Six on Saturday: Iris

Iris pseudata

A love for Iris began when I was still a kid in elementary school. A retired friend of my parents bred new varieties of German bearded Iris. One year he offered some of his discarded plants to my dad. Mom and Dad both loved gardening and flowers and readily accepted. The day that Dad went to visit and pick up the Iris, he came home with several grocery bags filled with muddy Iris rhizomes.

We all felt a little overwhelmed. What to do with so many new Iris? We had a large, sunny back yard. There were no fences to show where our yard stopped and the neighbors’ yards began, and very few trees. So Dad began digging long narrow beds for the Iris along the edges of the back yard, and he and Mom planted them all according the instructions he’d been given.

That next spring, as the Iris began to bloom, we were amazed by the vibrant colors and pure fragrance of these special iris. We’d never seen any others like these. Smelling the Iris was a bit like eating gourmet jelly beans, because each one had a very vivid, strong fragrance. There must have been more than 100 Iris plants in bloom that spring.

My parents dug and moved some of their Iris every time they moved after that and so Iris have been part of their garden and our lives ever since. I’ve always planted Iris around my homes, and have been fascinated by how many different types of Iris there are. I’ve expanded beyond the hybrid German bearded Iris they grew, to experiment with other species, too.

Iris bloom once a year, for a few weeks, and then either go dormant, or grow leaves only, for the remainder of the year. There are some varieties of ‘re-blooming’ hybrid German bearded Iris that may have a second season of bloom in the fall, if all of the conditions have been just right over the summer. I’ve had Iris re-bloom in November and December, which is always a beautiful and poignant surprise.

But each species or type of Iris blooms in its own particular time-slot during the unfolding of spring. Knowing this rhythm allows a gardener to plant for a sequence of bloom beginning in February or early March, depending on how severe winter may be, through June.

The last of our yellow flag Iris to bloom this year

Iris that grow from bulbs, like Iris reticulata and Iris histriodes open the season, soon followed by Iris bucharica and the hybrid ‘Dutch’ Iris. All of these are planted in the fall for bloom the following year. They should perennialize, but our hot, wet summers often cause their bulbs to rot. They prefer drier soil and more temperate summer temperatures. Most are originally from the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.

Our German hybrid Iris, which grow from rhizomes, usually begin blooming by mid-April. Around the same time, we enjoy native Iris cristata, which grows in ever expanding clumps and makes a beautiful ground cover in part shade, and the elegant Japanese roof Iris tectorum. Roof Iris have traditionally grown on thatched roofs in parts of Asia, but they also grow well in a raised bed.

There are additional species of native Iris, Iris virginica and Iris versicolor, which begin to bloom in May. They are tall and resemble Siberian Iris, which also bloom in May. These don’t have strong fragrance, but have exquisite form and pure color. There is a hybrid of I. virginica and I. versicolor known as Iris x robusta, which is very hardy and beautiful. It often has purple at the base of each leaf.

Our tall native Iris are often called ‘Blue Flag Iris,’ and prefer growing in moist soil, along ponds and streams. The European ‘Yellow Flag’ Iris pseudacorus and the Asian Iris ensata are also known as wetlands Iris. Yellow Flag Iris were brought to North America early on with immigrants, but have now been declared an invasive species.

Many of these tall Iris with grass-like leaves spread on their rhizomes to form ever expanding clumps, and also spread easily by seed. Each flower produces a fat fruit that bursts with seeds later in the season. Yellow flag Iris is so beautiful that it is hard to give it up as an invasive plant. I grow it, but dead-head the flowers before they set seed and keep the plant contained to prevent spread into the wild.

The newest Iris hybrid is the Iris pseudata, which is a sterile hybrid of I. pseudacorus and the Japanese Iris ensata. The pure yellow colors of the yellow flag Iris are combined with the grace and form of the Japanese Iris. These are absolutely stunning. I ordered a few plants to try in 2019. I potted them at first, and then planted them in several different situation to observe their habit.

Iris pseudata

These are tall Iris, to around 5′, taller when they have consistently moist soil and plenty of room. They are vigorous and produce many flowers over several weeks. I like them so much that I just ordered five more plants this week from Ensata Gardens, whose owners are also busy breeding new selections of Iris pseudata.

They began blooming as the Iris x robusta and I. versicolor were finishing, and slightly before the Iris ensata. I expect to have iris blooming for at least another week to ten days, and the Japanese Iris will finish the season. Another North American Iris, the Louisiana Iris, also blooms in late May or June. I haven’t acquired those but they often have gorgeous red flowers.

All rhizomatous Iris are heavy feeders and want space to expand. Most benefit from thinning after a few years. Fertilizers should be balanced to support blooming but not be high in nitrogen, which may make them produce leaves at the expense of flowers. Most perform well in full sun, but many can also tolerate partial shade. Iris cristata needs part shade and moist soil and can be grown under deciduous trees.

Iris ensata

The main problem I have in growing Iris is with other plants crowding and shading them after they bloom. Because their season is so short, I often plant in combination with summer blooming plants. That can create problems, especially for the German bearded Iris who want light and air to expand all summer. I’ve vowed to do a better job with them this summer in hopes for more blooms next spring.

Iris are named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow for their clear, pure color. They herald the beginning of spring and summer each year, and have been grown for thousands of years in cultures around the world for their exquisite beauty. If you only try one new plant this year, let it be a new Iris. It will become a treasured feature in your garden.

Iris pseudata with Verbena bonariensis at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden
With appreciation to The Propagator, who hosts Six on Saturday each week.

