Tag Archives: Japanese water iris

Down in the water meadows, the Higo iris bloom

Higo iris float above a sea of dandelions in the Wild North Garden

I really like that the Japanese Higo iris are such a big feature of our December meadows yet they almost certainly descend from the Japanese quest for a perfect, single bloom as a focus for contemplation. It is such a wonderful contradiction – that quiet refinement, simplicity and elegance that the Japanese traditionally bring to flowers generally and the wild abandonment of our Tikorangi meadows.

Smaller flowered, white Higo in the park meadow

Higo are not a separate species of Japanese iris. They are hybrids, bred over 500 years, originating from Iris ensata. There are three groups of iris from these breeding lines – Edo, Higo and Ise but the best known are the Higo. Our Higo were given to us by Auckland plantsman, Terry Hatch of Joy Plants, and apparently originated as wild collected seed. Mark had a discussion with Terry about wanting to try naturalising Higo by the stream but the finely bred, named cultivars were not sufficiently robust to survive in a situation of benign neglect. Terry offered up a tray of about 700 germinated seedlings which seemed a bit of overkill at the time. Now we bless him every year. Not all 700 survived, I hasten to say, but we had plenty to play with.

and a much larger flowered white Higo iris 

The blue is less dominant than the purple shades of Higo 

Because our plants are all seedlings, we have a fairly wide range and some clearly show their I. ensata heritage. Others are pure white, pink, almost pure blue and the whole range of violets, purples and lilac.

More Higo iris

I see the oldest plants are now in their ninth year or so of being planted on the banks by the stream and ponds and they perform reliably every year. Given they have stiff competition and receive absolutely no care or intervention, that makes them very robust plants. I tried some in a mixed border at one stage but they were too strong a grower with leafage that swamped out surrounding plants during summer and autumn so I removed them.

Can we have too many Higo iris?

A few years ago, I planted the last of the neglected pots from the nursery down in the area we call the Wild North Garden and this year, some are starting to bloom. They are much more rewarding than the Louisiana iris we grow where the leaf to bloom ratio is too high.

Seedling variation in the Higo iris

From mid to late November through until Christmas, the flowering of the water iris is such a delight. Like over the top butterflies, they float in the air above a sea of buttercups, dandelions, daisies and wild grasses and they truly make my heart sing.

In the park meadow. The Wachendorfia thyrsiflora with its tall yellow plumes has a death sentence on its head – too free with its seeds to keep it by a waterway 

The Wild North Garden – I am waiting for more Higo iris to bloom

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.