African Iris – Pretty in Bloom and Lovely when Not

My husband and I finally found a hardy plant for our large centerpiece terracotta pot that is both beautiful in bloom and also when not – African Iris. We live in Hardiness Zone 8a which means our temps can dip down into the teens in the winter, although this doesn’t happen often. Zone 8a is likely the northernmost zone African Iris, or Dietes, can grow as a perennial. In fact, we are fortunate our particular plant is doing so well since it is situated in a pot. I have found most plants fare much better when, on the cusp of their hardiness zone, they are placed in ground versus in a planter. However, I inherited a large number of planters when I married, so I am content to fill them! And, I am ecstatic to fill them with an evergreen perennials that withstand icy cold nights as well as 100 degree summer days!

As the title of this post mentions, African Iris is an attractive plant when in bloom and when not. It is sometimes called a Fortnight Lily because the plant will flower consecutively for a couple of weeks and then rest a couple of weeks before another stalk of blooms forms. If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see pods from spent blooms on the same stalk with the flower that is blooming.

Blooms of the African Iris are small (about 3 inches), dainty and ornate. Depending on the variety, orange, yellow, blue or a combination of these accent colors, will form against crisp white petals. I believe my African Iris pictured in this post is of the “Orange Drop” variety as it is completely devoid of blue. If you look up African Iris, or Dietes, you’ll see some varieties have a bit more color to their flowers than mine.

Although its individual blooms are open for only a day or two, the African Iris has a very long blooming period in north Texas. It will flower off and on from late spring to early fall in north Texas and will bloom more abundantly if placed in a sunny location. The stalks of the plant can grow 3 – 4 feet tall with an even larger spread, so be sure to plan for room for growth and good air circulation. African Iris grows from rhizomes, and like most plants of this type, it should be divided if crowding occurs. In addition to enjoying full to part shade, the plant likes well-drained soil and is quite drought tolerant once established. Some people enjoy planting their African Irises near water features and this is perfectly fine as long as the plants do not sit in water. Root rot can occur if drainage isn’t good but other than that, the plant is relatively disease and pest free.

I actually consider the small blooms of the African Iris a bonus because it is the plant’s foliage that truly serves my landscape well. The long, green, sword-like blades are reminiscent of fanning ornamental grass. Other than discontinuing to bloom, the plant stays in very good form throughout the cold months, providing for a pop of greenery in a typically barren, winter garden space.

If you happen to live in colder climates than Zone 8a, you can certainly enjoy African Iris as well. You may wish to plant it in pots that are small enough to move indoors during the winter or plant outdoors and cover, along with other tenders, when a hard freeze is predicted. I’ve also read where a person can go to the trouble of digging up the rhizomes in the fall, bringing them inside and replanting them when the soil warms in the spring. If, like me, you reside on the cusp of their hardy zone, you may chose to keep the plant outside and strive to protect it during hard freezes, knowing that you may have to clip a few brown freeze-burned blades come spring.

Speaking of clipping blades, it is fine to “cut back” African Irises in early spring. This is not necessary, but can provide for a fresh look if, after a couple of years, you are seeing a few bent, brown or yellow blades here and there. I sort of look at this as similar to tidying up Liriope ( https://natureisnurture.net/got-the-blues/ ) and other perennial lily turf “grasses”.

African Iris highlighted by the Sun after Rainshower
African Iris highlighted by the Sun after a Rain Shower

In closing, I hope when looking around garden centers and nurseries this spring that you come across this not-so-common plant and give it a try. I think you will grow fond of it’s ease and simplictic beauty.

Until next time,

Cindy

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