Iris versicolor (Harlequin Blueflag)

Plant Info
Also known as: Blueflag Iris, Northern Blueflag
Family:Iridaceae (Iris)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; wet meadows, marshes, along shores
Bloom season:May - August
Plant height:1 to 3 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: OBL MW: OBL NCNE: OBL
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 3-petals

[photo of flower] Flowers are a typical iris shape, 3 to 4 inches across, blue to blue-violet, infrequently red-purple and rarely pale blue. The deeper colored edges of the 3 large, drooping petal-like sepals fade toward the base, with a pale yellowish to greenish spot in the throat and prominent blue-purple veins radiating from it. The upper lip of the sepal is shorter and shaped like a shoehorn, curving up. Sepals are 1½ to 2¾ inches long and to 1½ inches wide. The 3 petals are lance-oblong, and ½ to 2/3 the length of the sepals, drooping to spreading or erect in the center. There are 1 to a few flowers on a stalk.

Leaves: Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are mostly basal with 1 or 2 along the stem. The sword-like leaves are about 1 inch wide and 1 to 3 feet long, erect or arching out from the base, often purplish red at the base. Stem leaves rarely rise above the flowers. The flowering stems emerging from the base are smooth with a waxy surface (glaucous) and strong, remaining erect as the seed pods mature. Stems are 1 or 2 branched.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of fruit] The fruit is an oblong, 3 angled capsule around 1-1/3 to 2¼ inches long and about 1/3 as wide.


Minnesota has two native irises appropriately named "northern" and "southern" Blueflag with their respective continental ranges overlapping in the southern half of the state. Iris versicolor is the northern and predominant species from the Twin Cities up into Canada. Iris virginica similarily from the Twin Cities south to the Texas coast. While very similar there are several distinguishing characteristics, but there is overlap so look at several before making a determination. Iris versicolor is usually richly pigmented on the outer sepal edges, fading lighter towards the throat, the veins prominent but the throat a faded greenish yellow. Iris virginca is frequently lighter blue with less contrast between the darker colored sepals margins and throat, the veins less prominent, but with a sharply defined, school bus yellow spot in the throat. Also I. virginica's center petals are 2/3 to nearly as long as the sepals and the flower stalk weaker, often falling over while in flower. The petals on I versicolor are proportionately shorter, ½ to 2/3 the length of the sepals, the flower stalk firm and remaining upright at maturity. Stem leaves typically rise above the flowers on I. virginica and do not on I. versicolor. We would also note that many references (Gleason & Cronquist) note that the yellow spot on I. virginica is "hairy" while I. versicolor's is merely papillate (covered in minute, blunt hairs or protuberances). In our observations, both have very similar, dense, glassy papillate hairs that appear as a rough, solid surface, both to the naked eye and under a microscope. Neither species is what horticulturists would regard as hairy (i.e. a bearded iris).

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Savanna Portage State Park and in Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka and Lake counties.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Bill - Itassca county
on: 2010-01-25 16:22:35

We have the blue flag all around the small lake we have a cabin on. Sometimes they are so thick that the shore line is blue... We love the wild flowers that pop up on our 40 acres every year.

Posted by: Chris - Coon Rapids
on: 2010-07-02 16:03:45

Saw the Harlequin Blueflag last week while exploring in the Boundary waters (kawishiwi river). Very beautiful!

Posted by: Alison - St. Paul, MN
on: 2010-07-19 15:02:22

Blueflag iris can be found at Lilydale Regional park.

Posted by: Wendy - McGregor area
on: 2011-06-27 21:01:31

These are all over along highway 65 heading north into McGregor!

Posted by: Stan - North Branch Minnesota - Chain Lake ( South )
on: 2011-06-30 18:32:41

This plant came up on its own about 2 feet up from the 100 yr high water mark of 907.7 elevation. I have been here 7 years and this is the 1st time I have seen this Iris. I am curious how it got there. The soil here is very sandy. The shoreline was 50 feet from here last year. Extremely dry past 5 years. In 2004 The lake was 11 feet. By 2010 it was 5 fee deep. Jun 29 2010 at 10 feet. With heavy snow and rain It is up 5 feet from last year and almost back to normal elevation 907.7.

Posted by: Allan - Minneapolis
on: 2011-07-13 12:59:41

We have a few of these around Cedar Lake here in Minneapolis.

Posted by: Ruth - Cook County
on: 2011-07-25 17:23:17

These grow on the edge of small streams as they flow into Lake Superior, west of Hovland.

Posted by: Lou - Moose Lake, MN
on: 2012-06-05 13:56:20

I saw the first one bloom last weekend. Many more were deep in the forest, but had no blooms ready. This is a beautiful bright spot in the forest. I look forward to seeing a carpet of them soon.

