Bearded Iris

Pastels are perfected by bearded iris.

When there is not an app for that, there is probably a bearded iris that will work just fine. Really, there is just about every shade of yellow, blue, purple, orange, pink and almost-red imaginable, ranging from wildly bright to subdued pastel. There are actually several shades of white, and a few rare flavors of dark purplish black.

It seems that the most popular of the bearded iris bloom with two or more colors. The standards may be very different from the falls. Any part of the flower may be striped, spotted, blotched or bordered with another color. Flowers may be relatively simple or garishly ruffled. Many are fragrant.

Bearded Iris bloom between March and May. Some of the modern varieties bloom again in autumn. Flower stems can be as short as a few inches, or as tall as four feet, with only a few to several flowers. The rubbery and somewhat bluish leaves form flat fans that look neater if groomed of deteriorating older leaves. Each fan dies back after bloom, but is efficiently replaced by about two more new fans. Colonies of fans should be divided over summer every few years, or as they get too crowded to bloom well. Bearded iris likes well drained soil and at least six hours of direct sun exposure daily.

Iris Blooms Almost Any Color

Such cheerful colors are too easy.

Iris got its name from the Greek word for rainbow, because all the colors are included. There are thousands of varieties of bearded iris alone, to display every color except only true red, true black, and perhaps true green. (However, some are convincingly red, black or green.) Then there are as many as three hundred other specie of iris to provide whatever colors that bearded iris lack.

Bearded iris are still the most popular for home gardening because they are so reliably and impressively colorful, and because they are so easy to grow and propagate by division of their spreading rhizomes. Siberian, Japanese and xiphium iris are less common types that spread slower with similar rhizomes. Japanese iris wants quite a bit of water, and is sometimes grown in garden ponds. The others, like most other rhizomatous iris, do not need much water once established. Dutch iris grows from bulbs that do not multiply, and may not even bloom after the first year.

Iris flowers are so distinctive because of their unique symmetry of six paired and fused ‘halves’ that form a triad  of ‘falls’ and ‘standards’. The ‘falls’ are the parts that hang downward. The ‘standards’ that stand upright above are the true flower petals. As if the range of colors were not enough, the falls and standards are very often colored very differently from each other, and adorned with stripes, margins, spots or blotches. Many specie have fragrant flowers. Each flower stalk supports multiple flowers. Some carry quite a few flowers!

Some types of iris are so resilient to neglect that they naturalize and grow wild in abandoned gardens. Bearded iris are more appealing and bloom better with somewhat regular watering, but can survive with only very minimal watering once established. Some iris multiply so freely that they get divided after bloom, and shared with any of the neighbors who will take them. Newly divided rhizomes should be planted laying flat, with the upper surfaces at the surface of the soil.

Pacific Coast Iris

Bigger and bolder Pacific Coast iris.

Various species of iris that are native to exposed coastal hillsides are uncommon in nurseries. Even nurseries that specialize in native species grow only a few. Iris douglasiana was probably the most popular of these years ago. Its slender flowers are various shades of steely blue, like faded denim. Nowadays, most Pacific Coast iris are hybrids of various native and a few exotic species.

The color range of these modern hybrids is impressive. Many bloom with rich shades of blue, purple, burgundy, rusty red, orange, gold, yellow or rosy pink. Softer and pastel shades include coral pink, lavender, creamy white and bright white. There is even sky blue that is almost comparable to the color of well faded denim. Flowers are more substantial than those of their ancestors though.

Bloom is sometimes significantly early, or as late as May. Otherwise, it should happen about now. Each floral stalk supports about two or three flowers that bloom in succession. Floral stalks tend to lean outward from the center of mature plants, and curve to hold their bloom upright. Bloom typically stands less than two feet high. Their slender and arching dark green leaves stay even lower.

Six on Saturday: Above And Below


Flowers are almost everywhere this time of year. Even some of the lawns are blooming with English daisy. Warm season annuals are starting to bloom nicely while a few cool season annuals that have not yet been replaced are still going. Although those that were established before this spring finished a while ago, a herd of daffodils that got planted very late last winter are just now finishing bloom. New flowers start bloom as old flowers fade.

