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Penelope Hobhouse has the Blues

Garden blog by James Gillions, Head Gardener
5 June 2020


“Penelope Hobhouse has the Blues”

Beyond the old greenhouses, you step into the Penelope Hobhouse boarders, which run the length of the Walled Garden, some 70m.

Designed by Penelope Hobhouse with a palette of blue and white, the planting has evolved gently over twenty-five years but remained loyal to her original intention.

The annual cycle begins with Snowdrops, which emerge soon after Christmas, giving way to Daffodils and Tulips. In spring, perfume drifts from the Wisteria standards, then summer arrives with a hum of bees, heat-haze, and scent. The display persists into the autumn with Anemones and Dahlias before the frosts send the perennials scurrying for cover.

Just now, the air is full of expectation. The Peonies are poised to unfurl their rosettes and Geranium blooms sway in the warm breeze. Galega flowers rise on thin stems and Clematis is beginning to put on its show. Meanwhile, Delphiniums bob and weave throughout, and Echinops and Veronicastrum promise much to come.

It is the Iris’ moment though. I. ‘Jane Phillips’ flutters pale blue and her sleek cousin, I. sibirica, gathers in clumps, its spears topped by intense blue peaks.”


Plant profile:


To the Greeks Iris was associated with sensuality. She was Goddess of the rainbow, hence ‘iridescent’, and a bridge between heaven and earth.

The Iris flower is a recurring motif of the Minoan, Egyptian, Persia and Mughal civilizations. In western art, the Iris is stylised in the Fleur de Lys, emblem of the French Crown, and has a long association with the Virgin Mary, causing it to be commandeered by Elizabeth I as a symbol of her own virginal reign. More recently, it has been a favourite image of artists including William Morris, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Elizabeth Blackadder.

There are 300 or more species of Iris, adapted to a wide range of habitats from woodland and grasslands, to bog and desert. They fall into two main groups: those with rhizomes (adapted stems supporting the root stock), and those that store energy in a bulb. Of the bulbous Irises, the most commonly grown is I. reticulata, which flowers in winter and early spring, growing to 15cm.

Two species are native to the British Isles, Yellow Flag, I. pseudacorus, which is adapted to wetland habitats, and I. foetidissima, the Stinking Iris, which is a woodland plant, thriving in damp and dappled shade.

In the Penelope Hobhouse borders we grow two examples of rhizomatous Irises. See Gallery.

I. ‘Jane Phillips’ is a tall bearded cultivar, with pale blue flowers and white beards. It reaches a height of 1m at Dunsborough, blooming from mid-May. Every three or four years, clumps should be divided after flowering and replanted immediately, with the rhizome partially exposed, in well-drained soil. This will renew the vigour of the plant, as well as increasing your stock! In mixed borders, it is important to ensure the rhizome is not shaded by other plants.

I. sibirica is a beardless species with narrow leaves that resemble a grass. Blue Flowers with white or yellow patches on the falls, are carried on rigid stems in clusters. Rhizomes of beardless species prefer to be planted in the soil and benefit from mulching.

The Yellow Flag Iris, I. pseudacorus, is another beardless species. It thrives in the Dunsborough Water Garden, spreading along the banks by the pools. It is perfectly adapted to this marginal habitat and grows to 1.6m tall.”


Garden Tip
“Celebrate your war wounds but apply Savlon!”