Category Archives: gardens with wildlife

living around wildlife

Winter Iris

In the first week of February, I cycled past this lovely front yard. Basking in the winter sunshine are some very early flowers. I know about snowdrops blooming in January & snow crocus flowering by Valentine’s Day… but iris? These aren’t the dwarf iris reticulata we have in our garden. These are different.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

These are Iris unguicularis… aka Algerian iris or winter iris. This evergreen is native to dry Mediterranean regions. We have a very similar climate in the Pacific Northwest, so it can grow here, too. It might be set back by the occasional snowstorm, but it pulls through.

Blossoms start opening as early as November & continue until spring. An unusual feature is that the flowers nestle, protected, near the base of the leaves. Look closely: in this yard, the gardener trims the leaves to the same height the flowers bloom at. Better to see the blooms.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Back in January (2016), at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, I saw Iris unguicularis with full leaf. The flowers bloom inside the clump, almost hidden. To my mind, the clump looks a little messy.

It’s a tough call – trim back the leaves or not? Letting them grow natural is not as showy but probably better for overwintering insects. I reckon I can put up with messy if it means the beneficials are snug & warm, and I’m still seeing flowers in January.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Here’s the same clump 5 weeks later. The winter aconites are almost done. The Hellebores are blooming like mad. The narcissi are opening. And the winter iris is still blooming. 🙂

That’s enough to prove to me Algerian iris is a keeper. But there are even more reasons why I’m a fan:

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins
  • The flowers are fragrant.
  • It’s deer & rabbit resistant (probably because it’s poisonous).
  • It’s happy in part shade under deciduous trees – or the sunny base of evergreens.
  • It survives our summer drought.

Wouldn’t it make sense that every garden in Victoria would have some Algerian iris? I suppose most nurseries don’t carry it because most shoppers don’t show up in winter to purchase plants. By the time we show up in April & May, this iris looks inconspicuous amongst the jewels of spring.
My bad.
I want to find some anyway. It’s my new mission.

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Other January gems in the Pacific Northwest:

Winter’s Fragrant Sweetbox (Sarcococca)

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Climbing the stairs to a friend’s front door & ringing the bell, I wait. DP takes time answering. & I’m happy with that. There’s a sweet smell in the air. It is just delightful.

There aren’t any blooms to be seen. Most of DP’s garden has died to the ground for the winter. All, except an unassuming evergreen shrub & a couple of sword ferns.

It turns out this plain shrub is strategically planted beside the porch. There’s a clue in its name: sweetbox. The scent is lovely…
and once established, the shrub thrives in the dry shade of the house foundations. It’s happy here & it makes visitors happy, too.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Sarcococca
(easier read than said)
… has tiny winter blossoms that hide, protected, under arching branches. The flowers that dangle below the leaves are pretty but far less astonishing than their perfume. The fragrance lingers in the mild winter air.

This clever plant has both male & female flowers. Any wayward insect seeking shelter under the canopy has lucked out. There’s a feast included! No need to wander further to feed. They party in place & the flowers get pollinated. Later on, birds enjoy the cover and feast on the berries. Sweet box is not only clever– it’s also considerate of others.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Usually, fragrant plants are left alone by deer. Sarcococca is an unusual case. This specimen flourishes because deer steer clear of high traffic areas. In a quiet woodland setting, deer take time to enjoy a regular browse. The Sarcococca in my yard was nibbled until I caged it for protection.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

CH, from garden club, says she’s planted a sweetbox at each entrance to her home. She also grows a small variety in a pot in her shaded courtyard. When it begins to bloom in January, she brings the pot into the house to enjoy the heavenly perfume.
Smart gardener!

It’s not much to look at, but I understand why Sarcococca is honoured with the valuable garden real estate beside the front door. Right now, in the dreariest time of year, such a fragrant surprise is a gift.

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Other January gems in the Pacific Northwest:

Winter Blooming Hepatica

In a patch of January sunshine, bright violet flowers glow. They’re tiny– but in winter, every flower is precious. I’m stoked.

Hepatica, ica January bloom,common hepatica, liverleaf, liver leaf liverwort, hepatica nobilis var. obtusa, round-lobed hepatica, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

This is Hepatica. I got a pot of it from the Vancouver Island Rock & Alpine Garden Society meeting last January. I’m happy that it’s settled into its new home & is blooming so early. This winter has been fairly mild so far, but we did have snow for 3 days over Christmas. Tough little plant, eh? The leaves didn’t even die back.

These leaves are kind of unusual, too. Each leaf grows up from the crown of the plant & has 3 rounded lobes. They were mottled green last summer but are now changing to a more bronzy colour. Years ago someone decided they looked a bit like a human liver, so that’s why Hepatica is also called liver-leaf or liverwort. I think it’s prettier than that name implies.

Hepatica, common hepatica, liverleaf, liver leaf liverwort, hepatica nobilis var. obtusa, round-lobed hepatica, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

This little woodland gem grows in zone 4-9 across the northern hemisphere, so it can handle some pretty tough winters. It’s a native wildflower in Eastern Canada.

The flowers open wide in the sunshine then close as the cloud cover moves in or night falls. I reckon that’s a clever strategy for protecting itself until another day when the insects might be out again to help with pollination.

Some sources say Hepatica needs moisture, so I’ve kept it in a pot in the courtyard where I’m sure it’ll get summer water more often than our garden beds do. Other sources say it can be drought-tolerant, too. Here in Victoria, the summers are REALLY dry so I wonder if it can survive that much drought? (There’s certainly no lack of moisture through our Pacific Northwest winters.)

Hepatica, January bloom, common hepatica, liverleaf, liver leaf liverwort, hepatica nobilis var. obtusa, round-lobed hepatica, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Hepatica is listed as a handy ‘winter browse‘ & is not safe from deer. That’s just another reason to keep it in our courtyard.

I only have this one plant & I’m reticent to risk it. Hopefully, it’ll set seed. If I can get some new plants started, I might be able to encourage the babies to grow in a protected spot in our garden. Until then, it’ll stay in the pot where I know it’s happy.

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Other January gems in the Pacific Northwest: