Irises at RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Thank you for supporting The Gardening Mind - your subscription enables me to dedicate ever more time to putting together these articles for you
What a plant of beauty, elegance, associated in Greek myth with Iris, goddess of the rainbow, beloved of Van Gogh. The ‘fleur-de-lis’ symbol is familiar to us, thought to be associated most closely with the iris.1
It’s a plant which can easily be anthropomorphised into a graceful lady, serene and majestic at the same time. And for a warm place, with the luxury of space, irises create a show of colour which takes up the flag from the tulips, which often, but not always, have disappeared by the time of the arrival of the rainbow of standards, falls, signals, petals and often beards which distinguish one iris flower from another.
It’s a plant which works well in the heat, but it isn’t a lover of the wet, and so care has to be taken when we plant them. We’ll come to iris care and planting towards the end of this article; in the meantime, let’s have a look at how we can use them to create effects, and how versatile they are.
In a garden where I can’t have that dedicated iris bed, so often seen in France and Italy where the flowers arrive earlier, in April, I instead sweep and dot them through a border. Their presence is fleeting, and in my own garden I’m out every morning detaching the withered flowers as they make their way up the stems. Earlier than the summer heat, their blooming isn’t affected by later water shortages; in fact they love to bathe their knobbly rhizomes in the sun.
A reliable plant for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
This means that they are the perfect plant for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Their versatility and their relatively-early flowering, combined with the nifty ability to hold the flowers in by wrapping up, or pushing them open with a gentle blast of hairdryer heat, means that they are a reliable friend in late May, when as a designer, you could have had any kind of weather in the British spring. Many are the times when me and my planting team have experienced four seasons of weather in one single day on the show ground, with frosts and gentle mornings turning into thundery downpours followed by an energetic pump of sunlight before dusk. Thermals go on and off, waterproofs go on and off, the kettle goes on as we dry off.
You can create all sorts of atmospheres with a range of colours. Painterly is a term always applied when irises are in a planting: the combination of shades blurring in to each other in the shadows created by the forms, creates an effect that only Nature can be given the credit for.
Here in the Thrive Garden at the show in 2010, the washed-out browns and ambers, with peaches and violets, were chosen to harmonise with the mahogany stems and lime green new leaves of Prunus serrula:
Going back in time, we get to The Demelza Hospice Garden, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010
I’d first used the iris the year before, in the very first garden I’d ever created for a flower show, with Titan’s Glory shining out its blues and petrols in the sun, whilst the shadier Iris sibirica found its way beneath the tall multi-stemmed silver birch. (The story of how the whole showground went silent as these trees, huge for such a small ground space, came trundling in, is for another time.)
Fast forward to 2011
Back when I created the planting for the sculptor Helen Sinclair, the only photos I can find are of the delivery itself, which again is another story, I think, on HOW MUCH things have very definitely changed in terms of how we recorded our time. I didn’t even think to take photos, let alone take photos in the first place. Certainly worth a ponder?
This is a colour combination that took its inspiration from the sheer mouth-wateringness of the colours of this plant: