Why Love The Iris?: An Interview with the American Iris Society

I would like to…render thanks now to this graceful iris which arises from reedy stems in delicate flower-heads of dark purple, lavender, and white.  It varies in its colour[sic], and that is one of its most attractive characteristics.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
June 27th, 1954

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If you’ve read my post, Snatching Velvet in the Night, you’ll know I always wanted irises for my garden but thought they were too expensive; not enough bang for my buck.  Now, I have some, courtesy of a neighbor, but still stand perplexed by the absolute obsession some people have for this flower.  I asked my friends at the American Iris Society to explain their passion in hopes it might ignite in me a greater respect.  I spoke with Andi Rivarola, photographer and social media manager for the AIS in regards to the iris and what he has to say was very interesting.  He says it was the blue hues of the iris which drew him especially:

In nature blue is rare and unique, and this definitely made an impact on me. Of course there’s no color limitation on irises, they are available in yellow, red, black, brown, white, purple, etc.”

As far as blue goes, Vita has written about the difficulties of finding the perfect shade of blue.  I think Andi is right, the irises tower above all others in the color department.  Here is what else he had to say in our interview:

Me – “As I’ve written before in my posts, I admire the American Iris Society because they’ve chosen, over all others, the iris as their focus and their first love.  So I wonder what makes the Iris so special?”
Andi – “For me, irises are special because of their very form and variety of color.  Most flowers have a centered focus and a round type form – petals come out of this center, just as the daylily or rose. The iris has a vertical form, some petals go up while others go down (standards and falls). Besides this, irises truly have the colors of the rainbow. I was truly impacted by the blue iris. Many irises are blue, for example dark blue like, tall bearded iris ‘Navy Blues,’ or light blue like, ‘Above the Clouds.’

 Me- “I like to time my garden so something is blooming all year.  It seems the only irises I’ve seen bloom in late spring.  Is there an iris for spring, summer and fall?”
 Andi -“Most irises bloom only in the spring, but there are some that also bloom other times of the year they are called rebloomers. The reblooming feature is part of their genetics, and so, no amount of water, fertilizer or weather conditions will make one rebloom; either they have “the gene” or not. Several hybridizers are now focusing on this, so that more gardeners can grow and enjoy them year round. “

 Me- “I see the American Iris Society website has a list of the best places to shop for rhizomes.  Is there one variety you’d recommend?  Perhaps one many people haven’t seen before?”
Andi – “The American Iris Society is an umbrella for several other societies, including SIGNA (Species Iris Group of North America), the Spuria Iris Society, the Siberian Iris Society, the Society for Louisiana Iris Society, the Japanese Iris Society, etc. I would recommend exploring the unusual, such as species irises, and/or beardless irises. They are also really beautiful and deserve much more attention.”

 Me – “Which variety is your personal favorite?”
Andi – “I’m very partial to spuria irises. In my area, Southern California, they grow very well, and are much easier to care for than bearded irises. They come in a variety of colors, and they last much longer in a vase if you bring them indoors.”
Thank you Andi!  It was so nice of you to take a moment out of your busy day to answer my questions.

When I look up the irises Vita had in her garden, the chrysographes, douglasiana, graminea, innominate, japonica, sibirica, and the stylosa – just to name a few, they all seem to be miniature versions of what I have seen growing.  However, as I snuck around the neighborhood yesterday, creeping into my neighbors weedy pathways and mulched landscapes, I found something interesting.  Tucked in the corner of my neighbor’s neglected garden was a species which resembled the iris sibirica of Sissinghurst.  According to Andi Rivarola, my suspicions were correct, it was an iris sibirica or Siberian iris.  One of Vita’s iris’.  Growing in such an awkward spot, I can only imagine it was a remnant of a by-gone era.  That property used to be the old schoolhouse for my neighborhood 100 years ago.  Perhaps a teacher planted iris sibirica for her beloved students long ago.  Maybe there were other flowers there too, but this is all that remains.

