Magazine article Sunset

Growing to Love Iris: Choose Your Favorite Colors and Styles to Plant This Summer or Fall. (Garden: Outdoor Living)

Magazine article Sunset

Growing to Love Iris: Choose Your Favorite Colors and Styles to Plant This Summer or Fall. (Garden: Outdoor Living)

Article excerpt

* This is the season when the tall bearded iris reveals why it has won the hearts of so many admirers across the West. These nearly foolproof plants mix well with other perennials, grow in every Western climate, and multiply in the garden without becoming invasive. Chances are you probably don't live too far from a world-class iris grower, from whom you can choose your favorite varieties and order rhizomes to plant this summer for bloom next spring in your own garden.

A century of intensive breeding, much of it by amateurs, has transformed these irises from supporting players into the divas of the garden. Every season, growers flood the market with new varieties. One major grower told us that he replaces 50 or 60 of the 300 varieties of irises in his catalog every year. In such a fast-changing scene, how do you find the right iris? Start by looking at the past winners of the Dykes Memorial Medal, which has honored the best-looking and best-performing irises since 1927. The Dykes winners tend to stay around longer than more faddish varieties.

Price can also help you decide. A new introduction might sell for $50 per rhizome, but by the end of its commercial life span (5 to 10 years), the same rhizome will cost just $4 or $5.

Breeders perform magic

COLOR. You can buy irises in every color except true rose red and lime green (there are pale chartreuse wannabes). Banded and bicolor types abound, but much current breeding is focused on color variegation--stripes and speckles, as in 'Batik' and 'Bewilderbeast'--which is gaining acceptance faster among serious gardeners than among iris show judges.

If you want to grow irises to view up-close, choose banded, bicolor, striped, and speckled kinds. But if you want to mass irises for concentrated color viewed across the garden, get solid colors. FORM. Originally most bearded irises had droopy falls (the petals that hang down). But as breeders have pumped more substance into them, the falls have flared out (some are nearly horizontal). The amount of flair and ruffling along petal edges is a matter of taste.

BEARDS. Resembling fuzzy caterpillars, beards are centered on the falls. Early on, growers spent a lot of time breeding beards with complementary or contrasting colors, but now they're selecting varieties with elongated beards shaped like spoons, horns, and flounces. FRAGRANCE. The first time you sniff an iris that smells like grape ('Wild Thing' is one), you'll be enchanted. The scents vary in character and intensity.

BUD COUNT. Each flower lasts two or three days, so more buds translate into longer bloom. The most prolific irises produce more than a dozen buds per stem. The danger here is that spring rains can weigh down the flowers, so when strong winds follow, they can knock flower-laden stems to the ground unless they're staked. If you don't want the hassle of staking tall plants, choose intermediate or dwarf bearded irises, which tend to bloom earlier and stand up to the elements better.

LEAVES. A few irises, like 'Honky Tonk Blues', have a beautiful oxblood flush at the base of the leaves; someday, you may see whole leaves with that color.

Planting tips

Iris rhizomes (swollen underground stems resembling tubers) produce the fans of leaves that give rise to the flowers. Plant rhizomes so all the fans are parallel, and, if your garden layout allows, face them toward full sun. …

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