Sunday, May 13, 2012

Girls Who Wear Glasses

By Jim Murrain

Iris speculatrix has an amusing name. The Latin translation is female spy or watcher. I like to get more literal and think of this as the pretty little Iris that wears glasses.

She was first seen in Hong Kong but is now known to inhabit wider more temperate areas of China and Taiwan. The Hong Kong plants proved to be delicate to grow and tender, but it is now known that this is probably the southern-most end of its distribution. Plants from more northern areas are much more tolerant to cultivation and hardier, too

This is an evergreen Iris hardy in USDA Zone 6 but happier in zones 7 to 9 and maybe even warmer. In my Kansas City garden I must mulch it with shredded leaves every fall as a cold winter wind can dry the leaves. This sports the most beautiful glossy green foliage of any Iris I have grown. 

Of course we all grow iris for the flowers and I. speculatrix does extremely well at that. It has delicate looking blooms the size of I. cristata but held well above the leaves at 10 to 12 inches high. This is the tallest of any iris in the Chinenses Series. The color ranges from palest violet to royal purple. But it is the signal area that really stands out. It has well defined twin spots on the falls, or as I see it, she wears glasses. This blossoms in mid to late spring with two buds per stem. This iris has an unusual habit when it goes to seed. The seed pods have an acute point and bend at a 90 degree angle from the stem.

This has proven to be a very easy iris to grow in light to moderate shade and quite drought tolerant. I have not tried it in a damp area as those don't exist in my garden. Although grown sporadically for decades, it seems never to have been propagated and available from commercial Iris nurseries. I don't know anyone selling these irises.

Darrell Probst found an Iris in China that looks to be a cousin to I. speculatrix. It has not been described or named yet. It is quite a bit smaller and flowers in early spring. It also has evergreen foliage and intriguing blue flowers.

So here's two more Chinese Iris species that deserve to be in the gardens of adventurous gardeners. Obviously we need more nurseries that specialize in these smaller species.


  1. I run a small nursery in the UK ( and would dearly love to try some seed of these. I'm more than happy to pay SIGNA subs if that's what it takes.

    1. Hi Steve, seed is still uncommon but a small amount has managed to make it to the SIGNA SeedEx in the past few years. I'm no longer working on the exchange so don't know what will appear this year.


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