Photo by Melody

Blue Flag Iris...Not Just for Water Gardens

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandNovember 28, 2009

Many gardeners think blue flag iris, I. versicolor, are only useful for water gardens but as long as the soil remains evenly moist, they make admirable plants for the standard garden. With over 20 selections to choose from, this iris demands a second look.

Gardening picture

For gardeners interested in water features, one of the premier native plants is the blue flag iris, Iris versicolor. However, this plant is not restricted for use only in water gardens. If the soil remains evenly moist, blue flags will grow quite happily in a regular garden setting, thus they can be utilized in the border or in wildflower gardens. They prefer organic-rich, acidic soil and full sun. They are very hardy plants, surviving into zone 3, even 2 if there is adequate winter mulch. In height, they can vary from 30 cm to over 100cm.

In the wild, blue flags grow from Minnesota east to New England, south to Virginia and north into eastern Canada, from Manitoba east to Newfoundland. Flowers are mostly in various shades of violet-blue, from mid tones to dark velvety shades. However, with such a large distributional range, other more interesting colour forms often spontaneously arise. Gardeners, nurseries and plant breeders are quick to notice these aberrant forms and introduce them into their gardens. The result is that today there are well over 20 named selections, ranging in colour from white through reddish-pink to nearly black.

Among the more classic blue cultivars are 'Cat Mousam', 'China West Lake' and 'Whodunit'. I have been fortunate in the wilds of Newfoundland to find a couple of light blue selections with darker veining. These appear somewhat similar to the popular 'Between the Lines'. Others in the light violet-blue category are 'Light Verse' and 'Epic Poem'. Both of these are essentially white but have such dense light violet-blue veins that, from a distance, the flowers appear pale blue.


Two interesting selections of blue flag I found in Newfoundland.


Above are 'Cat Mousam' and 'Between the Lines'


Light blue selections include 'Epic Poem' and 'Light Verse'

‘Murrayana' is a true alba form, being completely snow-white with yellow at the base of the falls. There is some dispute if this plant is a true I. versicolor (refer to my earlier article ‘The Story of Iris versicolor ‘Murrayana') as the flower shape is somewhat unusual but according to the current literature, it is indeed considered an alba form of I. versicolor. ‘Little Rhyme' is a white form with a classical blue flag shape but on a dwarf 30 cm plant. 'Versicle' is also white but has scattered pale lavender-blue veins which imparts an attractive ice-blue colour.


The cultivars 'Murrayana' and 'Versicle'

The rest of the more popular selections are varying shades of reddish-violet. These include 'Party Line', ‘Shape Up', 'Raspberry Slurp', 'Versijack' and 'Kermesina'. 'Mint Fresh' and 'Candystriper' are notable in being white with heavy reddish-violet veins, which from a distance, impart a light pink colour to the blooms. ‘Pink Peaks' is a medium reddish-violet selection that is quite dwarf, under 30 cm.


Above are 'Kermesina' and 'Pink Peaks'


Above are 'Versijack' and 'Raspberry Slurp'


Among the 'pink' selections are 'Candystriper' and 'Mint Fresh'

Among the darkest selections are 'Wild Wine' which is deep velvety reddish-violet. Perhaps the most striking is ‘Mysterious Monique'. This selection is rich, dark purple and from a distance appears nearly black. The signal of most blue flags is yellow but the signal of 'Mysterious Monique' is white, which only adds to the striking appearance of this selection. No doubt, more selections of I. versicolor will arise. As an active breeder of this group of iris, I hope to one day release selections of my own...stay tuned!


Among the dark selections are 'Wild Wine' and 'Mysterious Monique'

I would like to thank the following people for the sue of their pictures: daylily ('Wild Wine'), flowerfrenzy ('Versijack', 'Raspberry Slurp' and 'Cat Mousam'), laurief ('Mysterious Monique' and 'Candystriper') and Mainer ('Between the Lines').


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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