Plant Characteristics and Care of the Reticulated Iris

Plant Characteristics and Care

Reticulated iris (image) flowers early in spring. Only snowdrops are earlier bulbs.
Reticulated iris is one of spring's first bloomers. David Beaulieu

Plant Type and Taxonomy of the Reticulated Iris

Plant taxonomy classifies this dwarf as Iris reticulata (thus one of the common names, "reticulated iris"). I grow the 'Harmony' cultivar. Another dwarf or "miniature" type is I. danfordiae.​ Iris reticulata is a spring bulb plant.

What the Plant Looks Like

The flowers of this dwarf are tricolored (bluish-purple, yellow, white), but the purple color is dominant enough for us to classify them as purple flowers (the yellow and white can be considered accents). The grassy foliage on mine reaches 9 inches during the blooming period (over 1 foot afterward), but the flowers stand, at most, about 7 inches off the ground. The width of the plant is initially much less than the height, but a reticulated iris often spreads via offsets over time.

I do not find reticulated iris to have the aroma that some of the bearded types do; the latter can be truly one of the most fragrant plants.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Indigenous to southwestern Asia, this dwarf can be grown in planting zones 5-9. Plant these flowers in full sun to partial shade. They will grow best in well-drained ground. Supply a bulb fertilizer when planting.

Plant Care and Uses in Landscaping for the Reticulated Iris

As with most spring-flowering bulb plants with small flowers, it's best to plant this dwarf en masse if you desire immediate impact. Drought-tolerant, it is an appropriate choice for spring rock gardens. The fact that it is a deer-resistant bulb makes it valued by many landscaping enthusiasts who reside in eastern North America. Fertilize with a bulb fertilizer after blooming is done.

To rejuvenate a patch of reticulated iris that has evidently petered out over the years, divide and replant the offsets after the plant finishes blooming (some do so immediately, in spring; others wait till fall). By summer, the leaves will die back as the plant becomes dormant. Allow this die-back to occur naturally, rather than "helping it out" by removing leaves prematurely: the plant is taking in and storing nutrients as long as the foliage is green. It is also important that the bulbs be resting in dry soil during their period of summer dormancy.

Summary on Reticulated Iris: Early Blooming but Early Exiting

This dwarf is one of the earliest bloomers in spring. Its tricolored flowers exhibit a design that is fun to study on warm days in early spring when you are looking for an excuse to spend time outdoors. I also marvel at the beauty of the unopened flowers of my 'Harmony', just before the petals unfurl: long, narrow and tapering to a point, they are a dark purple lined with golden-yellow stripes and remind me of exquisitely decorated, miniature spearheads. The fact that it is a drought-tolerant perennial argues its case be labeled as low-maintenance. Consider it when designing for xeriscaping.

A drawback of this plant is its proclivity to peter out relatively quickly. I am lazy about bulb plantings and tend just to let them "do their own thing" for years, accepting the fact that I will be overseeing (in some cases) a gradual decline. But the decline of Iris reticulata 'Harmony' is not gradual, in my experience. You will need to divide them and/or buy additional stock every few years to maintain anything like a peak display.

Meaning of the Name

The genus name is derived from Greek mythology. It is the name of the Greek goddess of the rainbow. She is also the messenger of the gods (the female counterpart of "Hermes," known as "Mercury" in Roman mythology). This derivation apparently pays tribute to the very colorful flowers borne by the various types of irises that grace our gardens (as in "the colors of the rainbow"). Meanwhile, the species name, reticulata, means "netted" or "reticulated," a reference to the netted pattern that can be discerned on the plants' bulbs.