Tag Archives: Higo iris

Tikorangi Notes: Things that go crash in the night, recommended hostas and our pretty meadow

It was not Dudley crashing in the night but he did look somewhat noble down in the meadow yesterday

Things that go crash in the night. On a dead calm night, both of us heard the unmistakeable noise of a large branch falling to the ground. I was pretty sure it was not an entire tree because there was no whump as it hit the ground so it clearly did not bounce, as large trees usually do. Morning light revealed that it was as expected – a branch from one of our old man pine trees. In this case it must have fallen 30 or 40 metres to the ground and it appears to have taken out the two camellias that had more or less staged a revival from being clipped by the last two falling trees.

The damage from a falling branch

As usual, we will gather all the pine cones and get out what firewood we can but it appears that there is some surrounding damage this time.  We are philosophical. It is just part of gardening beneath huge trees that are now up to 145 years old. The fallen epiphytic collospermum may be a clue as to why the branch fell. There will be a big weight in just that chunk of vegetation sitting on the branch. The birds spread the seeds and they can germinate, grow and hang on for grim death up high.

It may have been this massive epiphtye that caused the branch to break

Blue hostas raised from seed

After last week’s post on Hosta Jade Cascade (which is settling in just as well in other parts of the garden where I planted it out), I have been looking anew at the varieties that are thriving on zero maintenance. Some of the enormous clumps will have been in 20 or more years now and just keep reappearing a little larger each season. A lot of our big blue clumps are unnamed, raised from seed – some of them from Hosta seiboldiana.

Hosta undulata variegata is getting smaller, I think, over the years

In a big garden, we need big clumps of plants to have an effect. In this area, the stand out gold is Goldrush, raised and named by Felix Jury. It is a terrific performer and puts up a good floral display of purple flowers. The blue is a seedling. Neither of us can name the variegated hosta which is not the showiest of varieties but it has done well and that is not to be sniffed at. There aren’t many variegated hostas that we have planted that have thrived in garden conditions under a regime of benign neglect. Too many, like this poor little specimen of H. undulata variegata have reduced in size over the years, rather than grown larger.

In the smaller growers, variegated Golden Tiara is again not particularly exciting but a very good garden plant. The blue green, little Flora Dora has increased freely and gold Blonde Elf has also surprised me with how well it has established for a very small grower. On the other hand, I haven’t seen dwarf Kabitan for a while so I wonder if it has shrunk away altogether, which would be a pity.

It looks like Guacamole to me and I am not making up that name

Of the variegated types, this one which I think is Guacamole from memory, is doing very well. It is a reverse variegation sport of Hosta Fragrant Bouquet. I will have planted out large specimens of the latter at a similar time as Guacamole but I have yet to find them in the garden, which means they are not growing as strongly at all.

Sum and Substance

Add Blue Boy as a good, reliable garden plant. We stopped growing it commercially towards the end of our time because there were other, showier, bluer cultivars that sold more readily but while they are not starring in the garden, Blue Boy is a strong survivor. That is my short list of top performers as garden plants that have caught my eye this week and that have proven themselves over several years. Oh, Add Sum and Substance which is surprising me by its willingness to grow suitably large in the spot where I planted it.

As a postscript to the hostas, these are grown with no slug bait or slug and snail control. We now have such a rich bird life that they enable us to grow these plants without having to protect them. Well, I assume it is the birds carrying out this task because there is no reason at all for us to have any fewer slugs and snails to start with than anybody else gardening in similar conditions.

The meadow! The meadow!

At the risk of repeating myself – but we all know that gardening is a seasonal activity that is, by definition, repetitive – the meadow below is bringing me great joy as the Higo irises all come into bloom, interspersed with the Primula helodoxa that has been at its peak for a full month now. What more can I say?


A water meadow

img_6423December was memorable last year. Finally, we achieved the water meadow effect we have been striving for in our park.  This was thanks to the iris and to our learning how to manage long grass in ways other than cutting it.

higos-7There are anything up to 300 different species of iris but the one that comes to mind most frequently is the bearded iris. These are ephemeral delights in our climate with its high rainfall, high humidity and fertile soils, so a joy in bloom in October but over all too soon. The so-called Dutch iris flower earlier in spring. These are hybrids of 3 lesser known species, often somewhat derided, seen as a little vulgar even, but they can look charming enough in the right setting and are easy to grow.

