Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dry shade? There's an iris for that!

No matter where you live or what your climate, there's probably an iris for you. Dry shade, however, is one of the hardest parts of the garden for which to find plants that thrive, let alone members of our favorite genus. Today I'd like to tell you of a member of the iris family that has done well for me in dry shade.

Please meet Iris foetidissima, classically known as the stinking iris, stinking gladwyn or roast beef plant. Don't worry, the flower itself does not have a bad odor. Rather, the name comes from the scent of the leaves when they are crushed, which to some smells 'beefy'.

This interesting member of the iris genus is an evergreen perennial native to the west coast of Europe from England down thru Spain and across the water into north Africa. It likes mild winters and is not hardy above zone 6. I. foetidissima thrives in the dry shade at the margins of the tree line in my garden where it gets no summer water. It's rather drab blooms open in late spring, and are often overlooked. They are usually found in a muted lavender-buff, but yellow and white flowered versions are also available (sometimes listed as citrina, lutea or alba). The tall slender foliage is a deep emerald green and remains lovely all year long. There's even a variety with variegated white and green foliage, which greatly extends the garden value for the plant.

While the blooms of this iris may not catch your eye in spring, it will certainly grab your attention come fall. I. foetidissima's big claim to fame is its seedpods which burst open to reveal a delicious splash of color. In contrast to the drab blooms the seeds are a bright tomato red. Versions with sunny yellow or bone white seeds can also be found. They light up in their shady bed all thru the autumn before falling in late winter.

I've yet to see I. foetidissima for sale in the nursery trade, but they are very easy to grow from seed. If you'd like to try this wonderful variety check out the annual seed sale at the Species Iris Group of North America (SIGNA) where I have found offerings almost every year in a wide variety of colors. While collectors and connoisseurs will enjoy it just as it is, this is an iris that is wide open for the hybridizer, as only a very few improved varieties have been introduced. Cleaner colors and larger flowers are really needed before this one is going to be a hit with the general public.

I. foetidissima
will take part sun to full shade and is not at all picky about soil type. If you've got a tough spot give it a try.

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