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On another note, you might remember from my post, History’s Peony: A Search & Rescue, a different neighbor was tearing down his historic home; what used to be the neighborhood general store.  From that property, I dug up a 100 year old peony, but also asked permission to take some old iris rhizomes.  I didn’t know their color or variety, which made it more fun.  They bloomed this weekend an interesting yellow, purple and mauve-brown and they smell like black licorice and grape candy.  They pair nicely with the allium and the green foliage of my hydrangea.  I really enjoy seeing them out my window each morning.

I think I might grow to love the iris after all.

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Porcelain Berry Bright…

Another vine which is giving me great pleasure at the moment is Vitis heterophylla, an East Asian.  You can’t eat it, but you can pick it and put it in a little glass on your table, where its curiously coloured berries and deeply cut leaves look oddly artificial, more like a spray designed by a jeweler out of dying turquoises than like a living thing.

 

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; October 12th, 1947

As I write this it’s raining.  Not a downpour but rather a slight drizzle.   I took a walk around my garden and noticed my honeysuckle had burst forth some new blooms.  I rested by them a moment to catch their scent.  I won’t smell them again for many months.  For here, in this state, we have been trained to succumb to the “fall” of good weather, predictable weather, and give in to the desolate, the gray, the wet, the cold.  I sat there with the last breath of honeysuckle flower and watched the sparrows fly madly in flocks above the autumn colored leaves.  It made me rather sad, but one must shrug it off, live day by day and start plans for next year’s garden.

So for next year, remember: when the garden gets rather dreary like this, one can always plant something that will excite and add color.  Intrigued by Vita’s description, I was determine to find myself some of these magical autumn berries for myself.   I went to the local nursery and found something similar.  Because the Vitis heterophylla doesn’t grow well in our harsh Michigan winters.  I have found instead porcelain berries, the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.  They belong to the same family and are almost identical, save their foliage.

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The berries started to appear around mid-September, but because I had just purchased it from a green house, it might have been a little ahead of its natural schedule.   I planted it against my garage and gave it some lattice to climb up.  It does not have “suckers” so it will not do any damage to your walls.  It does however have those cute little arms that reach out and twist themselves around whatever they can.  It grows quickly but not as quickly as the morning glory vine which I talked about last week in my post, Morning Glory: A Warning.  This one seems rather easy to control since its growing period occurs before the berries appear.  Then it conserves all its energy to produce its brightly colored fruit.   You can trim it and train it to grow just how you want it.

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They are fun.  I couldn’t believe the different shades of blues and purples it will produce.  I picked up a couple antique butter dishes like the one above and put a handful in with a little water (otherwise they’ll shrivel), they do make quite a display.  In a larger bowl with some of their beautiful leaves intermixed would be a nice too.  Or perhaps drying them?There are countless decorative ideas one might do with them.

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So if you’re looking for some added color to your garden or want something out of the ordinary, try porcelain berries.  They are a fun juxtaposition to all the autumn colors we’re so used to seeing.  So much so they might become the conversation piece of your garden.   After all,  it isn’t something your neighbor might grow.  Visitors that might not know what they are will be intrigued and applaud your discovery. 

It’s good for one’s garden to inspire others with a bit of whimsy and wonder.  Don’t you think?

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Morning Glory: A Warning

Meanwhile we surround a huge black Chinese jar with the blue Oxypetalum and the blue plumbago all through the summer, and drop a pot full of morning glory, Heavenly Blue, into the Chinese jar, to pour downwards into a symphony of different blues.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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I missed writing a post last week because I was tirelessly working on my second book.   It’s almost finished but I just need to “paint” a few more layers to make it solid.   Sometimes I think I should start a writing process blog so I can vent my troubles to the world instead of my incredibly patient husband.  I ask him, “Did I run into this kind of trouble on my last book?  Did I want to give up and throw it in the garbage?”  “Yes,” he replies.  “Keep at it, you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for.”  Like some magical oracle he says this and I believe him because he seems to be always right.   So for a week I toiled and mulled over the hole I was almost falling in until I found a little bridge to take me across.  The story is so much better now.  All I needed to do was spend a little more time with the characters (I’m going on a year with this one) and they eventually showed me the way.

