In the Garden:
A planting of dwarf bearded irises and sweet woodruff create a May celebration in the garden.
Irises for Every Garden
When I was very young, irises were my favorite flower. In fact, one of my first garden memories is at 4 or 5 years of age, being fascinated with a tall bearded iris named 'Wabash'. This was also about the same time that I became aware of Iris cristata blooming in our woods along with other spring wildflowers. I made such a fuss at 18 that those same wild iris had to be in my prom corsage. Then I entered my 20s and became way too cool to give irises much more than a passing glance in the garden. Like, everybody had irises. Now, many years later, I have once more fallen in love with irises, what with their diversity and versatility, to say nothing of their seeming indestructibility.
Depending on the taxonomic authority, the genus Iris has between 125 and 300 species, with thousands of varieties. Iris are found growing naturally in a wide range of northern temperate zones, from swamps and lake edges to deserts and mountains. To most people, the iris is synonymous with the Tall Bearded irises, with their large flowers in a rainbow of colors and sword-like green leaves. These are gorgeous flowers, but their bloom time is fleeting (unless you grow the reblooming Tall Bearded irises). With a little Internet, catalog, book and garden exploration, you'll soon learn about the many other irises that can grace the garden, providing flowers at other times of the year.
I first look forward to the varieties of Iris reticulata and Iris danfordiae (dwarf bulbous irises) that bloom with the crocuses. Next come Miniature Dwarfs (8 inches or less), then the Standard Dwarfs (8 to 15 inches). These look much like their Tall Bearded cousins but in miniature. As they finish up in mid-spring, the Tall Bearded irises come into their own. In the official classification of irises, there are also Intermediate Bearded (16 to 27 inches tall), Border Bearded (small versions of Tall Bearded irises in the same height range and bloom size as the Intermediates), and Miniature Tall Bearded (16 to 27 inches tall, with smaller blooms than a Border Bearded).
Almost as well known in gardens as the Tall Bearded irises are the Siberians. These grow in clumps of 2 feet or more, with narrow, almost grasslike leaves. The flowers are 2 to 4 inches across and almost flat. They bloom just after the Tall Beardeds in shades of blue, purple, red-violet, yellow, white, brown, or orange.
Other main iris classifications include Aril, Spuria, Japanese, Louisiana, Pacific Coast Native, and Species, plus there are subclassifications. Obviously, your head can quickly spin over all these, but don't let that stop you from learning about them and trying some of them in your garden. Among the books on iris, consider Irises: A Gardener's Encyclopedia by Claire Austin (Timber Press, 2005, $49.95). This is a comprehensive encyclopedia that also includes advice on growing irises, information about breeding and propagation, and ideas for using them in various areas of the garden.
As mentioned, iris are native to many different locations, so naturally there would be iris for a variety of garden locations. For a sunny garden border, try any of the Bearded or Siberian irises, plus species like Iris tectorum and Iris setosa, and Spuria, Bulbous, and Juno irises. For light or partial shade, consider Pacific Coast and Siberian irises. For clay soil, try Bearded, Siberian, Japanese, and Spuria irises. In sandy soil Bearded, Pacific Coast, Bulbous, and Juno irises do best. For growing in permanently wet conditions,try Iris laevigata and Iris pseudacorus. For growing near the water line of a pond or stream, try Siberian and Louisiana irises, as well as Iris ensata and Iris versicolor.
On one hand, any plant planted in the wrong place will die. But how many of us have tossed some rhizomes of Tall Bearded iris in a container, thinking we'd plant them tomorrow, only to come back months later? Somehow, they often still grow when planted. And how numerous are old abandoned houses with irises still growing around them?
Still, think how irises will reward you if given at least a modicum of care. For basic cultural information for planting and growing iris, visit the website of the American Iris Society at http://www.irises.org/growing.htm. The website also has links to other iris sites that are helpful.
Spend some time exploring the vast world of irises. Check the Internet or your local paper for upcoming iris shows, where you'll find people eager to share their love of this beautiful group of flowers. Then, hopefully, more and more irises will find their way into your garden.
Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!