For the Love of Iris

Iris ‘Stairway to Heaven’

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I fell in love with Iris as a child.  My parents accepted a gift of Iris rhizomes from a retired friend, who happened to hybridize and grow German bearded Iris.  Dad came home one summer evening with his trunk loaded with paper grocery bags, each containing the mud caked rhizomes his friend had dug and discarded from his working garden.  He needed to repurpose the  space for his new seedlings.

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I’ve been searching for those intensely colored and perfumed Iris cultivars I remember from childhood. This is one of the closest I’ve found.  Iris ‘Medici Prince’ available from Brecks.com

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My mother looked at the sheer volume of gifted plants. A conversation followed about what to do with them all.  And then, Dad started digging.  He dug long borders in our sunny Danville, Virginia back yard.  Full sun and good loam were just what those Iris needed.

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The first spring after that, we were all speechless at the absolute beauty of them.  And the fragrance!  I don’t know whether my parents’ friend was selecting for fragrance, but these were the most fragrant flowers my young nose had ever discovered.

The colors of these special Iris ranged from white to intense reds and nearly black shades of purple.  They bloomed orange and pink and many shades of blue.  I was smitten, and have loved Iris since the day these Iris first bloomed in our back yard.

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When we moved, a few years later, we labeled the Iris by color while they were in bloom so we could dig some of each variety.  Back into grocery bags, we carried this legacy to our new home.  The new place had a shadier yard, and yet we set to work digging a new Iris bed, even while still unpacking boxes and settling into the house.

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I. ‘Echo Location’

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That began a new ritual around our family’s moving.  Each time after, we would try to dig and move as many Iris as we could.  As each of us left home, and our parents aged, that became a little more challenging with each move.

Even though I dug divisions for each of my gardens over the years, we still lost many of the cultivars along the way.

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But I never lost my enthusiasm for growing Iris.  And when I learned about re-blooming German bearded Iris a few years back, I began collecting and digging new beds for Iris in sunny spots in our Forest Garden.  I bought several varieties from local breeder Mike Lockatelle, and have ordered others from online catalogs.  Now, it is as common for us to enjoy Iris in bloom in November or December as it is to enjoy them in May.

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‘Rosalie Figge’ remains my favorite of our re-blooming Iris.

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We now grow many types of Iris, ranging from the earliest winter blooming cultivars which grow only a few inches tall, to our beautiful Bearded Iris which may grow to 4′ if they are happy.  We plant a few more each year.  There is a shallow pool filled with bright yellow flag Iris in our front yard, inherited with the garden.

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A master gardener friend gave me divisions of an antique variety of bearded Iris grown in Colonial Williamsburg, and all over this area, from her own garden.  Other friends have also given us beautiful gifts of Iris over the years, and each remains special to me.  The blooming Iris remind me of friendships and loved ones; other times and places in my life.

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The ‘Williamsburg Iris’ is an antique variety found growing around Colonial Williamsburg, and in private gardens throughout our area.  Ours were a gift from a Williamsburg Master Gardener friend.

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Iris can be grown successfully and enjoyed even if you have deer grazing in your garden.  Deer will not bother them.  This is one of the reasons why we find Iris to be a good investment.  They grow quickly, and can be easily divided and spread around the garden.  They pay amazing dividends as they get better and better each year.

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Iris can be easy to grow, if you can give them hot, sunny space to spread. They are heavy feeders and perform best when grown in rich soil and are fed once or twice a year.  But without sun and space, many varieties will just fizzle out. Make sure bearded Iris get at least six hours of direct sun; more if possible.

Iris want soil that drains after a rain.  Most established Iris can tolerate fairly dry soil after they bloom, which makes them a good selection for hot climates, like ours.  Japanese Iris and Louisiana Iris species require moist soil year round, and are happy growing in standing water.

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Winter blooming Iris histrioides in January

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Sometimes, their foliage will die back; but the roots remain alive and ready to grow new leaves when conditions improve.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find these beautiful miniature Iris growing this spring.

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Iris cristata ‘Vein Mountain’ is available from Plantdelights.com. This is a North American native Crested Woodland Iris.

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I though we had lost them during last summer’s drought, when they disappeared.  I’m still waiting for our Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ to reappear, which struggled last summer, too.

