Although the plants are perfectly hardy in our gardens the flowers are vulnerable to damage by high winds and heavy rains and are, obviously, nibbles of the most delectable taste for slugs and snails so are best rescued and brought into the house. Vita Sackville West suggests, “You should search your clumps of the grass-like leaves every day for possible buds, and pull the promising bud while it still looks like a tiny, tightly-rolled umbrella, and then bring it indoors and watch it open under a lamp. If you have the patience to watch for long enough, you will see this miracle happen.”

And so, we have Algerian umbrellas in the house – and a fragrance of warmer climes.

Iris unguicularis in vase  (1)
A vaseful opening wide in the warmth of the house. 

Paddy Tobin

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