You might enjoy my new series of posts, Plants I Love That Deer Ignore.

24 comments

  1. Thanks for the story – I love knowing more about how various plants came into people’s lives! I used to garden at a community garden in Seattle that had about 20 different bearded iris. Spring was a parade of color. They were unbothered by slugs and so showy! Love iris, but no good place for them in my current garden. I have to enjoy the ones a coworker brings in. right now there are deep purple siberian iris growing on campus which I also love. The leaves are more grass like and attractive after the main show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Siberians are actually some of my favorites. I love their colors, and you get such an abundance of flowers! The Pacific Northwest seems to be the best area in the country for gardening. I love to visit community gardens when I visit my daughter in Oregon. Always something beautiful to enjoy!

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      • In garden magazines, when the landscape is particularly lush and the plants look healthy and hydrated, it is nearly always a Washington state garden. But there is the maritime climate, and frequent storms off of the Pacific to live with. No wonder coffee shops are so popular!

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      • I tried to wean myself of coffee – went over a year without a cup…then moved to Seattle. I am a horrible addict. Not proud, but it has happened more than once that I missed my PM dose and had to get up at 3 am and make myself a cup to deal with the withdrawal headache! Sad, but I guess there are worse addictions.

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      • Coffee has so many health benefits, and keeps us productive. I drink a lot, but have never had to get up to make it in the wee early hours. We have to ‘pick our poison’ and then make the most of it. West Coast coffee is so much better than what we can buy back east. I always buy as many bags from local sources as will fit in my suitcase to bring home.

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    • Iris pallida grow around the historic areas in Williamsburg. A friend gave me a few clumps soon after we moved here, and I transplanted some to the Iris border I work at the botanical garden. They are such a charming species of Iris. I was fooling around with plants at 4 and 5 years old, too. I remember pinching some grass seed from a bag in my dad’s workshop and sowing it in glass jars with a little soil in the bottom. I’ve always loved watching things grow.

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      • Iris pallida is a historical species because of its culinary applications. I suspect that my great grandmother grew it for the starch that thickened gravy and such, rather than for the bloom.

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      • I do not know because I did not figure out what it was until after she had passed away. I had considered it to be a bearded iris, which was grown for bloom. I did not consider that everything in her garden was utilitarian to at least some degree. I should have asked my grandmother, since she would have remembered.

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      • https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/iris-pallida/ Orris root powder is made from dried rhizomes. I wondered if she made her own? I have the variegated variety at the garden in addition to the solid leaved variety, but they haven’t done as well as I’d like them too. I just learned from the article above that they prefer dry soil, and they are planted at the wetter end of the bed. Looks like I need to move them to better location.

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      • My great grandmother’s garden was in southeastern Oklahoma. The Iris pallida seemed to grow in a corner of where fruit trees grew, so did not likely get much water. From there, they came to my grandmother’s garden in Santa Clara, but did not perform quite as well. They grew nicely, but bloom was not so prolific. Although Santa Clara does not get rain through summer, the garden was irrigated, and the soil was dense. The same Iris pallida performed better in my mother’s garden, where they got less water in coarser soil. My sister got some, but is not interested in gardening, so gave them to my niece, who now grows them in an even warmer and drier climate on rocky soil near Hollister. Goodness, that is five generations later. Perhaps her daughter will grow them also. If they were not originally historical, they are now.

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      • You really have a great collection of heirloom family plants! It sounds like you had dedicated gardeners on both sides of your family. That is very, very special and rare these days. I love the rhubarb I find growing in gardens on the Oregon coast, where they get as large as small trees. It is such a beautiful sculptural plant.

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  2. Hello WG,
    Lovely post and it inspired me to look into trying to cross pollinate our native pseudocarus, with a vigorous white form of ensata, which Fiona was asked to dig out from a local garden pind a few years back. She chucked into one of our ponds and it’s now doing so well, it inspires me to plant some more – although most folk seem to suggest they won’t do well actually in a pond – which is where this one is. But aren’t the flowers structures weird? I could find the anther/stamen, but really wasn’t sure where the stigma/style was. I might have to leave it up to the bees. Anyway your post has set me off on a water Iris journey of discovery, so thank you!
    Best wishes
    Julian

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please keep me posted and let me know how your cross pollination works out. The first I. ensata I ever encountered were growing in the pond of a ‘Japanese garden’ in a city park in Richmond Virginia. The park had once been a beautifully landscaped estate. The Iris were growing in the edge of the pond and were stunning. How lucky you were that Fiona was asked to dig the white ensatas out and could bring them home to a spot where they can thrive. The guys who run the nursery I linked to in the post are hybridizing these two species and would likely give you a few tips. They are very nice and easy to chat with. Thank you for your kind words on the post. I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed it and are inspired to doing something fun with your Iris. Stay well, WG

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      • Thanks WG,
        I followed up on your link to the ensata nursery – it looks amazing, and I also found some of the Japanese park images, where the dispays en masse look extraordinary. I’m even tempted to buy the book on Japanese Iris they mention…
        Sadly there don’t seem to be many UK nurseries offering much of a choice of varieties as plants. (don’t know why) so maybe growing from seed would be the best way? But, yes, I was sceptical about the chunks of Iris Fiona returned with all those years (9)? ago, and hurled into the pond, away from the sheep’s incisors. But now we wish we’d got going on them years ago. Such is gardening!! Personally I think the visual effect amongst other native water/pond plants looks stunning and better than the effects that water lilies might create.
        Thanks again,
        Julian

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