September 14th, 2006
5. Worshipping the Rainbow Goddess

bearded iris Silverado
2003-04-25. Pale lavender ‘Silverado’ and yellow heirloom irises edge the meadow of Love-in-a-mist and larkspur.

AJM’s mother has a photo of ‘Champagne Elegance‘–the first named iris I ever grew successfully–in her guest room so that I feel at home when we visit. Our older neighborhood is filled with heirloom irises that bloom every year any apparent effort on the part of most homeowners. I have a pale yellow variety that blooms later than the white and purple flags–usually in mid-April around tax day. This iris is unkillable. I have seen small ones left in a pile (because I’ve never gotten around to replanting them) send down roots and plant themselves. They lead me down a pretty path thinking irises are a breeze to grow.

And so they can be. Bearded irises are drought-tolerant, lime-tolerant plants. They need little attention except keeping the rhizomes free of weeds (and in my yard leaf litter). Let their rhizomes get covered and you’re asking for rot when Austin’s weather turns hot and humid. When it’s hot and dry their fans brown and they look messy. They have a fairly short bloom period and individual flowers last two days at most in our heat. In bloom they have no scent (connoisseurs will disagree) but when the blooms fade they give off a somewhat unpleasant scent of ammonia.

Despite this I fell hard for irises. They come in every color except true red (which is why they are named after Iris, the goddess of the rainbow). They have more variety of blue flowers than any other species I can think of. I’m a sucker for blue flowers.

In 1997 I sent off to White Flower Farms for three rhizomes of ‘Champagne Elegance’. I don’t remember the price but at the time it was the most I’d ever paid per single bulb. When they bloomed the following spring, the flowers looked like something from a catalog shoot–not something I’m used to seeing in my garden.

I found Schreiner’s Iris Gardens online and began a buying spree that lasted four years. I amazed a friend once when I showed her Schreiner’s glossy print catalog (the large one they send you if you’ve ordered from them before). She pointed out one she liked and I glanced over and said, “Oh, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Yeah. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it.” She thought I had the name of every iris in the catalog memorized…I almost did.

I fell in love with an iris called Seakist which was selling for $35.00 a rhizome at the time. I bought other things while waiting for the price to come down and when it selling for $15.00, I bought three.

Unlike my heirloom irises, my bought irises increased for a year or two and then waned. They want to be divided more frequently than I have time for and they demand the best spots in the garden then spend 50 weeks of the year not in bloom. The number of irises that I bought that never bloomed at all or only bloomed once, give me pause. I notice now that my extravagant iris buying stopped the same year I lost my job. If I were wealthy and if I had hired men to dig deep trenches for my picky plants, I’d keep trying iris after iris. As it is, I moved on to something that gave me a lot more flower for the same amount of money…roses.

Question for central Texas gardeners: if you have bearded irises do you divide them after they bloom in the spring or do you wait until fall when they start growing again?

Iris Inventory
* Edith Wolford.
Bought 3 at Barton Springs nursery ($2.99 each from Van Bloem Gardens). Never bloomed. Rotted.

* Champage Elegance.
Bought 3 from White Flower Farms. Bloomed every year but is decreasing in size and vigor. One rhizome left.

* Silverado.
1999. Bought 3 from Schreiner’s ($6.00 each). Bloomed 2001-2004. Divided 2003; 12 rhizomes. Did not bloom in 2005 or 2006.

* Incantation.
1999. Bought 3 from Schreiner’s ($7.50 each). Bloom 2000-2002. Rotted in fall of 2002. Replanted 3 small rhizomes.

* Lenten Prayer.
1999. Bonus iris from Schreiner’s. Never bloomed.

* Altruist
2000. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s. Bloomed 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004. Rotted 2006 except for two small rhizomes I’m trying to save.

* Mystic’s Muse.
2000. Bonus iris from Schreiner’s. The first year it bloomed it won first place for pink irises at the local iris show. Bloomed 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005.

* Seakist.
2000. Bought from 3 from Schreiner’s ($15.00 each). Bloomed 2002, 2003. Increased vigorously and then died from rot during a rainy 2003.

* Strictly Ballroom.
bearded iris Strictly Ballroom
2000. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s. Bloomed 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. Had 8 at one time but now am down to one. One stalk opened 7 flowers over a 2-week period. Incredible!
2009-04-05. Blooms.

* Salsa Rio.
2000. Bonus iris from Schreiner’s. Never bloomed.

* Pallida Variegeta.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($12.50). Never bloomed. Trouble with rot. Moved it. Still died.

2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($10.00). Never bloomed. Rotted 2001.

Cloud Ballet.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($12.50). Transplanted 5 to a sunnier location. Bloomed 2003, 2005, 2006. Formed vigorous clump. Tranplanted in 2006 but waited too long–all rhizome are very small and may take years to recover.

Night Game.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($15.00). Bloomed 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. Rotted 2006.

* Jazzed Up.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($12.50). Never bloomed.

* Night Ruler.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s ($10.00). Bloomed once in 2003. Transplanted but rotted in new location.

* Raspberry Wine.
2001. Bonus iris from Schreiner’s. Bloomed 2003, 2004. Transplanted 2 rhizomes in 2005. Transplanted 3 rhizomes in 2006.

* Sneezy.
2001. Bought 1 from Schreiner’s. Bloomed once in 2002.

* Thriller.
2001. Bought 2 from Schreiner’s. Never bloomed. Had 6 rhizomes in 2003 but all had disappeared by 2006.

* Amethyst Flame.
2006. Passalong from Pam at Digging.

by M Sinclair Stevens

7 Responses to post “5. Worshipping the Rainbow Goddess”

  1. From Annie in Austin:

    Here is not only more evidence of your scientific record keeping, MSS, but proof you were devout in your worship! The names of your varieties sound wonderful,[Champagne Elegance! Silverado!] and the photos look so tempting.

    I grew a fair number of iris In Illinois, but it took time – not money. Many of my 25 cultivars of dwarf iris came as one-dollar starts from Iris Society sales, with names like ‘Little Imp’, ‘Pixie Pastel’ and ‘Gingerbread Man’, while several tall bearded iris were old heirlooms – real Passalong Plants. Others were named hybrids of the large bearded iris -‘Schiaparelli’ was fabulous. Then there were the Siberians, like ‘Sea Shadows’.

    From 1973 until 1999 I was a plant trader. My friends and I all bought a few new plants every year, but only one of each, and never the same kinds. We’d grow our new plant for a couple of years, then start passing divisions around. So after 10 years or so, we each had a few dozen different iris.

    We had less trouble with rot up there, but iris borers are hideous, gut-pink insect larvae found underground, hollowing out the heart of a beloved iris! Sometimes digging, surgery, lysol and sulpher saved the corm, sometimes they were goners.

    I only grow a few iris here, and have pulled them apart for replanting in both spring after blooming and in September. When they felt like it, some iris still bloomed the next year. They get compost & decomposed granite mixed in when I plant, and everything in the garden gets some HastaGrow now and then. I like them, but it’s no longer a floral mania.


  2. From r sorrell (Austin):

    All but one of my iris are passalong plants. I’ve considered ordering one of those “rainbow collections” from Schreiner’s, but after reading your post I’m reconsidering.

    I, too, am in the process of transplanting right now. I’m hoping to finish this weekend. I dug up and moved my iris at this time last year, too, and they seemed to perform fine this year.

    I still have a bit of iris floral mania.

    Oh, me too! I was leafing through an old catalog after writing up this post and I quickly came away with a long list of irises I wanted to order. Luckily it’s too late for this year. If you have the money, I encourage you to go for it. The thrill may not last but it’s certainly worth trying once. And who knows. Irises might be your thing. Plenty of people in Central Texas grow them…I go to the Austin Iris Society’s show every April to check them out. — mss

  3. From Craig:

    I agree with your taste in iris. I, too, think ‘Champagne Elegance’ is a beautiful flower and have also experienced its less than wonderful growing habit. Have you considered buying from Texas growers instead of Connecticut (White Flower Farm) and Oregon (Schreiners)? I have never ordered from any of the following so I cannot give you my experience.

    The Region 17 American Iris Society lists commercial iris gardens in Texas.

    Argyle Acres and Malevil Iris Gardens are both on the commercials page.

    Wild Prairie Farm & Market is not but I like this paragraph on their homepage, it could be good marketing or the real deal: “The iris farm is located in Odessa, Texas, Ector County, West Texas. I’m sure you know that anything grown in Texas is so tough that it will probably grow anywhere or so they say! Grown with Texas Pride! You always get the pick of the crop at Wild Prairie.”

    Thanks, Craig. I’ve visited Argyle Acres online in the past but I hadn’t heard of the other two. There also was an iris grower northeast of Austin but I don’t know what became of them–I think they were the Rainbow Iris Farm.

    Although it is probable that irises grown in Texas might be better suited to my garden, I want to emphasize that I’m completely happy in every way with Schreiner’s. I have always received huge, healthy rhizomes from them. The results have usually been stunning, even if not long-lived. I truly believe that any difficulty I’ve encountered growing irises is entirely of my own making–planting them where they don’t get enough sun, not feeding them as much as they’d like, and not dividing them when they needed it it. Schreiner’s catalog is informative as well as beautiful; their descriptions include the breeder, year introduced, awards won, and parentage (if known) and excellent descriptions. The Schreiner family also breeds irises–I can’t explain why, but I have a deep admiration for them that results in strong customer loyalty to them. — mss

  4. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    My best-performing iris has been ‘Amethyst Flame,’ a dark-purple iris I bought at Barton Springs Nursery several years ago. I also have a passalong light-blue iris, but it’s been more finicky: no bloom the first year, great bloom the second, nothing this year. My mom in Tulsa passed along some mystery irises (not in bloom) dug from her iris borders, and one tried to bloom this spring, but the heat or drought nipped it in the bud. I love irises, but they haven’t been easy for me.

  5. From Don (Indiana):

    Sadly, in Indianapolis, in addition to the humid, warm air, we also have hordes of japanese beetles. Rose growing is a so futile here. I still do it.

    Best time to divide bearded irises is in late summer (usually August). The flower for next year starts forming now inside the rhizomes, and dividing in fall can interrupt that process, meaning that there might not be blooms the following spring.

    Or so I was told once. They also like the food at the same numeric levels found in tomato plant fertilizer.

  6. From Amy (Alabama):

    I have been wondering how irises do in Mobile. You mentioned lime above so I guess our acidic soil would probably kill them huh? that or our humidity.

    The heat and humidity would subject bearded irises to rot. Elizabeth Lawrence, who gardened in North Carolina, said growing them was a constant battle with rot and iris borer. Even in Texas, I have trouble with rot if we’re having one of our wet years. You might consider Louisianna irises instead. — mss

  7. From Kelly Ott, Spicewood:

    I have an old fashioned, tall, frilly white iris, which I don’t even remember buying (altho I apparently did!) that has a wonderful fragrance that is most noticeable at dusk. No other iris I’ve ever grown has had any discernible fragrance. Did “they” breed it out, like with roses, I wonder?

    Yes. In sweet peas, too. However, now some breeders are trying for that “old-fashioned scent”. — mss