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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Fragrant Abelia

“…do plant Abelia Triflora.  It flowers in June, grows to the size of what we used to call syringe [lilac], and is smothered in white, funnel-shaped flowers with the strongest scent of Jasmine.”

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden;
June 18th, 1950
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I waited all summer to buy the Abelia.  As you might know, shrubs are best planted in the fall.  I knew I had to have it, the scent of Jasmine is too irresistible.

Don’t be deterred by their condition in the fall, especially if it’s been sitting all summer in the nursery.  When I found it, the leaves had turned leathery and had been nibbled by pests.  The stems seemed unhealthy and were bent in peculiar ways.  Everyone passed it up as they clambered for the beautiful perfection of the blooming Rose of Sharron,  but I knew what the Abelia would do come summer.   The leaves, as you can see, are supple and green and its stems have now found their way to the sun.  The little flowers, which do resemble those of the Jasmine vine are pink and white; a beautiful contrast to its bright green leaves.  They start blooming right after the lilacs so it’s perfect for those of you “timing” your garden blooms.

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I love passing by and getting whiffs of its Jasmine-like scent.  Right now it is short and I have to bend over to catch it, but soon it will be right in my face.  I believe I choose the right spot.  All my scented flowers are planted along my back yard walking path so I can enjoy them.  So far, it has not been bothered by pests.  All my other bushes have been sprayed, but I haven’t had to touch the Abelia.  So, perhaps it has the added quality of being pest resistant?

Truly, it’s a beautiful plant.  Along with Vita, I too would recommend it, especially for those of you who would like something your neighbor doesn’t have, if we are comparing such things.

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The Modest Christmas Cyclamen

I went to a Christmas party given by a neighbor of mine…All the things appertaining to a cocktail party were standing about, on tables; but the thing that instantly caught my eye was a pot plant of cyclamen I had not seen for years.
Delicate in its quality, subtle in its scent, which resembles the scent of wood violets, it stood there in a corner by itself, looking so modest and Jane-Austen-like among its far grander companions.  It had a freshness and an innocence about it, a sort of adolescent look, rather frightened at finding itself in company of orchids and choice azaleas and glasses filled with champagne cocktails.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

 

I thought that was an interesting glimpse from one of Vita’s many garden books.  They are sometimes more like glimpses into her private life.  Her garden books are quite a pleasure to read if you know someone who might like to take a little journey to Sissinghurst (figuratively speaking).  I read this passage back in June and couldn’t wait to share the idea of giving cyclamen away at Christmas.  It’s such a lovely idea!  If I were ever the recipient of such a gift I would treasure it as I do all my other gifted plants.
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My local greenhouse is full of color right now – so uplifting.   I realize it’s almost Christmas and heaps of snow cover the ground, but the greenhouse will never fail its customer; bearing an open wallet and a generous nature.  They have an abundance of different cyclamen right now, so go in and take your pick!   If one takes good care of it, the corms will continue to flower for years.  They can be taken outside in the spring and brought back in when the temperature drops.

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Here is what Vita says about the care of indoor cyclamen:
“A pot of cyclamen is a favorite Christmas present, and very nice, too, but by this time (March) some recipients may be wondering what to do with it.  Don’t throw it away.  It will repeat its beauty for you year after year if you treat it right.  Treating it right means (1) keeping it moist so long as it continues to flower and to carry leaves; (2) letting it dry off by degrees after the last buds have opened and faded away; (3) keeping it, still in its pot, un-watered, in a frost-proof place during the remaining cold weeks, and then standing it out of doors, still un-watered, still in its pot, throughout the spring and early summer in a shady place (4) starting it into life again in July or August.  Staring it into life again merely means giving it water again – very simple.”

In addition to this she warns,  if you see a yellowing leaf clip it with scissors, never pull the leaf as you might take a bit of the corm with it.  Also if there is a withering flower cut this also, never pull.

