We like to believe that irises are springtime and summertime affairs, from the first spears of bulbous irises (Juno irises, reticulata irises, Dutch irises) puncturing the earth to the extravagant bearded irises blowsy with summer light in borders. Gardeners in mild climates have long anticipated the first flowers of the Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis). Strappy and evergreen, the leaves of the Algerian iris can look unkempt, tattered and irregular like a mouse’s nest, thus begging the question of why it is accommodated. 'Patience,’ Edward Augustus Bowles once wrote, ‘seems to be the only manure Iris unguicularis needs.’ After drinking in summer sunshine and roots sufficiently ripened, the clumps began to send out flowers unexpectedly, like hopeful gifts to compensate for the gardener’s tolerance. Plucked, the flowers do last well in water. They have a scent that seems to chase away the winter grays.
Shall one find themselves lacking the ideal site for the Algerian iris, Iris lazica is the shady moisture-loving cousin to its sunnier sibling. A Black Sea native often growing with Rhododendron ponticum, it flowers later than the Algerian iris. The differences lie in its spreading fans of foliage, the white color of the falls (the lower part of the petals), and the pale yellow media stripe in the center. Its specific epithet lazica is a geopolitical remembrance of Lazistan, a former Ottoman (southern Black Sea) region no longer extant after Turkey and Russia resolved their border disputes. In the garden, it is best sheltered from cold winds, which can shred the fragile flowers and while a temperate Mediterranean climate is optimal, some warm microclimates in coastal Mid-Atlantic regions can be exploited to accommodate the iris. Hellebores and anemones (Anemone appennina and A. nemorosa) can grace the iris comfortably in similar light conditions. The iris can be tricky to source, but mail order specialty nurseries Sequim Rare Plants, Far Reaches Farm, and Plant Delights Nursery do stock it.