Wednesday Weed – Siberian Iris

Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica)

Dear Readers, I have always loved irises, but have never been able to grow them. This surprises me somewhat, as the big yellow flag irises that grow in the wild, damp places of the UK would seem to be perfectly adapted to taking over my pond, but they refuse to do anything other than wither and die. Similarly, whenever, against my better judgement, I buy a bunch of irises for a vase, they turn papery and grey without ever opening. So I was pleased to see these little chaps in full flower in Fortis Green, just round the corner from my house. Their delicate lilac-blue flowers with their custard-coloured tongues were almost shocking against the dead leaves.

Irises are a big, diverse group of plants, and are named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. Iris is said to have been a messenger of the gods, and crops up regularly in The Iliad. Like the rainbow, she is said to have linked heaven and earth and would often help intercede on behalf of humans, bringing their prayers to the attention of the gods.

Iris by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1886) (Public Domain)

A minor digression here – I have always been very fond of the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw – I know that they are deeply unfashionable these days, but I love his depictions of the wet streets of Victorian cities. They are so atmospheric that they seem to beg for a story of dubious goings on at the waterfront, or of ladies shopping before Christmas. See what you think.

Glasgow, Saturday Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw (unknown date) (Public Domain)

Boar Lane, Leeds by John Atkinson Grimshaw (Date Unknown) (Public Domain)

But, back to the iris. The ‘design’ of the flower is an example of a plant that, in its natural state, has co-evolved with the insects that pollinate it. Three of the petals seem to ‘clap hands’ in the centre of the flower (the ‘standards’), with the other three petals curling down like lolling tongues (the ‘falls’). The lower petals form a landing stage for insects, and the shape of the sexual organs means that after pollen is deposited on the back of a bee, it can only be transferred to another flower, rather than pollinating the same one. Of course, the appearance of the flower has been mightily changed by horticulturalists over the years, but this basic structure largely remains, regardless of the colour or size of the bloom.

Photo One by By DavidAnstiss - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Parts of an iris flower (Photo One)

Photo Two by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

A bearded iris ‘Amethyst Flame’ (Photo Two)

Siberian iris is native to Europe and Central Asia, and its range extends as far north as Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is also naturalized in various states of the US and in Ontario in Canada. It was brought to Northern Europe as early 1500 by monks, and was first cultivated in the UK in 1596. It can be found in growing wild in damp, wooded areas, but seems to be slow to spread, unlike many other waterside plants. It grows from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and division seems to be the best way of raising new plants. Vita Sackville-West noted that Siberian irises

will do well by the waterside in a fairly damp bed, although it does not like being drowned underwater all year round.’

Maybe this is where I’m going wrong with my irises.

The flowers of this iris have been used to produce yellow cloth by the Tartar people of Western Siberia, and there is lots of information on the Interwebs for those who want to use iris flowers as dye. Medieval illuminators used a colour called iris green, and during my research I have discovered the website ‘Threadborne’ by Wendy Feldberg. She has several posts on using irises of various kinds as dye and as ink, which I found absolutely fascinating. You can have a look here.

The root of the plant is said to be good for coughs, and it is also said that the Chinese made an edible starch from it. ‘The Mysteries of Human Reproduction‘ by Dr. Raymond Bernard  mentions that Siberian brides eat the cooked fruit of the Siberian iris before their wedding night to increase fertility.  This is probably an improvement over the poor brides of Kamchatka, who apparently eat spiders to create the same effect. Sadly, the rhizome is also apparently poisonous, and handling it can cause dermatitis. As always, caution is advised.

As you might expect, such a splendid plant has inspired many artists, not the least of which, Vincent Van Gogh, is another of my favourites. The painting below shows bearded irises rather than Siberian ones, but hey. I love the way that my eye is drawn to the single white iris on the left, plus that sunny spread of marigolds in the corner. That such a joyful, sun-filled picture could be created by someone who struggled so hard with depression fills me with a kind of hope.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh (1886) (Public Domain)

And here is a puzzle. As you know, I do like a bit of poetry, so here is ‘Iris’ by William Carlos Williams.

Iris by William Carlos Williams

A burst of Iris so that
come down for

we searched through the
rooms for

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea

startling us from among
those trumpeting

But here’s the thing. You can make perfume from the rhizome of some species of iris – it’s known as orris root, and is incredibly expensive as the root has to be dried for three to four years before being turned into ‘orris butter’, and it has to be protected from fungal and insect attack for all that time. The scent is described on The Perfume Society website as

sweet, soft, powdery, suede-like – rather like violets, which we tend to be more familiar with as a scent‘.

However, I have never come across an iris flower that had a scent. Is it just because mine tend to die as soon as bring them home, as if struck by a ray gun? Or am I missing something? Or is the poet delusional? This was, after all, the man who ate all the plums in the fridge without so much as a by-your-leave, so he might not be completely reliable.

I do hope someone can enlighten me…..

Photo Credits

Photo One by By DavidAnstiss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

14 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Siberian Iris

  1. tonytomeo

    So many of the iris are too easy to grow. It surprises me too that you could not grow some sort of iris. I mean, if one type does not do well, there should be another type that does do well. I would not expect our native iris that are adapted to chaparral to do well there, but there are so many others that should be pleased with your climate.

      1. tonytomeo

        I don’t think that iris of any kind are a ‘requirement’. If none of them grow there, there are plenty of things that will grow there.

  2. Gail

    I’m fond of Grimshaw too. I sometimes think that his name works against him, it sounds (to me, at any rate) Victorian and dour.

  3. Toffeeapple

    My Irises are beautifully perfumed and I look forward to each May to savour their deliciousness. They are grown from rhizomes which do not need much goodness in the soil to thrive. I replant every few years because they grow too closely and stop themselves from blooming. Take the rhizome, place the roots on the earth and cover them. Leave the rhizomes out of the earth, water the roots and allow to bake in the sun. Result – beautiful blooms!

    Here is a link for you:

    You are most welcome. xx

    1. Bug Woman

      I must definitely try again. I wonder if part of the problem is my north-facing garden? The only way my poor plants would bake in the sun would be if I got them a heat lamp 🙂

  4. specialkfraser

    Hi Bugwoman, Karen here. I have always adored the perfume of the Flag Iris. It is one of my favourite scents and reminds me of honey. Not all of them have it, but one very popular one that I grow is ‘Jane Philips’ and I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t smell it…fabulous scent and lovely tall pale blue flowers. Now, the reason your Iris in vases don’t open is because they have been frosted in transit. I have the same problem, so now avoid buying Irises from the florist. They hardly ever reach the shop in good condition. 🙂

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Karen, thanks for this! I too have given up buying irises from the florist, but I shall definitely have a look for ‘Jane Philips’, I have obviously been missing ou!


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