By Frances Duncan (in Los Angeles Times), 1929
One of the most poetic of flowers is the Iris. So insistent in their bid for attention are the great Dahlias, that the Iris, in California, has not yet come to the full share of popularity that is now its due. Yet it is a flower of stately beauty, wonderfully rich in color, and almost as easily grown and permanent when once established as that prince of die-hards, the red Geranium.
With all its ease of cultivation, the Iris is an aristocrat. Beside its ancient linage, the Gladiolus, the Dahlia, and the Chrysanthemum are mere infants. It is almost as old as the Egyptian Lotus. Also it is linked with history. As definitely as the Rose is part of English history, the Fleur-de-lis belongs to France. The “Lilies” which Jeanne d’Arc embroidered on her banner were Fleur-de-lis or Irises. Probably Eve grew them in Eden, for today Asia is particularly rich in Irises and very likely they flourished along the banks of the river that flowed “eastward from Eden.”
To the amateur gardener, one of the most potent attractions of the Iris is its extreme ease of culture. Not all Irises will grow in all soils, but some may be found to grow in any given soil, be it dry and gravelly, or moist and boggy. Iris pseudacorus will even grow in an aquatic garden. The most tolerant Irises in the matter of soil are those of the Pogoniris group, the “Bearded Irises,” which at one time were better known as German Iris. In almost any soil and situation these Irises will thrive – open sunshine, or partial shade, gravelly and sandy loam, or beside the water garden. I have seen them growing happily under Eucalyptus trees. Nor do they, under such conditions, thrive and bloom for a single season only. Once planted they go on like Tennyson’s brook. I have seen them growing, spreading under trees and a rather uncared for shrubbery, with but a very occasional chance at enjoying the irrigation which blest the rest of the place. Yet they were blossoming, year after year, though no attention given whatever.
Naturally, one doesn’t recommend this method of gardening, but the Iris’s ability ro bloom and flourish under conditions which would ruin many another plant and drive Roses to despair, is worth noting by those who love the flower, and have scant time for garden tending. Also Irises may be taken up and replanted at almost anytime of the year. For best results, however, there are a few cultural points:
The best time for planting is late Summer or early Autumn, here in California preferably from August up to December. “The ground should be pulverized deeply,” says Morton Sanford, the Iris grower of the Carbon Canyon Road near Chino, “then fill with water the hole, or trench, made for setting the plants; after this settles, ‘mud in’ the roots, pressing the wet earth around the small, fibrous roots which should extend downward, with the large root (rhizome) about an inch below the surface of the ground. The rhizome should then be covered with dry, loose soil. If this work is properly done, the newly planted Irises should not be disturbed nor watered for ten days or two weeks. After this, water and cultivate carefully about every two weeks until growth starts., being governed by weather and soil conditions as to the amount of water. irises like a well drained location and dislike ‘wet feet’ as roses do. Be careful in working around the roots of newly planted Irises that you do not disturb them. Never use barnyard manure near Iris roots; a little bone meal worked in is preferable. If the soil is sour mix in a little lime.”
Irises, like many other bulbous plants and bulbs, suffer from our habit of planting always in rows or solid phalanx, and treating them as an assemblage of color. The form of the flower is very beautiful, its poise and erectness rising above the sword-like leaves are full of character, and these are lost when it is thickly planted in a square bed or grown in tight rows. It is happiest when set in groups with shrubs for a background, or near the water garden, where the reed-like character of the leaves harmonize with Papyrus and other pool margin plants and the flowers are reflected in the water. The group planting has this advantage, that when the flower is not in bloom, no loss is felt; the foliage merges with the background, and when the stately flowers appear, their beauty of form shows to perfection.
Those to whom “Iris” means either the rather small purple or the common white sort, know but little of the beauty and rich color of the flower. Wise gardeners frequent flower shows, and go in person to the fields and experimental grounds of growers, where a liberal education may be obtained as to differences in color, shading, and habit which the most carefully written catalogue cannot give adequately. And then flower preferences are so much a matter of individual taste. it is a good idea when starting ones Iris collection, even if funds are limited, to include at least one iris of unusual beauty.
At a recent show was exhibited as magnificent stalk of iris Ambassadeur as I have seen in Southern California. This is listed in the catalogues as “36 inches,” but the stalk shown must have reached five or five and a half feet in the garden, beautifully branched and with gorgeous flowers, smoky lavender standards tinged with bronze, and falls of reddish violet. The ability to exhibit a flower of this sort gives a more prideful thrill than the possession of many less notable ones. Another rarely beautiful Iris is San Gabriel, of California origin. The Southern California Iris Gardens had magnificent fields of this variety abloom this Spring. San Gabriel grows to a splendid height, its stem is much branched and it blooms in regal abundance. The petals are a delicate lavender, with mauve, but it is a Southern Californian and doesn’t endure extreme cold, and is an early bloomer.
Among the less expensive but delightful varieties is Dr. Bernice, with coppery bronze standards and with falls a variety of crimson-brown. this has fine foliage, blooms late and is effective in a group planting, making a charming color in the landscape. there is Vilmorin’s Caprice, which is a deep reddish-purple with yellow beard; and the old Florentina alba, with flowers of a porcelain white thinged with lavender, a very early sort, which in old days and in grandmother’s garden was grown also for the roots from which “orris root” was made. Among the violets and purples is Monsignor, pale violet flowers with deep veining of royal purple, that “color of popes.” Then there is the lovely Isoline, which has a definitely silvery sheen on its soft lilac standards and reflexed falls of gold and mauve. Queen Caterina, Lent A. Williamson, Rev. Wurtelle are good Irises. Mother of Pearl is a stately variety of beautiful color whose name describes it with unusual accuracy.
Most of Farr’s introductions bear Indian names – Navajo, Massasoit, and many of them, like Navajo, have distinctively Indian coloring.
Notable among the newer Irises is Morton Sanford’s Romance, the standards a deep wine and the falls deep garnet tinged with cream underneath; this Iris has a long blooming period. Stillman berry’s Cacique, an apogon, is almost claret red – a slender iris this, rather like a Spanish Iris in appearance.
To the uninitiated, the flower of the Spanish Iris looks like an Iris, and the leaves look like grass. the real difference, however, is in the root, the Spanish Iris being a bulb, not the centipede-like affair known as a rhizome, from which Bearded, or Pogoniris, springs. Among Spanish Irises one finds clear yellows and dashes of orange on violet petals, as definite as the blotch of crimson on the blackbird’s wing; this is especially noticeable in the lovely Rembrant.
These are but a few of the easily obtainable Irises. those interested should become acquainted with the Siberica group which is fond of water, with the Hexagona group, the splendid and stately Japanese irises, the Mediterranean group, with Reticulata, Dicotoma, and with unguicularis (or Stylosa), which is kind enough to bloom in Winter; then there are Albicans and Japonica for earliest spring. An Iris enthusiast may have from 200 to 1000 different varieties in his collection.
Like the Gladiolus, the Iris is sufficiently “fool proof” for a child to grow, and interesting and varied enough to attract the connoisseur.