Posted by: Sharon - Tower, Mn., Lake Vermilion
on: 2012-06-14 16:30:15

We have these beauties along the waters edge at our Lake Vermilion, Tower, Mn., cabin. It is now June 14, 2012, and they are just beginning to flower. I have no idea how they got here as this is extremely rugged terrain and not seen in any of our neighbor's yards shoreline.

Posted by: Joan - Ottertail County, outside of Dent
on: 2012-08-24 11:59:57

My husband and I were canoeing and saw the seed pods of this plant on Aug. 22, 2012 on the bank among the cattails on the Ottertail River (below Phelps Mill and before West Lost Lake). We saw them in bloom in July 2008 so we knew what the seed pods were. Our sightings tend to be sporatic as we don't get up to Minnesota as often as we'd like. (we live in Tn.)

Posted by: Steven - Princeton, MN
on: 2013-06-25 20:44:21

We live between Princeton and Zimmerman east of Hwy 169. We have about a 5 acre wetland on our property. Walked out there tonight with the dogs and these were scattered in areas throughout the wetland. Have not noticed them before and have lived here now for 10 yrs. Really a showy bloom!

Posted by: Bob - Prairie Island , Goodhue County
on: 2013-06-25 21:00:19

Growing along the banks of Sturgeon Lake (Mississippi River). Two large clumps with a pair of eagles hanging out in the tree above!

Posted by: Laurie - Deer River
on: 2013-08-31 21:47:34

I have I. versicolor growing in small patches in wet, low spots in my native pasture, as well as in wet ditches along the side of the road leading to my farm.

Posted by: Marian - White Bear Lake
on: 2015-04-25 13:04:34

The water level of White Bear Lake is way down and I suddenly have a wet land shoreline. I would like to plant Blue Flag Iris in this wet land. where can I purchase some living plants?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2015-04-25 19:36:22

Marian, see "where to buy native seeds and plants" that's on almost every page of the website. If those vendors don't have it they may know who does.

Posted by: Robert - marshland near Lake Minnetonka
on: 2015-06-10 15:06:48

Growing near the highwater level. Water level is about 1 1/2 feet low.

Posted by: Maxine - Thunder Lake northern Minnesota
on: 2015-06-15 13:11:09

I am curious if Danish, German, European settlers long ago brought bulbs of iris and other flowers with them when they settled Minnesota? Do you have any information, thank you in advance!

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2015-06-15 14:20:26

Maxine, everyone brought plants to the "new world", and they still do - it's now a big, money-making business.

Posted by: Marcia - Goodhue
on: 2015-06-20 23:31:01

They are blooming spectacularly now in the bog along our creek. One small group blooming under a clump of Redosier dogwood look almost pink.

Posted by: Craig - Paynesville MN
on: 2015-07-06 08:57:11

I saw a large number of these growing along the bank of Grove Lake This past weekend. They were intermingled with the cattails.

Posted by: Victor - Saint Paul, near Phalen Park
on: 2015-11-18 13:53:23

I have a rain garden that is frequently flooded these days, meaning that it works as it should. I just got some flag iris (versicolor) that I ordered. The soil in the rain garden is full of compost, so need I do anything more than just stick each seed into the soil about an eighth of an inch deep and wait for the plants to come up in the spring?

Posted by: Shauni Mulder - Red Lake Falls
on: 2019-06-16 19:50:50

Had one pop out of nowhere this rainy Mid-June, in my front yard, right next to my doorsteps near my ferns. Absolutely in love.

Posted by: Kathy Bruzer - Hillman, MN
on: 2019-06-17 11:57:56

Seen blooming today, 6/17/2019, near a swampy area off my driveway along Quest Road. Very pretty!

Posted by: Lisa - Cromwell (Carlton County)
on: 2021-06-06 17:00:44

My husband dug quite a large pond last spring and just today noticed blue iris are growing at water's edge. There are also some that have sprouted in several inches of water. Such a lovely surprise!

Posted by: Celeste Sigmund - Finland, MN
on: 2023-07-04 14:11:09

We have this flower growing on our property along our section of the Baptism River.

Posted by: Lisa - Dakota County
on: 2023-11-04 18:09:03

We have this flower in our rain garden. Should we cut it all the way back in the fall, removing all the the leaves? Thank you.

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2023-11-04 18:24:46

Lisa, there is no valid reason to cut this back in the fall. The leaves will wither away and add organic matter to the soil, just as it does in the wild.

Posted by: Brenda Brosvik - Staples MN Crow Wing River
on: 2024-02-02 11:06:20

We have 15 acres along the Crow Wing River,Wadena Cty.Staples,Mn. Can I transplant them to a sunny area so they bloom. Some never bloom because of it being so shaded. Now they are in a low wet land area. There are hundreds of them.

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2024-02-02 11:28:02

Brenda, the best time to transplant is when they're dormant. They should persist if there's adequate moisture.

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