One of Florences most delightful and exclusive gardens is tucked away in a corner of Piazzale Michelangelo. Every day, droves of tour buses converge on the vast terrace overlooking the city to let their occupants enjoy the breathtaking view of the rooftops, spires and domes of the city of flowers below. However, very few visitors enjoy the privilege of seeing the true Florentine lily flowering almost literally under their feet. The Iris Garden of Florence, in fact, is only open to the public for less than a month each year, at the time of its maximum splendour, but its a treat not to be missed. Beds of the worlds most prized varieties of irises, in all the colours of the rainbow, stretch in gently declining rows under the silvery branches of olive trees, with the blue hills of Fiesole forming a distant backdrop.

The Iris Garden was created in 1954 by Flaminia Specht, a known iris grower and hybridiser, and Piero Bargellini, who was the councillor for arts and gardens of Florence at the time. Bargellini set aside land occupied by the so-called Farm of the Ramparts on the east side of Piazzale Michelangelo to house the garden, which was subsequently designed by the architect G. Zetti. Specht and her friend, Nita Stross Radicati, fellow member of the Italian friends of flowers society, immediately set up the Florence Prize, an international competition for the worlds most beautiful iris. The first edition was held in 1957.

The competition was a success from the word go, attracting hybridisers from all over the world, many of whom donated the participating rhizomes to the garden. Many growers also contributed examples of older varieties of particular interest. The most important donation came from the Presby Memorial Garden of Montclair in New Jersey, in the United States, which gifted a collection of 150 plants. In 1967, a little lake was created at the bottom of the garden so that Japanese and Louisiana irises could be planted in the surrounding marshy land, while in 1984 part of the land was set aside to cultivate Italian wild irises.

The iris, in fact, has a very special meaning for Florence. The stylised red flower that appears on the city flag is not a lily, as is commonly believed, but an iris. The Iris Florentina once grew in abundance in the Arno valley but has now, unfortunately, become quite rare. This emblem was also stamped on the silver Florentine coins and the golden fiorino of the mediaeval period.

Appropriately, the first prize in the annual competition is a reproduction of a golden fiorino, offered by the Florentine tourist association. In addition, Florence city council gives a special award to the best red variety that most closely resembles the heraldic fleur-de-lys on the city banner. Last years winner was Italian hybridiser Luigi Mostosi, with his creation Venetian Red, while growers Anna and David Cadd from the United States scooped up both first and second place in the Florence Prize, with Frosted Fantasy and Midnight Mink.

These irises have all been in the garden for quite some time. In fact, the rhizomes are sent to the garden three years in advance, to give them time to develop, acclimatise and reach their maximum glory. Visitors to the garden will therefore be able to see not only past and present winners, but also the hopefuls of three years time.

This year, which marks the 49th edition of the competition, a total of 138 varieties from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United States have been entered and an international panel of five judges will have the hard task of choosing from among them.

The highlight of the event is the prize-giving ceremony, which will be held on 14 May in the Salone deDugento in Palazzo Vecchio, and is open to the public.

The gardens are open for three weeks in May, when you will have the unique opportunity to admire 1,500 varieties of this splendid flower in full bloom. Afterwards, the gardens close their gates for another year.

The garden is in the east balcony of Piazzale Michelangelo

and can be reached by bus 13 from the train station.

30 April-20 May. 10.00-12.30 and 15.00-19.00.

For information contact Societ Italiana dellIris, tel. 055483112

(Tues, Thurs and Fri. 10.00-12.30, Wed 16.00-18.00).