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Dutch Iris, always fun to cut for a vase, grow each spring and then, like so many other bulbs, die back.  They come in an amazing array of colors and can be ordered for pennies a bulb.

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Dutch Iris can be planted alongside bearded Iris to extend the season.

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Showy Louisiana Iris don’t have a place in our garden.  They grow best with their roots always wet, usually at the edge of a pond.  I admire them, but don’t have the right conditions to grow them.  But I am always happy to grab a shovel and make a spot for more bearded Iris. 

I’ve been moving Iris around my parents’ garden, the last few years, to bring shaded plants out into the sun.  I hope to salvage and increase what is left of their collection. We are enjoying the fruits of that effort this week, as they have gorgeous Iris blooming here and there around their home.

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These yellow flag Iris grow wild along marshes and creeks in our area, as well as in our garden. They go on year after year with minimal care and maximum beauty.

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We discussed plans for a new Iris bed when I was there last weekend.  While I’m moving them, I plan to cull a few divisions for myself, too.  And, I will take them a few roots from our garden, too.

Sharing is one of the nicest things about growing Iris.  No matter how many roots you give away, more will grow.  Each division of rhizome needs at least one leaf and root.  Plant the division in amended soil, with the top of the rhizome visible.

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Siberian Iris

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Cover all roots well with good earth, and mulch lightly around the newly planted roots, without covering the exposed rhizome.  Water the plant in, and then keep the soil moist until new growth appears.  I feed our Iris Espoma Rose Tone each spring when I feed the roses.  A light application of dolomitic lime or Epsom salts makes for stronger, faster growth.

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This Iris, ‘Secret Rites,’ was new to the garden last year.

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Once each flower blooms and collapses, gently cut it away from the main stem.  A single stem may carry 5 or 6 buds, each opening at a slightly different time.

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I. ‘Immortality’

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Once all of the buds have finished, cut the stem back to its base.  Remove browned or withered leaves a few times each year, as needed.  With a minimal investment of effort, Iris give structure to the garden year round.

And when they bloom, oh, the fragrance and color they give…..

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

7 responses to “For the Love of Iris

  1. Coincidence ? I was at the church last night and there is a big garden of these flowers. Now I know what the are.

  2. Wonderfully inspiring post – makes me want to get a bunch of new hybrids for my garden! I love the scent of iris, it always takes me back to childhood. My mother had a bed of the simple, old-fashioned yellow and rust bicolor iris. I loved the fuzzy, rust-colored ‘caterpillars’ on the falls. 😉

  3. Wow you’ve got a fantastic collection! What is the name of the iris second from the top? (Dark purple with plum and yellow that you mention as the closest to the old fragrant and vivid ones). I am loving that one.

    I grow a few (white, purple and white and Siberian), my friend gave me a bunch of different varieties and I planted them along the dry banks of our lake. Last summer, my husband did work on our dam and the lake rose – killing my iris’s! I was just sick, especially since I learned my friend had gotten rid of hers. I dug up and tried to salvage what I could, I’m waiting to see what has made it. My whites – which are very fragrant – have just bloomed here in my southern Indiana garden.

    What grower do you use (online/mail order)? Thank you for sharing these beautiful flowers!

    • Thank you, Jamie 😉 I have been searching for the name of that Iris in the second photo. Going back to the Brecks.com site, I believe it is I. ‘Medici Prince.’ I have ordered a number of re-blooming Iris from Brecks these last few years, though I’ve also bought 5 or so varieties from Mike Lockatelle at the W’burg Farmer’s Market. That deep red is one of my very favorites. It is vigorous and so covered with buds I’ve had to prop up the stems!
      Jaime, I’m just heartbroken to hear about your lost Iris. It seems that too little or too much water can mess up our best gardening plans. Whether flood or drought, there are many many frustrated gardeners across our country these days. I hope that you’ll find that some have survived and will collect more from gardening friends. The white and yellow were our first this year, too. Lots of ours have buds but haven’t yet bloomed. This time of year is great fun as we see the perennials come back one by one. If you want more unusual Iris, I would suggest you visit brentandbeckysbulbs.com/ for the winter blooming Iris, and absolutely check out plantdelights.com for their Iris selection. Thank you for visiting and for your Iris story. Best wishes, WG

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