Iris sibirica

Iris sibirica

November is the month of the sibirican iris which are happier in our wet conditions. The most common bright blue form is ‘Caesar’s Brother’ but there are other selections around which flower at slightly different times and extend the season well into December. The common name of Siberian iris suggests that they originate in Siberia – which they do, but they are not limited to that area in the wild, growing instead right across Northern Europe as far east as Central Asia. Unlike the bearded iris which prefer sandy, lighter soils where their rhizomes can bake in the sun, the sibiricans thrive in heavy soils and on the margins of wetland areas.

higos-1In early spring this year, I spent a few muddy days down by our stream, digging out the yellow flag iris. We had several large clumps of these and they flowered well every year. Alas, they are a recognised weed in this country and we felt we needed to take an ethical stand and remove them because they were planted by and in running water. Every piece of rhizome that breaks off or gets washed downstream has the higos-5potential to grow and we didn’t think that establishing mats of flag iris all the way to the ocean was a good reflection on us. In digging them out, I can tell you the dense mat they form is not unlike wild ginger. I replaced them with a mix of Higos and sibiricans which may spread by seed but don’t form the choking, solid mats.

higos-3Every time the Higos bloom, we think most kindly of Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch. Years ago, he gave Mark a tray of germinating seedlings which were reputedly from wild gathered seed. Mark had tried growing Higos earlier but without success. They are not a species, but a group of Japanese iris bred extensively over 500 years in the quest for the single perfect bloom to bring indoors, in that wonderful higos-2pared-back style perfected in Japan. The requirements of a garden plant are very different and those highly refined hybrids did not perform. The seedlings from Terry – about 700 of them in the end – gave us a huge range in colour, size and style and they have settled in most satisfyingly by the stream. By this I mean they are performing very well year after year, with no attention at all but without any indication of becoming a weed. I tried some in a perennial border and they grew and flowered well, but their leaves are very long and tend to swamp other plants in the months before they go dormant.

Mark's Louisiana seedlings

Mark’s Louisiana seedlings

Our water iris are something of a United Nations when we add in the Louisianas. Indeed, these do originate from that American state though, like the Higos, they are not a pure species but a group. There are at least five different species of iris native to Louisiana and it is likely that what we are growing are hybrids. They have been settled in down by the stream for many years now but we only have a few different ones. Inspired by the success of the Higo seedlings we got from Terry Hatch, Mark has been experimenting with raising Louisianas from seed to extend the range of flower colour and size and the results have given us more to plant out in the ponds on the other side of our garden, in the area we call the North Garden.

higosWhat we love about the water iris is the contribution they make to a softer-edged, naturalistic style of gardening which we increasingly favour. A return to a more romantic garden style. It took my breath away last December. I am looking forward to a repeat this month.


abbie005First published in the December issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Flagging away the flag iris


The first time I realised there was a problem with our flag irises was when Mark intervened to pull a photo from a House and Garden feature on our garden a few years ago. It was a view similar to that above. “It’s a weed,” he said. “It is embarrassing to be shown with a weed.” It has taken a while, but this week, I have dug out the last of it.

The offending flag iris

The offending flag iris

The problem with Iris pseudacorus is its resilient and invasive ways. It can survive in water, even in salt water, beside water, on water as a floating mat of rhizomes and even just on heavy soils and flood-prone areas. It is also poisonous to both humans and stock so is not controlled by animals. It is on most New Zealand weed lists and some regional councils require active management to control its spread.

Behold the offending rhizomes

Behold the offending rhizomes

Our flag irises have never set much seed, though all the descriptions say that seeding is a problem. We would have acted faster, had we seen threatening seed set. But the rhizomes, the rhizomes! They are sign enough of an issue. They form a dense mat both on and just under the surface. It reminded me of digging out wild ginger with their ability to form a solid barrier, choking out other growth. It was heavy, muddy work digging them out and prising stray rhizomes from farthest reaches with me, precariously balanced. I did not want to end up in the stream at this time of the year.

