In Greek mythology, Iris was the winged goddess of the rainbow. In physiology, the iris is the colorful part of the eye.
But mention iris to a gardener, and it can only mean one thing: the vivid, elegant flowers that bloom every spring, and in just about every hue imaginable.
People not familiar with iris – or who only have seen a few varieties – may be astonished by the range of color and form. From whites and yellows to deepest violet and maroon, and with bicolors and variegated styles as well, the elegant flowers are a visual feast.
Thousands of irises can be found on just about every continent in the world.
Iris belongs to an enormous plant family, Iridaceae, which also includes perennial garden favorites like crocuses, freesias, and gladioli. The image of the fleur-de-lis is thought to have been based on the iris, and orris root, a fragrance used in perfumes and potpourri, is derived from the powdered rhizomes of several European species of iris.
The American Iris Society, founded in 1927, has further encouraged the plants’ popularity in the New World. A number of wild iris grow in the United States, including Central California’s Douglas iris.
The Monterey Bay Iris Society is an AIS regional affliate, and a fairly active one, with about 85 members from Carmel to Santa Cruz. The group meets the third Friday of each month in Santa Cruz, Calif., with presentations at each meeting related to iris care and cultivation. The MBIS also hosts an iris sale each August in Aptos, Calif.
Chapter president Diane Sampson points out that the coast is an ideal place to grow iris, since it’s not too hot, and not too cold. Yet they’re tougher than they might appear.
Iris fanciers say there is a constant stream of new hybrids coming on the market, which have more colors, ruffles, and larger, longer-lasting flowers than traditional varieties.
Many varieties of irises now rebloom in the fall, giving gardens a second burst of color.
Most gardeners are familiar with the tall bearded iris – the most widely grown type – but there are many other varieties and sizes as well.
There are two types of iris, bearded and beardless. The bearded varieties, grown from flat, bulbous rhizomes, have the largest, most impressive blossoms. The three upright petals are called “standards” and the others are “falls.” It is the little tufts of fuzz on the falls that give bearded iris its name.
Beardless iris are grown from bulbs, and include the delicate-looking Dutch and Japanese types, as well as many other Old World varieties.
Bearded iris are found in many Central Coast gardens because they’re easy to grow, and prefer a slightly alkaline soil, which is common here. For best results, iris should be planted in a site that receives at least six hours of sun each day in well-drained soil.
Iris can withstand drought, but to look their best, should be watered when the soil has dried out to a depth of two inches. Rebloomers need water during summer to produce a fall bloom.
The plants should be divided every three to four years, or when the beds seem overcrowded. This proliferation of iris is a boon to frugal gardeners.
Sampson said that’s the way she’s obtained most of the 500 varieties in her yard.
“I don’t spend any money on them – I get them all from friends,” she said.