I got these pictures of some of the more perishable blooms while I could, so some are already outdated. #1 was actually already fading before last Saturday, but I had other pictures to show at the time. #2 lasted only a few days because it is still recovering from getting relocated in the warmth of last spring, after it had already foliated. Of these only #3 and some of 4, 5 and 6 are in good bloom now, but they do happen to be quite spectacular.

Flowering cherry, star magnolia and flowering dogwood are small or mid sized trees that are above the low Pacific Coast iris below; hence ‘Above and Below’. (However, this particular star magnolia is only about four feet tall so far.) I can only identify the cultivar of the ‘Kwanzan’ flowering cherry. The rest are identified only by species.

Incidentally, there is far more above all of this that is not seen in these pictures. Almost all of the ‘biomass’ here is suspended by the grand but remarkably blandly blooming redwoods.

1. Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’ – ‘Kwanzan’ flowering cherryP90427

2. Magnolia stellata – star magnoliaP90427+

3. Cornus florida – flowering dogwoodP90427++

4 + 5 + 6 Iris douglasiana – Pacific Coast irisP90427+++P90427++++P90427+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


P80609KNurseries are full of plants for sale. That is their business. They sell plants, and whatever plants need. With a bit of money, it is easy to purchase plants to compose an exquisite landscape. That is important to landscape professionals who make a business of composing landscapes to beautify the environments in which they work.

Those of us who enjoy home gardening might also purchase plants that we want for our garden. Yet, our home gardens are more than mere landscapes that are designed to simply beautify. The might also produce flowers for cutting, fruits and vegetables. Some might produce firewood. Gardens are usable spaces for active lifestyles. They are spaces for us to grow whatever we want to grow.

I buy almost nothing for my garden. The last item I purchased was a ‘John F. Kennedy’ rose, and I only did so because it was easier than growing one from scratch, and it is my favorite hybrid tea rose. Almost everything else was grown from seed, cutting, division or even as entire plants taken from somewhere else. They all have stories. My figs and quince are from trees that have been producing fruit in the Santa Clara Valley for generations. My great grandfather gave me my first rhubarb before I was in kindergarten. I found one of my pelargoniums in a neighbor’s trash heap when I was in junior high school. I found another in a creek where I grew citrus in Gilroy in the early 1990s.

My iris are from all over. My favorite are still those from the garden of my great grandmother Two others came from and ‘incident’ back in college . I may grow as many a four white iris, not only because they are my favorite color, but because they came from important origins. The short white iris that I do not like much must stay because it came from my grandmother’s garden in Saint Helens. There is another tall iris that is not a pure white, but seems to be somewhat grayish, but it must stay too because it is the only iris I got from the historic home of a friend’s mother in Monterey. One of my favorite whites was supposed to be red, but must stay because it came from a friend’s home in Lompico . . . and because it is one of the prettiest. I have a purplish burgundy iris that I only recently learned was brought from the garden of a colleague’s grandmother in Placentia, a town in Orange County that really should change it’s name. It proliferated and was shared with the Felton Presbyterian Church, where it proliferated again, which is how I found some on a trash heap. They are a keeper now.

When they were all together in the same garden, I grew as many as fourteen bearded iris, with a few other types. Some of the redundant white bearded iris have been relocated to the garden parcel in Brookdale, just to keep the separate from similar cultivars. Not many have been added, although there does happen to be a group of mixed iris from the garden of a former client in Ben Lomond. I think I will keep them mixed because they are easier to keep track of as a single mixed group rahter than as several separate cultivars.

These pictures are a few weeks old, from when the iris were still blooming. The iris in the picture above came from the garden of a friend in the East Hills above San Jose. The flowers are the biggest of all the iris I grow. You can see how distinctive they are. The iris in the picture below, which is not a good picture, is ‘Blueberry Ice’. It was a gift from the Clara B. Rees Iris Society. It has stout stems to support the very wide flowers that are mostly white with a variable blue edge.P80609K+

San Francisco Iris II – the Expected Sequel

P80512KIt is not as if the previous article about it was inadequate. I really did not want to get into the habit of writing so many sequels. However, something happened to necessitate this update.