We had them planted by running water; the upper reaches of the Waiau Stream flows through our park. It was clear that floods or any disturbance of the rhizomes could cause some to wash downstream and from there, populate the countryside. It would not have been an issue had they been by a self-contained pond with no means of escape.

True, we grow Primula helodoxa and that is sometimes flagged as a weed issue by waterways but we dead head it. It is the seeding that is problematic with that plant.

Iris sibirica

Iris sibirica

Lovely Higo irises

Lovely Higo irises

and Louisiana iris

and Louisiana iris

Fortunately there are alternatives to the flag iris which do not seem to be a weed problem and are arguably considerably prettier.  Iris sibirica, the Higos and the Louisianas are all happy in similar conditions and give us a League of Nations in our park – Northern Europe and Siberia, Japan and USA. We just happened to have plants of all hanging about waiting to be planted. So while the three patches of flag irises are now muddy and apparently bare, in a few months’ time, they may even be flowering again in hues other than yellow.

036We are enjoying the water meadow effect we are achieving in that area of the garden.

More Louisianas that Mark has been raising to plant out

More Louisianas that Mark has been raising to plant out



Plant Collector – Higo Iris and Primula helodoxa

Down by the stream

Down by the stream

The prettiest photo moment in the garden this week has been the meeting of Japan and China in the Higo Iris and Primula helodoxa down by our stream. These are conditions where the plants will never dry out. They get plenty of sun but are in heavy soil on the stream bank.

P. helodoxa is one of the more common primulas in this country. It is a candelabra type – layers of flowers perhaps more akin to a tiered cake stand than a candelabra. The flowers are sweetly scented but rather a bright, sulphurous yellow in colour. In the right conditions, it is so easy to grow that it is borderline weedy because it sets seed freely and increases by clumping. We try and deadhead our plants because they are by running water. Helodoxa is one of the Primula prolifera group and is known in some parts of the world as ‘Glory of the Marsh’, which is rather lovely.

The Higo irises are from Japan and sometimes referred to as Japanese water iris. Higo is not a species. It is a particular strain of iris that originated from the species I. ensata. These are from wild collected seed and are proving quite resilient with us. The named Higo hybrids tend to have been bred for cutting and bringing indoors whereas we want garden performance, not floral perfection. We have Higos by the stream and I am also trying some as garden plants amongst other perennials where they are now into their third year of performing well. I am just a bit worried that they may be multiplying too enthusiastically. The foliage is thin and grass-like. They are deciduous whereas the primula is evergreen.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Plant Collector – Higo Iris

Remarkable seedling variation in the Higo Iris

Remarkable seedling variation in the Higo Iris

We are particularly delighted with the Higo irises at the moment, all 700 of them which are in small pots in the nursery awaiting planting out. These are often called the Japanese water iris because they are happy to live in pretty soggy situations.

Unravelling the family tree of Higo is not straightforward. Japanese water iris all descend from I.ensata but around 500 years of breeding has seen different strains developed – Edo, Higo and Ise. Many of these hybrids resulted from a search for perfection in a single bloom, to be brought indoors and contemplated as a transient thing of beauty. This does not necessarily make for garden plants. Mark had tried some large flowered Higos in the past and not had success with them. Not only did the blooms weather damage too readily for our climate, the plants could not cope with anything other than optimal conditions in very well cultivated soil.

Wanting a strain which is closer to the original species and therefore likely to have smaller flowers and maybe a more robust nature, Mark was delighted when Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch, offered him a tray of plants reputedly derived from wild collected seed. It has taken a little effort to pot on the plants and grow them to flowering size but this spring it has all been worth it. There is a huge range of flower size, markings and colourings coming through in the plants though we doubt that they are anywhere close to the original species which grew in the marshes near Tokyo 500 years ago.

Most of the 700 are destined for planting in swathes on the margins of our ponds and stream though I shall get down on a few and experiment with growing them in garden borders. The critical issue appears to be ensuring that they never dry out completely.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.