Monday, July 14, 2014

Iris anguifuga - The missing link?

by Jim Murrain

     Iris anguifuga is native to China and has been cultivated for centuries around summer gardens to repel snakes from entering the grounds and, when the rhizome is ground into a paste, applied topically as an herbal remedy against snakebites (or so these ‘Old Wives' tales go). This clone was collected by Dr. James Waddick in 1989 and has been named 'Snake Bane'.

     'Snake Bane' is a typical beardless Iris in many respects. It has that generic shape and color of many irises. It could easily be mistaken for a Spuria Iris at bloom time. However, it has a marked difference from all other irises, it is dormant and leafless during most of the growing season. Iris anguifuga begins growth in late fall as other irises are getting ready for winter and the snakes are going into hiding. It remains green in my z6a garden all winter although at only two to three inches in height. In early spring it puts forth a burst of growth and is in flower by mid-May. Around June, as the snakes emerge and gain their strength back, the Iris goes dormant or 'disappears'.

     These two older photos give a better idea of the true color. I. anguifuga is vigorous in full sun and makes a nice clump quickly. It will grow in partial shade but flowering will be reduced.

     The missing link? Iris anguifuga spends summer as a compact bulb. When it breaks dormancy in the fall it grows a rhizome. After flowering the rhizome withers away except for the growth point which pulls together in the form of a bulb. It is thought that this may be how bulbous irises first developed. 

     This illustration from the book Iris of China shows Iris anguifuga on the right half, 1 through 5. You can see the bulb shape has formed just before the rhizome will disappear for the summer.

     It is a modest plant in the garden with a simple display, but the story is a real conversation starter and who knows?  Maybe it will keep the snakes away, too.


  1. This iris seems adapted to a Mediterranean style climate, being dormant in summer. Where in China is it from? And where could one get seeds or tubers? I'd like to try it in my summer-dry climate.

  2. Hey Kathleen, it is from Eastern China but has been cultivated for so long that it's not clear what is wild and what is escaped or planted. Seeds have been in SIGNA's Seed Ex a time or two. 'Snake Bane' is available from Iris City Gardens in Memphis, TN.


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