Plant of the Week: Dwarf crested iris

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

During spring, change comes fast on the High Line as trees begin to leaf out and flowers appear throughout the park. One brief visitor is the Dwarf crested iris, Iris cristata, which brings a beautiful, subtle shade of purple to the park during a couple of weeks in early May. Only 3-6 inches in height and nearly stemless, these flowers are easy to miss, but well worth a look. One distinguishing characteristic is a gold crest on their lavender colored petals. The name "cristata" comes from the Latin 'crista' meaning "crested" or "with tassel-like tips,"which is another hint to identify this species.

Iris cristata can be found throughout the United States, primarily on the southern East Coast from Maryland to Georgia, but also ranging as far west as Missouri and Oklahoma. Because it can tolerate cold temperatures (down to USDA climate zone 3), it's an excellent fit for areas farther north, including the High Line-- New York City is considered zone 6. In the wild, you'd often find them in a partly shady woodland edge, and that's exactly where they are located on the High Line as well. (Look for them under the Standard Hotel.)

Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

As you might expect, the Dwarf crested iris is a member of the Iridaceae family, which includes nearly 300 other species of Iris. Like all irises, Iris cristata is a perennial monocot which spreads through underground rhizomes. Due to this spreading characteristic, it is ideal for forming ground cover, which is how it is currently being used in the park. These species are distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere in temperate areas. Home gardeners are fond of irises due to their showy flowers and relatively easy care. Fun fact: The name Iris was derived from the Greek goddess of rainbows.


Iris cristata prefers partial shade but also requires several hours of direct sunlight—it could be an excellent addition to a rock garden. Be on the lookout for slugs and snails which might try to feast on your plants!


Washington Grasslands & Woodland Edge

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