Famous flowers in many paintings, most notably Van Gogh's and Monet's work, irises add a beautiful, elegant look to any spring garden. The name iris is taken from the Greek word for "rainbow", referring to the many colors that the flowers can be.

Irises have a long and varied history – they first appeared in paintings at the great Minoan palace of Knossos in Greece. Since then, irises have been prominent in Egyptian and Greek sculpture and other art. The most famous irises appear on the French flag, as fleur-de-lis. The symbol was adapted from the purple iris. The Romans used the iris medicinally to relieve illness and also as perfume. Orris root, which is derived from irises, has been used for centuries to perfume clothes and bodies. It especially made a difference during the Dark Ages, when people thought bathing was dangerous.

Irises have long, pointed leaves and very showy, lily-like blooms. They can come in all sorts of colors, including blue, purple, yellow, red, white, pink, or brown. The blooms may also be striped or bicolored. The plant can grow to a height of 48 inches and spread from 6 to 48 inches, depending on conditions. It flowers in the spring and summer, and often, the irises will bloom among the tulips and daffodils in your garden.

Growing Irises

Irises prefer full sun, but they will grow in dappled or very light shade. They need a well-drained, relatively average soil, but some varieties will require a more moist growing mixture to do well. Growing iris from seed isn't recommended, but you can buy bulbed irises or pregrown rhizomes that you can plant in the fall or late summer. You can find these pregrown irises at your local garden center. Irises rarely need dividing, but if you want to increase the size of your garden, divide in fall or early spring.

Always make sure to wash your hands after handling irises – the plant's sap can cause severe internal discomfort if it's accidentally ingested.

Recommended Varieties

Irises have many beautiful and colorful cultivars that look great in any garden, so what you choose is really up to your own tastes. A few popular varieties include "Japanese Iris", "Bearded Iris", "Netted Iris", and "Siberian Iris".

Landscape Design Tips

Irises make an excellent border plant, but some are water-loving varieties that would look beautiful around a garden pond or fountain. Make sure that wherever you plant your irises, they get a lot of sunshine or else they won't do well.

Gardening Zones

Irises are hardy to semi-hardy in zones 3 to 9.

Problems & Pests

Unfortunately, irises come with a few problems. They are prone to iris borers, which tunnel through the leaves and destroy the roots. They may also be prone to aphids, slugs and snails, as well as leaf spot and rot from overwatering.