Irises coming into flower in gardens and in the wild

By Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Published 26/05/2015 | 00:00

Yellow Iris.
Yellow Iris.

Irises are coming into flower in gardens and in the wild. The word 'Iris' is both the common English name and the botanical name for the plants and since garden cultivars come in an array of beautiful colours it is no accident that the word 'iris' is the Greek for 'rainbow'.

Irises make up a large family that includes among its members such well-known and widely cultivated species such as Gladiolus, Crocus, Libertia and Freesia.

We have only two wild irises in Ireland. One has bright yellow flowers so its standard name in English is the Yellow Iris. Some people call it a Flag. To be more precise others say Yellow Flag. And those with a belt and braces approach go over the top and leave no doubt about its identity by calling it the Yellow Flag Iris.

Standing waist high and having a rather imposing and stately, almost regal, air about it, the Yellow Iris is a native wild plant and is abundant in wet ground. Ditches, marshes, very wet fields and the margins of wetlands are its preferred habitat.

Its leaves are pale green and have no smell when crushed. Our second species has dark green leaves that give off an unpleasant smell when crushed so it is called the Stinking Iris.

Stinking Iris is a garden escape that has naturalised itself in woods, thickets and sandy shores but its distribution is patchy so it is regarded as being rather rare in the wild. Its flowers are dull yellow and purple.

All Iris flowers are made up of six parts: three sepals and three petals. Since they look superficially alike they are known collectively as tepals. However, the three sepals are normally big, broad and droop down while the three petals are normally small, narrow and stand erect.

The classic Iris flower structure is stylised in the fleur-de-lis, an emblem very much associated with France and heraldry but also to be seen as a design topping cast iron railings around old stately buildings.

Irises have a thick underground rootstock called a rhizome. They can reproduce vegetatively by means of the rhizome and it is a common sight to see a line of Yellow Irises snaking its way along the edge of a drain in damp, low-lying land.

In such places, beds of Yellow Iris in disused, marginal ground are a habitat used by the now rare Corncrake to nest in.

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