Types of Iris Flowers and How to Grow Them

By: Betty Barr Mackey  | 
A close up of purple iris flower outdoors.
Iris was the goddess of the rainbow, which explains why its flowers appear in so many beautiful colors.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

The iris, a flower of captivating beauty and rich symbolism, holds a special place in the hearts of gardeners and artists alike. Named after the Greek goddess Iris, who was considered a messenger between heaven and earth, this flower is a symbol of communication and eloquence.

If you're eager to welcome this flower into your garden, you might be eager to explore the many types of iris flowers available. Fair warning: the diverse iris genus contains about 280 distinct species and countless cultivars! However, in this article, we'll provide a breakdown of the most popular iris flowers, from the bearded irises and Japanese irises to the Siberian Irises.


Why Are Iris Flowers So Popular?

Across different cultures, the iris carries varied meanings—from representing wisdom and hope in the West to embodying courage and admiration in Japan. Botanically diverse, iris flowers come in a breathtaking array of colors, shapes, and sizes, characterized typically by their unique structure of three upright petals called 'standards' and three drooping petals called 'falls.'

Their resilience and adaptability allow them to flourish in a wide range of climates and conditions, making them a beloved feature in gardens around the world. The iris not only enchants with its striking appearance but also fascinates with its cultural significance and botanical intricacies.


Even though the bloom period is short, a bed of irises is ideal for a flower garden. There are also irises for the poolside and the pool, the wild or woodland garden, the early spring bulb bed, the cutting garden, and the rock garden.

Variety of Flower Colors in Iris Plants

Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, and you can find iris blooms in pink, blue, lilac, purple to brown, yellow, orange, almost black, and white. There are no true reds. Many types of iris have fine foliage, whether short or tall, which is a good thing, because the flowers have only a brief period of bloom.

These perennials return reliably year after year. Irises usually have basal leaves in two ranks — linear to sword-shaped — often resembling a fan, arising from a thick rootstock (or rhizome), from fibrous roots, or, in some species, from a flower bulb. Now let's take a look at some of the most popular types of iris.


Bearded Iris (Iris germanica)

The Bearded Iris, a classic garden staple, is renowned for its large, flamboyant blooms adorned with ruffled petals (like fuzzy 'beards') on each petal. These irises come in a range of sizes: Tall Bearded Irises make a striking statement with their lofty stature, Intermediate Bearded Irises offer a mid-range height, and Dwarf Bearded Irises add splashes of color closer to the ground.

They thrive in well-drained soil and require full sun to showcase their vivid hues to the fullest, making them a favorite among garden enthusiasts for their ease of cultivation and stunning display.


Beardless Iris

Not that the beardless irises aren't lovely as well! There are two main varieties to choose from:

Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica)

The Siberian Iris stands out with its elegant, butterfly-like flowers and slender, grassy foliage. These irises flourish in moist conditions, adapting well to wetter climates, making them ideal for water gardens or damp areas. Their resilience and graceful appearance make them a cherished addition to any garden setting.


Japanese Iris (Iris ensata)

Japanese Iris is distinguished by its large, flat blooms, often found gracing the edges of ponds and water features. These irises favor acidic, boggy soils and are celebrated for their exotic, watercolor-like flowers, offering a unique aesthetic different from other iris types.

Dutch Iris (Iris x hollandica)

Dutch Iris, known for its elegant and slender profile, typically showcases blue or purple flowers. These irises are a popular choice in the cut flower industry due to their long, sturdy stems and striking colors.

These showy flowers flourish in well-drained soil and are relatively easy to grow, making them a favorite for both gardeners and florists.

Louisiana Iris (Iris brevicaulis)

Louisiana Irises, native to the southern United States, are a vibrant spectacle often found in wetland areas. They thrive in moist, acidic soils, and their array of colors can range from deep blues to bright yellows. This type of iris adds a touch of southern charm and color to water gardens and naturalized pond settings.


Bulbous Iris

Iris reticulata

The petite Iris reticulata is a delightful early spring bloomer, known for its small size and fragrant flowers. Ideal for rock gardens, these irises need well-drained soil and are perfect for adding a touch of color to the early spring landscape.

