Bearded irises are among the choicest perennials for borders and cutting. Although only one of hundreds of species in the genus Iris, they are perhaps the most widely grown and certainly the most widely recognized. Amongst the rhizomatous irises, the tall bearded irises have routinely stolen the stage from their shorter or beardless cousins. More than 100 years of breeding has produced all manner of colors, ruffles and fragrance.
Bearded irises are best planted mid-summer to fall (for bloom the next year) in soil with good drainage. They will adapt to a variety of soils from sandy to clay if the drainage is adequate. I commonly plant groups of three rhizomes. Because the growth is from one end of the rhizome, plant two parallel to each other about 12″ apart with non growth end facing you. Then add a a third to make a triangle with its growth end facing the first two. That last rhizome’s growth will fill in the space giving you a nice clump. Plant the rhizomes root side down with the top barely at the soil’s surface–do not bury! Iris will benefit from a light application of bone meal, superphosphate or any 6-10-10 fertilizer about a month before bloom and again a month after. Plan to divide every 3 or 4 years. Your iris will tell you when they are too crowded with smaller and fewer blooms. In my climate I trim the bloom stalks back after the flowers are finished but wait to trim the foliage back to about 6″ in the late fall.
Mild winters and early springs here in Central California result in iris blooming far earlier than the printed catalog material indicates. My iris start in late February and are virtually done (except for a few rebloomers) by late May. In other zones, iris may not even start blooming until mine are almost finished!
Here are a few blooming now in my garden. If you have been reading Queen of the Dirt from the beginning you’ll recognize ‘Night Ruler’ as the iris that started my fascination with plants I used to think were too old fashioned and ordinary for me. I saw this one in bloom when I lived in Georgia and thought it was pretty spectacular. Although it never flourished in my Macon garden, I dug a few rhizomes up when I moved and found it likes California’s dry heat. The 3 rhizomes grew to about a 3 foot diameter colony after only a couple of years and they bloomed prolifically. The growth of an ash tree eventually totally shaded out the colony and after several years of decline I dug, divided and replanted the healthy rhizomes to sunnier areas in both my front and back gardens. ‘Night Ruler’ returns to the throne!
Because the development of high shade is a focus for many Central Valley gardeners, a natural consequence is the reduction of full sun for those plants needing it. Almost all of my original iris plantings have been moved at least once as various trees matured. The lawn area we call the driveway circle had 8 different iris cultivars in its interior bed. The crape myrtles had almost doubled in size since the iris were planted in 2009 and all these colonies had been in decline for a couple of years. In our recent lawn removal and replanting project in this area I dug all the iris up and potted up the best of the rhizomes for replanting this fall. The seemingly constant moving around of iris due to division or the need for a sunnier site has resulted in some cultivar name confusion for me. I keep really good records of what is planted where but my map now looks like a jigsaw puzzle with arrows, rhizomes names and numbers pointing everywhere!
Another iris whose original site proved problematic is Iris ‘Riverboat Blues’. Vigorous perennials ended up covering these rhizomes every year with foliage and they just never did much. Last fall I dug the few viable rhizomes and moved them to a sunnier, less competitive site and ‘Riverboat Blues’ has rewarded me with multiple bloom stalks and dozens of huge sapphire flowers.
This is a tall selection which can sometimes need staking with the weight of triple socketed buds and 8-9 flowers per stalk.
Small but mighty Iris ‘Full Impact’ lives up to its name. This dark blue-violet bicolor is beautifully ruffled , has glacial white markings and a white beard. The beard is the group of fuzzy hairs at the top of the lower three petals of the flower. These three petals are called the falls. ‘Full Impact’ will open 3 flowers at one time, producing a very full and rounded look. I have groups of these 30″ tall stunners on either side of my front walk, blooming amid a lot of pink and lavender perennials and roses and they never disappoint. Although these colonies have multiplied and been divided several times they seem to snap back a little faster than some of the taller selections. AND they are a favored by regular hummingbirds!
Who doesn’t love a plicata? So you say “Just what is a plicata?” In iris terms, a plicata is a flower which has a stippled or stitched margin color on white.
On the left is Iris ‘Loop the Loop’–a huge selection almost 4′ tall in bloom. In a previous post you saw this photo of a large group of ‘Loop the Loop’ exploding in bloom. This one too has now been divided a good bit and I have smaller colonies in several garden spots. I let the original planting go too long before the first dividing was done and I saw first hand what happens–I think I only had 3 stalks in 2014 compared to over 40 when the photo on the right was taken. Above right is Iris ‘Got the Melody’. The white on this cultivar is much muddier than on ‘Loop the Loop’ so they would not be attractive planted in proximity of one another. This double and triple socketed stem yields 10-12 buds per stalk and is tall enough to stand above its neighbors.
I’ll close with with the splendid lavender bloom of Iris ‘No Count Blues’. The eye-catching falls are overlaid with a darker purple and it bears a yellow throat. Amazing, don’t you think?
Iris are the perfect pass a long plants. Even in barely adequate conditions they will multiply rapidly, giving you many to share with family and friends. I kind of like knowing that someone I care for has a little piece of my garden to enjoy every day.