Iris (Iris spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10) blooms are like big butterflies floating in the garden. They are so attractive that every garden should have at least one species, and there are so many different types that there is one for just about every spot in the garden. Fortunately, they are surprisingly tough. Here are some of our favorite irises for the South.
I. germanica, Zones 3–10
Bright, sunny areas of the garden without excess moisture are great for most irises but particularly for bearded irises. They come in lots of colors and look great in perennial borders since they have evergreen foliage in our region. Reblooming varieties are becoming more popular, and in our part of the South this usually means flowers in April and then again in midsummer.
I. confusa, Zones 6–11
A shady, dry spot is great for bamboo iris. An early spring bloomer, this iris can spread into quite a colony. In very cold winters, it can be damaged, but it always does an admirable job of recovering. It does best under evergreen, trees which take up any excess water and provide shade most of the day.
I. tectorum, Zones 4–9
Another shade lover is roof iris. This delightful iris is white or lavender-blue and blooms in midspring here in our Zone 8 garden. Roof iris forms good-size colonies in a relatively short period of time. It will grow in sun, but the foliage will look stressed and the plant won’t thrive. In shade, the soft foliage is very attractive, and the plant makes for a good ground cover.
I. crisata, Zones 3–8
Crested iris, native to our area, is a great ground cover for shade. The beautiful pale blue to white flowers appear early in spring and only last a few days but are wonderful to behold. The foliage is short and makes a terrific deciduous ground cover in the shade garden. Moist soil is a plus, although this tough little grower is very drought tolerant.
I. ensata, Zones 3–9
Japanese iris loves sun. The large, somewhat flat flowers are spectacular. It is not fans of shade or dry soil but will grow in a wide variety of soil types, from moist to submerged. The tall foliage is attractive on its own and waves in the wind. The cultivar with variegated foliage, ‘Variegata’, is showy on its own, but when the dark purple flowers appear in late spring, it’s striking.
I. brevicaulis and cvs., Zones 4–8
Another water-tolerant iris is Louisiana iris, which is actually a group of several species all of which are great garden plants. Willing to grow in a perennial bed or in standing water, these plants are tough. Flowering best in full sun, they won’t let shade stop them from putting on a show. Some of these species can be a little enthusiastic in their growth habit, such as yellow flag (I. pseudacorus, Zones 5–9), which may be invasive in select parts of the South. But when this group of plants bloom, it seems worth the trouble.
I. domestica, Zones 5–10
Blackberry lily is so much fun. Orange-spotted flowers blooming in clusters appear in early summer. Deadheading keeps them blooming, but the seedpods they get their name from are almost as nice as the flowers. Perfect in mixed beds, the plants are not long-lived perennials, but they do reseed abundantly. This iris likes very good drainage in our part of the world.
—Jason and Shelley Powell own and manage Petals from the Past, a garden center in Jemison, Alabama.