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There’s a Snake in the Gardens

There’s a Snake in the Gardens

Wed, February 24, 2021 by Lucy Contreras, Assistant Manager of Plant Collections | in Botanical Gardens

Before you run screaming into the night, or perhaps on the contrary, dive head first into a patch of mondo grass to get a look - the snake we’re referring to isn’t the same slithering one that probably came to mind. In fact, the snake I’m referencing is snake’s head iris - a subtle but unique plant in the Upper Right Wing.

Iris tuberosa flower

Lynette Stark, one of our horticulture volunteers, spotted something unusual while working in the gardens. Upon closer inspection, she realized it was a snake’s head iris. Thanks to Lynette’s keen observation, we were excited to not only get this gem into our database and have an impromptu photo session with it, but also, to share it with you!

To start, this is a plant that, like so many I’ve come across, has an identity crisis. It is presently known as Iris tuberosa but is synonymous with, or has otherwise been known as, Hermodactylus tuberosus and Iris hermodactylus. When I see things like this, I ask myself, "Can things ever be easy?" No, the answer is pretty much always a resounding no.

Regardless of name confusion, its present name of Iris tuberosa offers us a helpful hint of what we may expect to find. It grows from a tuber, or has a structure that is bulb-like below the ground. Just like we mentioned in a past blog, plant names can be quite revealing!

Iris tuberosa tuber

As for the common name, I think it’s fairly easy to put together how that came to pass. The short flower of less than a foot tall resembles a snake’s head. Some even get so specific they say it looks like a snake with its mouth open! The flower has a faint, sweet scent to it. Unlike a real snake, I do recommend getting up close and personal to experience it!

Iris tuberosa flower

This serpentine plant is alluring in its obscurity. However, the one downside to growing this as an ornamental plant is its foliage. While the flower appears regal and enticing, the foliage flops over in a way that kids these days would best describe as a “hot mess."

Iris tuberosa foliage

I’m usually here to cheer on plants for all of their quirks, but I gotta say, I can’t find it in me to give a good “Rah-rah!” to this foliage. It’s messy, it droops - it’s just not that appealing! However, it is something that makes it unique.

Iris tuberosa angled leaf

Unlike foliage from other plants, that may be best described as “two dimensional,” this foliage is almost cube or square shaped. This is something you may hear of or experience on different plant stems, but I’ve seen very few, if any plants, that have square foliage! While not the most exciting part of the plant, it is certainly sticking with the unique factor we’ve been seeing!

Iris tuberosa flower

Like a real snake, snake’s head iris can easily blend in with its surroundings. On your next trip to Brookgreen, keep an eye out for unique and obscure plants, like Iris tuberosa. So many gems are hidden in plain sight throughout the gardens, but it can be easy to walk right past them. Part of what makes a trip to Brookgreen Gardens so amazing is being able to see something you’ve never seen before!

See you in the gardens!

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1931 Brookgreen Drive

Murrells Inlet, SC 29576

Off US Highway 17 Bypass, between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island