Sunday, May 13, 2012

Plant a rainbow

A friend in Seattle wants advice planting irises in her yard, and I thought I might pass along some ideas.

There are some 300 species of iris that grow all over the temperate world. While some irises grow from bulbs, most typically are rhizomes - actually the stem of the plant, growing underground, branching out and dividing as they grow. Since a broken-off piece of rhizome sends up growth for a new plant, this makes irises really easy to propagate and share.

Deep violet selection Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris
Irises have a curiously shaped flower, consisting of three sepals which spread horizontally or droop down - called "falls" - and three petals that stand upright, sometimes called "standards." The falls of some iris species have a little tuft of fuzz where they come together at the stem, and these are called "beards."  Gardeners talk of "bearded" or "beardless" irises.

Bearded irises, the tall showy magnificent irises of catalogs, are bred from Iris germanica and other European species. They've been bred to exhibit a wide variety of color and showy characteristics, but these grand dames are pretty easy to grow. They like sun, they're not picky about soil, and they multiply quickly. Because they grow near the surface of the soil, they're easy to plant. Their broad, grey-green blade-like leaves fan out from the rhizome, and although the blooming season is short, the leaves provide bold shapes to provide garden contrast all year round.

 One of my favorite bearded irises is Iris pallida 'variegata', which combines sweet scented flowers with cream-striped foliage. The decorative symbol fleur de lis may have been inspired by this European iris species.

Unknown iris (I. fulva?) in foreground, red bearded in back - my garden
Beardless iris include the tough and hardy Siberian iris, which also grow well in my friend's Pacific Northwest region, and the water-loving Japanese iris. I inherited this brown and gold beardless iris from my home's previous owner - it may be Iris fulva.

All of these European and Asian beauties are fine, but what about trying our native American irises?

Iris douglasiana on the Theodore Payne Foundation garden tour
 Living in the Pacific Northwest, my friend is lucky because she can easily grow some of the most charming irises I know, our west coast native irises and the hybrids gardeners have bred from them.  Called Pacific Coast Hybrid Irises, these little woodland plants are perfect for our western climate, and super easy to grow.

Red-violet PCH iris
 Hybrids of Washington, Oregon and Californian native species I. douglasiana, I. tenax, I. bractea and others, they grow in dry shade and bloom in late spring. There's a wide variety of colors, ranging from white to yellow, to blue, purple and even red.

Colors can be surprisingly varied - even nuanced, you might say, with subtle two-toned shadings of khaki, buff, lavender, plum and grey that would suit the taste of the most sophisticated designer.

The flower's form can be delicate and dancing, or beruffled and showy.

Violet-and-white PCH iris in my garden
My Seattle friend should have no trouble finding them in local nurseries. Southern Californians can find them at the Theodore Payne Foundation  nursery in Sunland, CA. They also do well shipped mail order from nurseries like Forestfarm, Wildwood Gardens, and Aitken's Salmon Creek Garden.

Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris "Canyon Snow"
If you have a friend whose iris you admire, you can wheedle a division - it's easy enough to chop off a hunk of rhizome and replant. Or you can grow them from seed - they sprout readily, and it takes only a year or two for new flowers.

The word "iridescence" is derived from the word for iris - and the petals of the iris shimmer in the sunlight with a delicate iridescence.

In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris is the personification of the rainbow, and what better name to give this species of flowers, with their wide range of color?


smalltownme said...

They are beautiful.

Deborah said...

I do love irises. Ours are tall, stalky bearded irises in white, peach, dark purple and lavender. Great xeriscape plant as they require very little water and don't need a lot of fussing. I only wish they bloomed longer.

There is also a house not far from here where they planted loads of irises to use as erosion control (their front yard is a steep hill). So pretty and utilitarian, too!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

They are so cool.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I'd like one of each, please! My garden is currently devoid of iris.
Are you coming up to WA anytime soon?

young-eclectic-encounters said...

Wonderful post- I came here from I live in Griffin Ga the Iris city and we have Irises that bloom all year round- we even had some in bloom last dec- Loved all the colors and info on your post

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I love this post! I would also suggest that if people want a real treat, try visiting an iris farm. So a Van Gogh painting in real life.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Simply gorgeous!