Much like the garden and the flowers we have planted.  The more time you spend with them the more you get to know them.  Take for instance the morning glory as it is our subject this week.   How excited I was to buy these seeds, the seeds of the Heavenly Blue which Vita talks about endlessly.   I believe she called it the perfect shade of blue.  I have written a post on morning glory called From Muddy Waters to Finding the Perfect Shade of Blue, but I wrote that post before I spent any time with the flower.  I will say now that I would have planted them elsewhere.
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What I didn’t realize was these vines, once they get going, won’t stop.  Surely they will take over your other plants if not put in a place all their own where they can’t reap havoc.   Their little arms reach out grabbing for whatever they can and they pull, twist and coax everything  into their leafy embrace.  They uprooted one of my large zinnias and shielded my beloved rose bushes from the sun. They are wild.  As a result, I am currently treating all my roses for black spot.

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So the other day on a surprisingly warm October afternoon, I looked at my garden and I got angry.  Once coveted and prized for their beautiful blue flowers I now gazed at them with loathing.  They had turned out to be completely impolite and gluttonous with the space they were given.  I realized I had made a grave mistake.  Planting the morning glory in my garden was like bringing a wild animal into my house.  Once it grew to four inches it went wild all over the place, too quickly for me to stop it.   I was finished with this little shop of horrors menace so I got a little rough and I pushed all the vines to one side of the fence and I took my shears and freed my rose bushes and zinnias from their grasp.

They are beautiful, yes, and I would highly recommend them if you have the room.  But choose a space that will be entirely theirs,  keep them away from all other plants.  If you do you’ll be happy and you’ll enjoy them thoroughly.  They are very beautiful and deserve full attention away from the garden where the “domestic” plants live.

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From Muddy Waters to Finding the Perfect Shade of Blue

“The Morning Glory is a joy every year.  Those enormous sky-blue trumpets that open every morning before breakfast and shut themselves up again between luncheon and tea…You must make sure to get the right kind: it is called Ipomea rubra-coerulea, Heavenly Blue.”
Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden:
February 12, 1950

 

Vita loved her Morning Glories.  Besides zinnias they are the only annual she planted.   She advises that you can sow them indoors in March or April.  However, you don’t loose much time sowing them at the end of May in the ground from which they’ll grow.

She advises,
“Sow the seeds in little parties of three or four, and thin them remorselessly out when they are about two inches high, till only one lonely seedling remains.  It will do all the better for being lonely, twelve inches away from its nearest neighbor.   It will branch and bulge side-ways if you give it plenty of room to develop, and by August or September will have developed a spread more desirable in plants that in human beings.” (V.S.W.; In Your Garden, February 12th, 1950)

The seeds are extremely hard and must be either soaked in water for 24-48 hours prior to planting or I’ve heard people ‘file’ the shell down to expose the tiny plant-this technique made me nervous, and it seems it’d be rather tedious.

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These seeds above were soaked for 48 hours.  The water became quite cloudy, but you can see the tiny plants poking out.   I was going to plant them right away, but then it starting SNOWING.  Fearing they would become water logged if I left them soaking any longer I took them out to dry.  Then I began to fear that drying them out too much might be detrimental to their growth, so I employed a baggie with a wet paper towel and wrapped the birthing babes neatly- leaving them tightly sealed until they were ready to plant (about two days).  The baggie idea just instinctually came to me.  It’s like the seeds were speaking to me or Vita’s influence is taking its toll.  Whatever it was, it worked wonders…
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The seedlings grew twice their size!   I planted them yesterday along three trellises and a fence.  If I’m lucky, the blue trumpets will block out the view of our neighbor completely!

Artists have never been able to agreed on the correct shade of blue.  If only they had turned their heads to a trellis of Ipomea!  A blue that goes well with all others, that will never clash or swear.  A blue that seems to be translucent- that shares a touch of all the others.  It is all found in the Ipomea rubra-coerulea!

…And while they grow I’ll think of Vita; how behind her garden gates, unbeknownst to all other artists and the world, she knew she possessed the perfect shade of heavenly blue.

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Photo Credit(Because mine haven’t grown yet to take a picture): Wallace Gardens