Henry Mitchell loved irises and grew a lot of them. He often wrote about them too — their colours, their beauty, the challenges of growing them well.
On my patch of rooty ground, I grow sixteen different irises, with varying degrees of success. I’m sure Mr. Mitchell would not consider them very impressive. But as each of them passes through its season of bloom, I am enchanted, indeed. Sometimes the fact that one or more of my irises chooses to bloom at all is a thrill in itself. A number of them have never bloomed. This year has been exceptional. Several plants produced bloom stalks with (gasp!) five or six buds.
In order of appearance:
I. unguicularis, the Algerian iris, opens the annual parade, as early as January, and lasts until March. Its tough, grass-like foliage grows to 3 feet and overhangs the front walk until I cut it back in October.
I. reticulata blooms in February. Its numbers have declined somewhat over the years, but there are still a half dozen plants near the pond, that send up vivid blue flowers only a few inches tall.
In April comes Iris cristata, another small type, icy blue with a touch of lavender, that has spread modestly through a perennial bed under the infamous Norway maples. Sadly, I have no picture of it.
May is Iris Time proper, when the large-flowered, showy bearded irises bloom.
My bearded irises are old varieties whose names are unknown to me. A dark purple-blue one is the first of this type to bloom, followed by a small-flowered pale yellow. Then a large dark yellow and white, a dark red/maroon and sometimes a large medium blue. This year, all except the medium blue (which was taking a year off) outdid themselves. Even plants that normally sulk bloomlessly under the maples put out multiple buds.
Another iris that blooms in May and June is Iris foetidissima, the Gladwin iris, invaluable for dry shade although not much to look at in bloom. Its claim to fame is ornamental orange seeds that appear in early autumn, and of course result in multiple seedlings the following spring. The yellow pond iris (I. pseudoacorus) has formed a small colony along the edge of the pond. These plants are descendants of an enormous specimen that threatened to take over the entire pond. Extracting it some years ago was a big struggle that resulted in about 20 pounds of rhizomes lugged to the municipal recycling yard. The local raccoons invariably rough up these irises in July, fortunately after they have bloomed.
The variegated foliage of Iris pallida is attractive even without blooms, but the lavender-purple flowers, which smell like grape bubble gum, are definitely an asset. My plants did not join in the fun this year and refused to bloom.
I haven’t had much luck with Iris sibirica, due to poor siting in dry shade, although every now and then one manages to put out a flower. I was surprised to see one last week in a struggling group situated between a Norway maple and a flowering currant shrub. I should really move a few plants to a better spot. Siberian irises are slender and elegant, with bright, intense colours — definitely worth the effort to grow well.
Finally — usually in June, but like everything else, early this year — are the Dutch irises, I. x hollandica, the consolation prize of the would-be iris grower. Mine are 100% reliable, a slowly-expanding clump of brassy yellow. There is also a plant with blue and yellow flowers that seems to be lying low this year.
I have two plants of yet another iris that should bloom in early summer — late June — with elegant yellow and white flowers. I have seen its flowers elsewhere, but never in my garden, although the foliage (narrower and a brighter green than that of the large bearded irises) comes up reliably every year. And every year I watch for the swellings of buds among the leaves, but so far, no luck. This may be another candidate for a move to a sunnier spot in soil free of maple roots. That so many of my irises stay alive in sub-optimal conditions, instead of giving up and dying, motivates me to help them out.