The big, bearded German iris (Iris germanica) in my
backyard are going to need dividing this year. As it
is, each plant has a full compliment of muscular sword-shaped
leaves, out of which sprout sturdy stalks with bulging
buds that are almost ready to open. The show will be
tremendous this year, though I have had almost nothing
to do with its quality or quantity. My iris, which started
out as divisions from the established iris beds of a
friend’s mother, look after themselves. If they
are weeded every once in awhile, and mulched generously,
they require nothing else. Once I begin dividing them
and passing along the divisions, I have absolutely no
doubt that these iris will begin taking over the world.
That might be wonderful, as long as the world is ready
for a lot of peach-toned blossoms. Other colors also
lurk in my iris beds, but the peach-flowered plants
are clearly the uber-iris.
Even if my peach iris fail at world domination, iris
is everywhere. I was in Quebec recently, and the flowers
flew on high in the form of the fleur de lys that adorn
the Quebec provincial flag. Quebec’s fleur de lys
come from the symbols historically used by kings of
France, going back at least as far as the Middle Ages.
Many coats of arms, especially the spurious ones that
come from unscrupulous mail order vendors, have the
fleur de lys somewhere on them. It’s no wonder.
Iris, as represented by fleur de lys, are beautiful,
strong and impressive, all qualities that most of us
would like to ascribe to our families.
You may not know it, but you can have iris in your
house, even in the dead of winter. Orris root, made
from the powdered root of some European native iris,
is used as a fixative in aromatic compounds such as
potpourri. Its sweet, violet-like fragrance lasts and
lasts, a quality that has been appreciated for millennia,
particularly at times and in places where bad smells
threatened to overpower everything else.
Like computer experts, iris afficionados seem to speak
a language that the rest of us do not understand. The
upright petals of any iris flower are called the “standards”.
The petals that droop are referred to as the “falls”.
The “beard” that occurs on some species is
actually a network of fine hairs, located at the base
of each of the falls.
There are many species of iris in cultivation, but
all of them fall into one of two categories—those
that grow from fleshy roots or rhizomes, and those that
grow from bulbs. By using both types, you can have an
abundance of iris in the garden from very early spring
almost until summer.
In early spring, dwarf iris species such as Iris danfordiae
(Danford’s iris), Iris histrioides and Iris reticulata
(reticulated iris) pop up along with the late crocuses.
To my mind, the iris are even more magical than crocuses
because they are miniature, jewel-like versions of their
larger cousins. Last fall I planted Iris histrioides
‘Katherine Hodgkin’, which has yellow and
pale blue petals sprinkled with dark blue markings.
Then I forgot all about ’Katherine’, and was
pleasantly surprised when the shoots came up through
the mulch. I hope they like the neighborhood enough
to increase in the years to come. On the other side
of the yard, the Iris reticula that I planted two years
ago also returned. Anything labeled “reticulata”
has reflexed petals that curl back from the center of
the flower. In the case of these little iris, the reflexed
petals make it easier to see their colorful markings.
Right now, the Siberian iris, which grow from rhizomes,
are opening up ever so slightly ahead of the tall bearded
iris. The contrast between the two species is marked.
The German iris are bearded, while the Siberians are
clean-shaven. The German have robust stalks while the
Siberians sprout on slender stems. The Germans have
big gaudy blossoms, while the Siberians are more subtle.
Both types produce flowers in an array of colors, but
the Germans come in a wider array. There are hundreds,
if not thousands of named Iris germanica cultivars in
every shade except true red. Only daylilies seem to
be hybrized more often.
Iris ensata or Japanese iris are another favorite of
mine because of the flower form. Instead of having upright
standards and drooping falls, Japanese iris face the
sky, with their ruffled petals spread wide, giving the
blossom an almost flat appearance. Usually these vigorous
plants come in shades of purple and white.
Another mid to late (depending on where they are grown)
bloomer is the beardless Louisiana iris, with blossoms
that look like butterflies. The Louisiana iris available
now in catalogs are hybrids bred from tough, vigorous
water-loving native plants.
For iris lovers who want an added bonus, there is Iris
foetidissima, which has lovely spring flowers, and absolutely
gorgeous fall seed heads. The reddish-orange berries
burst out of the pods and provide welcome color that
manages to be in tune with the other plants in the fall
Most iris need sun and well-drained soil. Many are
fond of moisture, and some, like Louisiana iris and
yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), love living in
boggy spots or by the sides of streambeds.
A good garden needs iris, even if only one variety.
If you live anywhere in the northeast and want to see
lots of them, especially Iris germanica, in full flower,
go to the Presby Iris Garden on Upper Mountain Avenue
in Montclair, New Jersey, at the end of May. You may
not be French or noble, but standing between the Presby’s
exquisite beds, you will find yourself completely encircled
by the beautiful fleur de lys.