 

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They are beautiful flowers this time of year.  I like the pure white myself.  To me, they are reminiscent of white doves – an appropriate symbol for the Christmas season.  They come in a variety of colors and the frilly ones have a citrus fragrance to them and are quite attractive- like little pink ballerinas.

Hardy cyclamen do exist of course, but I’ve been told in Michigan their success rate is low since the squirrels get after the corms.  I don’t really see why this wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere, but perhaps our soil is easily penetrated, as opposed to the clay soil Vita complained about at Sissinghurst Castle?

Have a splendid holiday season, and do consider giving the gift that keeps on giving- you might just ignite a love for gardening in an unsuspecting relative or friend.

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Bugbane: The Angel Of The *Fall*

Not often now, in my saddened old wisdom, do I get enticed by catalogue descriptions into ordering something which I know is almost bound to disappoint.  Yet from time to time I fall.  I do not regret this.  If one lost the capacity of falling, it would mean that one had passed from the trustful meadows of youth into the skeptical deserts of age, and that would be a pity for any gardener, since gardening is essentially a hopeful, optimistic occupation.

-Vita Sackville-West
February 7, 1954
More For Your Garden

Is she not amazing?  I fall deeper in love with her writing every time I pick up one of her books (I practically have them all).  Just when I think I have gotten use to her poetic prose and fanciful descriptions that waver between gardening and the meaning of life, I am struck again by her ability to encapsulate all that is true and meaningful beyond the garden itself.

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Yes I too make mistakes, or rather I’m sometimes disappointed with my choices.   This realization never happens right away however.   I think in most cases you just have to give it time.  For instance, I was unsure of my choice of the Bugbane or the Cimicifuga.   After a long spout of no luck in our shady front yard and after being told I would never be able to find any flowering plants for shade, I was pointed in the direction of the bugbane by a very knowledgeable nursery worker.  I was told it was slow to grow and that it may not flower for three years.

It was very small when I planted it.  I divided it into three or four other plants because the roots had grown so tight in the planter.  When I separated them with my clippers they faltered for a week or so but soon flourished and grew quite rapidly.  To my surprise, they did flower this year and I have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful blooms of the Cimicifuga, or if you would like to use its most recently changed name the Actaea Racemosa, during this time of the year when we gardeners thirst for a fresh surprise, a little color and a little fragrance.

 

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Speaking of fragrance, the Bugbane has an interesting one.  I would say it is that of sour vanilla, but it’s not exactly off-putting.  It rather draws the nose to its tiny white stamens again and again in order to pinpoint the scent exactly.

They like partial sun to shade and moist soil.  They are not picky about the nutrients or the acidity levels, they can flourish in all.   However, the more sun they get the more they will bloom, and the blooms will reach about 2-3 feet if not more.  I’m getting many blooms on mine and it is practically in full shade so that should tell you something.  Water them like you would any other new plant for the first year, then ignore them.  They are wild in their genealogy so given this fact they are more hardy and pest resistant like other wild plants.

 

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Bugbane has many names.  For instance, it is sometimes called black snakeroot.  Do not confuse the bugbane or black snakeroot with the white snakeroot.  The white snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol which causes tremors in cattle if ingested and if humans ingest the milk by an exposed animal or eat the meat they will get milk sickness.   It is known that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness when he was young.

The black snakeroot actually has many medicinal properties that frontiersman and Native American’s used.  It is said to repel bug bites, and help calm menopause and acne just to name a few.  However, I’d suggest going to your local drug store for the remedies of said afflictions.

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The bugbane is indeed the saving grace, an angel if you will of the autumn and I too was victim to the “fall” as Vita explains, but I have yet to be disappointed.  I will wait, and in the spring I will spread the plants out to create more of a happy crowded appearance mixed with the astilbe I mentioned in my post Astilbe & The Romanovs.  Since its leaves are still green and the astilbe look dead (which I hope isn’t the case) adding these to the mix would add interest and color for all seasons.  When they really get going they will be gorgeous.

