Iris for Foliage Lovers

Planted just one year ago these iris are thriving and growing into large, healthy clumps

Planted just one year ago these iris are thriving and growing into large, healthy clumps

Early fall is a great time to re-evaluate your spring-blooming perennials. Yes you read that right! Christina and I expect double duty from those early season flowers with exceptional foliage that still adds color, structure and interest at least through until the end of fall. That is especially important in small gardens where there is nowhere to hide and every mediocre leaf is right there in front of you.

A traditional favorite for the spring garden is the iris, grown primarily for cut flowers. There are many species  to choose from from the large bearded varieties available in a rainbow of colors to tightly packed clumps of cobalt blue Japanese iris and dwarf forms suitable for the rockery but my go-to is the variegated sweet iris. There are two forms available with either a creamy-white (Iris pallida ‘Alba-variegata’) or a soft yellow variegation (Iris pallida Aureo-variegata’) – and they look stunning right now.

Stiff fans of striped foliage multiple steadily into clumps 2′ tall and wide making it a perfect addition to the front of the border while the soft color lends itself to many different combinations.

Playing with Yellow


Beautiful design by Lily Maxwell (Victoria BC)

In the stunning border above, the iris has been used to add contrast to the chocolate leaves of Bishop of York dahlia while echoing the sunny yellow flowers. Yellow toned variegated purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’) and a golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ) add fine texture while an overhead canopy of a variegated aralia (Aralia elata ‘Aureo-variegata’) emphasizes the theme and frames the vignette. Taken in August, the iris have long since finished blooming but their foliage clearly continues to add drama. You can see more from this garden in our new book due out fall 2016 with Timber Press.

Crisp and White

IMG_5437For a different look use the long-blooming Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Rozanne) to weave through a green and white variegated  iris, adding a dwarf dark leaved weigela (e.g. Weigela florida ‘Midnight Wine’) for contrast.

I have also used the green and white variegated form to create a pretty monochromatic scheme with green and white hosta or the silver/green Jack Frost Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’).

Flowers – the Icing on the Foliage


In May and June dozens of exquisite papery periwinkle-blue flowers appear on stiff stalks 2′ above the foliage, filling the air with a delicate scent. Consider this color when selecting companion plants. In the examples shown above these flowers will repeat or enhance the color scheme of the surrounding shrubs and perennials.

Cultural Conditions & Care

Full sun or part sun/part shade (blooms best in full sun)

Average, well drained soil

Hardy in USDA zones 4-9

Deer resistant

Drought tolerant once established

Divide in fall or early spring if needed

Evergreen in mild winters; trim old leaves at an angle to tidy them up.

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4 thoughts on “Iris for Foliage Lovers

  1. margist

    LOVE these combinations!

    I am curious about the variegated iris. I have a variegated iris that I think is the same one you have pictured (the white and green), but I was told at the nursery that it can handle occasional wet soils. I have it planted in the drainage ditch that parallels the street in my front yard. It is wet for a short period when it rains, but in time of drought it can also be fairly dry. My soil is clay, although I did add compost and composted pine bark fines to the area when I planted these. You said your iris needs well-drained soil. Do you think I have the same one, or is there another variegated iris that would be happy with occasional wet feet? Should I move these to higher ground?

    The deer have mostly left them alone. They will sometimes nibble the flowers, and the juveniles will nibble the leaves when the plants are fresh from the nursery (and heavily fertilized).

    Also, do you know if the Aralia is deer-resistant?

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      Hi Margist. Yes this iris will take occasional wet feet although not constant standing water. I was torn between calling out well drained or moisture retentive soil as it is drought tolerant once established; quite the conundrum!

      Yes the Aralia elata is said to be deer resistant but I haven’t tested it personally. I would cage it while young but relax when it gets tall enough to be out of reach of the younger deer

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