Iris danfordiae

Iris danfordiae is celebrated for its bright yellow flowers, bringing a cheerful burst of color to the garden. Preferring sunny locations, this bulbous iris is a wonderful choice for adding vibrancy and contrast to spring flower beds.



Wild Iris Species

Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

The Blue Flag Iris is a North American native, showcasing striking blue-violet flowers. It's often found in natural wetlands and is known for its hardiness and adaptability, making it a favorite for native plant gardens and naturalized areas.

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus)

The Yellow Flag Iris, with its bright yellow flowers, is commonly seen in wetland areas. While it adds a splash of color to water features, it's important to note that it can be invasive in some regions and should be planted with care to avoid uncontrolled spread.



How to Grow Bulb Irises

Growing iris plants in your garden can be a rewarding and colorful experience, as these stunning flowers bring an array of vibrant hues and unique shapes to any landscape. To start, choose a location that receives full sun for at least six hours a day. Ensuring proper soil conditions is crucial; irises prefer well-drained soil to prevent root rot. If your soil is heavy or clay-like, consider amending it with organic matter to improve drainage or plant the irises in raised beds.

When planting iris rhizomes, typically in late summer or early fall, place them shallowly in the soil, with the top of the rhizome exposed or just beneath the surface. This exposure to air is vital for preventing rot and promoting healthy growth. Space the rhizomes about 12 to 24 inches apart to give each plant enough room to grow. For bulbous irises, plant the bulbs at a depth of about three times their height, and water them well after planting.


Maintenance During Bloom Time

Consistent, moderate watering is key, especially during the growing season. However, it's important to allow the soil to dry out between waterings to prevent over-watering. As irises are relatively drought-tolerant, they require less water once established. Fertilization should be done cautiously; a low-nitrogen fertilizer can be applied in early spring to encourage blooms but avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers as they can promote excessive foliage growth at the expense of flowers.

Lastly, regular maintenance is important for irises. Remove any dead or damaged foliage, and after blooming, cut back flower stems to encourage growth. Every three to five years, consider dividing your iris clumps in late summer. This rejuvenates the plants and prevents overcrowding, ensuring vigorous flowering in the following seasons. With these care tips, your iris garden will not only be a sight to behold but also a testament to your gardening skills.


Additional Notes on Related Iris Species

Iris germanica (tall bearded iris), hardy from Zones 4-8, usually comes to mind when people think of irises. The flowers come in a multitude of color combinations and sizes, with hundreds of new varieties introduced every year. This iris is usually spring blooming, but some rebloom in fall.

I. cristata (crested iris), hardy in Zones 5-8, prefers partial shade and a humus-rich soil and blooms in early spring. It is lavender-blue with a two-inch yellow crest across a six-inch stem. I. ensata (Japanese iris) is hardy in Zones 6-8. Richly colored blossoms are often more than six inches wide on stiff, tall stems, blooming in June. The blue flag, I. versicolor, is a lovely three-foot wildflower from the Northeast that appears in ditches and boggy areas along country roads. It is a great pond plant.


I.I. sibirica (Siberian iris), hardy in Zones 4-8, has large flat lovely 3- to 4-inch flowers on 30-inch stems and great foliage-the swordlike leaves stand erect and eventually form a large clump. I. pseudacorus (yellow flag) is also a beautiful plant for a bog or at the edge of a pond or pool. The flowers, blooming in late spring, are yellow on 40-inch stems. It is beautiful but can be invasive.

Choose Your Favorite Iris Type

In the vibrant world of gardening, irises stand out as a testament to diversity and beauty, offering a kaleidoscope of colors and forms to enchant any garden setting. From the stately elegance of the Bearded Iris to the delicate charm of the Siberian and Japanese varieties, each type brings its own unique splendor.

Whether you're looking for German iris, Dutch cultivar or dwarf bearded iris flowers, you'll find that any member of the iris family will deliver stunning views in your outdoor space.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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