plant of the week

Bearded Iris

Take a new look at old-fashioned bearded iris (Iris germanica)

By Kate Bryant May 19, 2010

Iris ‘Edith Wolfort’

The bearded iris is a common plant and for some, that makes it uninteresting. It is seen as a dowdy, old-fashioned plant. And while it’s dramatic in flower, its flowers fade to squishy brown blobs and then it does nothing for a year – until the following spring. All this is worsened by the fact that hybridizers have done some truly bizarre things to bearded iris, creating unlikely, often gaudy color combinations that don’t always play well with other plants.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

There are many beautiful hybrids that blend really nicely into gardens, from classic, old-fashioned pastels, subtle bicolors and some frilly-margined little confections to bold, elegant purple, orange, black and even brown flowered selections that look modern and dramatic in single-color drifts. If the flowering stalks are cut down after flowering and any dead leaves pulled off in the fall and spring, the blue-green, blade-like foliage can look rather attractive.


I can picture a drift of this iris looking fantastic in front of an apple-greenish house.

It’s really just a matter of selecting your color carefully and then clearing out the dead stems and leaves the minute they start to bother you. That, plus dividing the plants every few years, is pretty much all that’s required in terms of maintenance.

As far as their general needs, bearded iris like good drainage, a half day or more of sun, and moisture during the growing season (fall to spring, provided courtesy of Mother Nature around here). Normal, unimproved garden soil doesn’t faze these iris, as long as it drains okay. I’ve never done it but you can sprinkle general purpose organic fertilizer in (best time=when tulips are blooming) and scratch in a little lime to sweeten the soil – or plant them near concrete paving, which leaches lime into the soil. They are truly the easiest of garden plants to grow.

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Which is what I told a writer for the Women’s Wear Daily publication, "Beauty Biz," who interviewed me for a piece she was writing recently about the use of iris in cosmetics and perfumery (she writes a nice monthly column on plants that are used in the beauty industry). Iris grow nearly as well back east as they do here so I could confidently say iris are dirt-easy from coast to coast. (Humid parts of the South are the only areas of the continental US where they don’t thrive.)


Iris and alliums are a great combination!

You can see acres and acres of bearded iris in glorious flower right now by heading down to Salem to Schreiner’s Iris. Their display gardens are open May 7 – June 6 from 9 to 6 daily. You can wander their 10 acres of well-labeled display gardens and buy iris for your garden – or just take home luxurious bouquets for $6 per dozen stems.

The next couple weeks are peak bearded iris blooming time. If you’re looking to get out of town to see iris – and get far, far away from the urban grind – check out these events:

The Keizer Iris Parade, May 22 at 10:30 am. The parade begins at the corner of Lockhaven and River Road in Keizer, Oregon and proceeds south along River Road to Glynbrook. For more information, go to the Keizer Chamber of Commerce’s iris festival site.

Schreiner’s Iris Gardens Annual Memorial Day Chicken BBQ – May 31, 11:30 am to 4 pm. Features the culinary delights of the Gervais Knights of Columbus, and offering the lively music of the Capital City Jazz Band from 1 to 5 pm. I’ve never been but I hope to go this year – it could be pretty snazzy.

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