I found what seems to be a REAL San Francisco Iris, right here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Except for being somewhat etiolated from the shade of the surrounding redwoods, it looks very similar to the San Francisco iris I picked on the Montara Peaks when I was in high school! This one happens to be a bit lighter blue than most, but is certainly well within the color range of the flowers that I remember. Most were probably a bit darker blue, but many were lighter, and some were very pale blue.

It is impossible to know if it was planted in this spot that had been landscaped in the distant past, or merely grew wild. It is right down the road from the more colorful cultivars that I got pictures of earlier. It only recently bloomed on rather grassy foliage that was easy to miss.

I know it does not look like much, but I prefer it to the fancier garden cultivars of the same specie, Iris douglasiana. (It is not the ‘San Francisco’ cultivar of bearded iris.) It is what I am familiar with, and exemplifies the species. Besides Montara, I remember it from San Bruno Mountain, Angel Island and Alcatraz. I might have seen it in the Oakland Hills and on Point Reyes too, but I am not certain if they really were the same.

The bearded iris from my great grandmother’s garden will always be my favorite. However, these San Francisco iris and I have too much history together to ignore.P80512K+

The Colors Of Karma

0407160708aThe statute of limitations allows me to discuss this now. It happened thirty years ago, in the spring of 1987. The famous landscape designer, Brent Green, was my roommate in the dorms at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. As the bearded iris started to bloom, Brent immediately noticed a bed of uniformly pink bearded iris off the edge of a lawn in the inner campus. He watched it bloom from beginning to end, and occasionally updated me on the progress. During the process, he convinced me that these iris were very rare. Neither of us had ever seen pink bearded iris before. We had no idea that they could easily be purchased from mail order catalogs or nurseries.

Late one warm spring night, Brent telephoned me from a landscape design lab where he had been working late. Back then, we answered a telephone when it rang. Before I could wake up enough to think about what I was doing, or just say “No.”, Brent convinced me to bring something that he needed from our room to the lab. Without thinking, I got dressed, grabbed his designated duffel bag and got on my way. I was sort of concerned that the duffel bag seemed to be empty. I figured that whatever was in it was very lightweight.

By the time I got to lab, Brent was in the lobby, and his associates were leaving. Brent did not seem to be interested in whatever was in the bag. He just thanked me for bringing it as we waked out as if to go back to the dorms. I was puzzled. As we walked, Brent explained that he only needed the bag, and confirmed that it really was as empty as I suspected. I was even more puzzled. I asked why he woke me up in the middle of the night to deliver an empty bag across campus. Well, in the few minutes it took for us to get this far into the conversation, we had arrived at the bed of pink iris. You can imagine what happened next.

Yes. Brent dropped the bag on the ground and began to stuff it full of all the bloomed-out iris rhizomes he could grab! Suddenly, I was very awake, and protested. He explained that now that the iris had finished blooming, they would be dug up and disposed of. What else could I do? I knew he was correct. I did not want to waste the iris. I also realized that panic would only draw attention, and that delaying the process would only increase the likelihood of getting busted. I pulled up as many rhizomes as I could hastily grab as well, and stuffed the bag until it was full. Brent was feeling rather satisfied as we walked back to the dorms. I was mortified.

The rhizomes got split and groomed, and eventually went into our mothers’ gardens. We each got about half. The following late winter and early spring, Brent would check in on his when he would go south for the weekend. I would check on mine when I would go north. They grew well, and fattened up to bloom. The stalks came up. The buds swelled. Then, finally, and with much anticipation, they bloomed! They were magnificent! They were glorious! They were spectacular! They were purple and yellow! WHAT?!?! Where was the pink? What happened? This is NOT FAIR! Wait a minute, . . . Could it be karma?

Thirty years later, we still grow these two bearded iris. They are known simply as ‘Karma Purple’ and ‘Karma Yellow’. We do not know their real names. A few years ago, they were joined by a nice tall ‘Karma White’, which was supposed to be a rusty red that I ‘borrowed’ from a neighbor. Neither Brent nor I have ever grown a pink iris.