Iris Revealed

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

from Loose Dirt newsletter

Talk about comeuppance.  I pride myself on being a garden generalist, and here goes my favorite editor, asking for specifics.  I probably spend half my working life picking up odd facts about the thousand aspects of horticulture I'm interested in, and she wants one plant family detailed.  Dig deep with me, readers; it's Iris Time.

From spring into summer, a wide assortment of Iris bloom across the deep south.  All would rather be planted during the fall and winter, but all are more available in the trade from spring to summer.  No problem, really, since once you meet their basic needs, all these iris will thrive in our world.  Some like it damp, others like it dry, so you can plant congenial groups in each environment and get flowers throughout bloomtime.  My favorite companion plants to grow with iris includ yarrow, salvias, and shrug roses.

Sunny side up, Please
Take a sunny, well-drained garden bed about ten feet long and four feet wide.  Amend with a soil conditioner like finely ground pine bark, but stay away from water-retaining organics like gin trash or peat moss.  Dust lightly with garden lime and till the bed well.  Raise the bed and rake it well; remove all weeds.  Resting together in this bed will be the sunlovers.  That means half a day, at least, of full sun.
Let Bearded Iris form two flanks by height:  Leda's Lover(white) and Midnight Hour (purple) will reach 3 feet tall.  Medians average 20" : Red Zinger, Pink Bubbles, and Marmalade Skies may sound like fancy drinks, but they're reliable Beardeds for the front of the bed.  Don't mulch the rhizomes; let them bake to best avoid crown rot and iris borers.
Next a clump of Orris (I. Pallida) goes in at one corner of this dry side bed.  Tho' their flowers don't rival for looks, they're lilac and fragrant.  For added color, their neat leaves may be green, grean and white, or green and yellow.
For flowers on into summer, mark a front corner with a clump of African Iris (Dietes).  White with purple and yellow marking, their blooms last only one day.

Confusing Iris geography
Damp can be deadly to lots of plants, but not to these globe-trotting Iris.  Louisianas, Siberians, Japanese, and Rabbitears (I. Lavevigata) appreciate sunny sites (ideally with shade on summer's late afternoons) where the soil rich in organic matter never dries out completely.
New growth at midwinter reveals the Louisianas, or swamp iris, or LA's. Flat flowers in a range of colors including hard sought reds and coppers.  Plant rhizomes an inch deep in beds or in pots submerged in water gardens.  If leaves get rusty, pick off and discard.

Siberian iris usually flower after the swamps and before the Japanese, so a damp bed with just these three can cover the iris season quite nicely.  Siberians reach a neat two feet tall and bloom in shades from blue through purple to white.  In case you wondered, their flower stems are hollow.  Leaves turn brown with the first frost, but growth resumes in early spring.  Suggested varieties include Pirouette, Persimmon, Pink Haze, and Flight of Butterflies.  Resist moving these around or lose flowering for years.
Seen in more gardens ever year, Japanese iris (I. Ensata) have 3 or 4 big flowers on plants two or three feet tall.  Leaves stand proudly upright and white, blue, or violet flowers are often marked with contrasting colors.
The nongeographic iris, Rabbitear iris, is a parent of the Japanese iris hybrids.  Yse this two foot tall, blue purple, neat grower where damp soils have been limed.

Natives and Escapees
My personal, all time favorite is Copper iris (I. fulva) one parent of the great group of LA's.  Red to yellow with delightful droopy flowers atop three foot plants bloom brightly in the wettest spots.  Southern-blue Flag Iris (I. virginica) grows well with coppers, its stiffer flowers marked with yellow patches.
Plant a clump of yellow or white Flag Iris (I. pseudacorus) once and your grandchildren will have them.  To five feet tall, they will dominate sunny sites with sword shaped leaves.  They will also tolerate damp conditions as evidenced by their naturalization into Louisiana swamps.
You'll recognize the Germans (I. Germanica) with their pointy tops and tiny yellow 'soul spots' on turned-down petals.  They persist at old homesites where the damp environment welcomes them.
My dream scene includes a big pond where flags grow in a ring around the water with germans and souther blues on the slope and coppers at pondside.  Scatter my ashes right there, friends.

The Tiny Trio
Less than a foot tall and less well known, add these three to your list: cristata, pumila, and tectorum.  Crested Iris (I. cristata) tops at six inches tall, blooms blue lavendar with yellow, and loves damp shade. Pumila takes bearded iris down to eight inches tall with fowers yellow or lilac.  Watch out for borers in these.  Roof iris (I. Tectorum) grows to one foot in poor, damp soils. The prettiest stand I've seen covered the dry shade between big old azaleas under tall pine shade.

Note to Editor:  Thanks for asking about Iris.  Turns out she's my favorite flower. But I know more, about drought tolerant spurias and pacific coast hybrids, giant blue and zig zag stemmed iris, and those bulbs called dutch iris...

Go back to Flowering Annuals, Perennials & Bulbs

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