Larry Hodgson describes in his book, Making the Most of Shade that planted in numerous groups, the bugbane will present a striking show – like roman candles set against their dark green foliage shooting up toward the sky.  I will do my best to reproduce this effect for you and all passersby in the coming years.

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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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Vita’s Wish For Nasturtium…

What about Tropaeolum speciosum, the flame nasturtium, with brilliant red trumpets among the small dark leaves?  This is the glory of Scottish gardens…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
November 24, 1946

Something rather peculiar happened when I was planning my garden back in April.  I knew I wanted to plant seeds, two in particular; the zinnia and the morning glory.  But a picture of a brilliant red flower caught my eye so I picked up the packet to examine it.  I had never seen nor heard of the nasturtium before.  However, I didn’t want to bother with new seeds I knew nothing about so I put it back…or so I thought.

I came home that day and discovered the packet in my purchase bag as if Vita herself had put it there.   I took this as her spirit coaxing me to try them.  I carried her spirit with me a lot in those early days of spring, unsure and uneducated in the way of gardening.  But she helped me very much, and I do believe this was her way of coaxing me along to experiment.   So I did.

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They soon came up in these cute little clumps of lily pad-like leaves and they grew and multiplied; covering the ground, expanding and taking over my bare areas where I needed the extra growth.   I love the leaves with their defined veins reminiscent of exploding stars, and the tiny flowers hide inside their abundance as if they were a secret.   My Grandma came over and noticed them.  She told me that her mother, my Great Grandmother use to grow nasturtiums all the time.  This I never knew.  However, I waited a long time for them to flower.   They took all summer to do so, but they are lovely!  They are indeed like flames among the green, coming in bright orange and brilliant red.

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The other day I experimented by clipping a few of the flowers for a vase.   Although they didn’t last more than a week it was a good opportunity to see the flowers close up and get a whiff of their delicious scent, which is like a delicate baby powder.  They are so low to the ground one would have to get on one’s hand and knees to smell them.  I’ve often thought that next year I should try them in pots.  That way I can move them around to my liking and have them burst and melt over the sides of the pot.  They will also be at eye and nose level for my ultimate delight.   I do recommend these curious ground loving plants. Go ahead and grow something different.  As Vita would say, “Try“.

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Just In Time For Tea

The marvel of Peru, Mirabilis jalapa, is familiarly called four o’clock, because it opens only at tea time and shuts itself up again before breakfast.   It is an old-fashioned herbaceous plant, seldom seen now, but quite decorative with its mixed coloring of yellow, white, red, or lilac, sometimes striped or flaked like some carnations.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening
1958

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Indeed, the four o’clock flowers show themselves every afternoon and until morning, then shut themselves away again. I suppose they are conserving themselves for the next show.  It’s rather intelligent of them to expel their energy only after the blaring heat of the sun has gone.

I’ve found that mine don’t open until dusk.   They’re scent is subtle, but increases as it gets dark. It is a sweet fresh scent that I can’t really describe specifically.   Next time I happen to catch it wafting through the humid night air I’ll do my best to detect it.   You can cut it, the blooms will open for you.  But to get its second bloom, one must be diligent to trim the stem every few days to keep it fresh.

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I planted them last year.   My Grandma had given me some left over seeds and I thought I should try them.  Assuming they were annuals, as told to me by the package, I planted a few seeds to try my luck, jam-packing them in a neglected corner.  They came up yellow that August.  Not that impressed, as yellow was not my favorite color last year, I vowed not to plant them again and didn’t give them much thought after that.

Imagine my surprise when the pesky things found their way into my garden this year!  I failed to take note of their self-seeding quality.  Happy in their random places they have found for themselves, they are popping up everywhere in the most unexpected nooks and crannies.  But a couple pink plants have emerged!  Magenta we’ll call it, as my daughter argues it has a purple tinge.  I rather like the places they’ve turned up.  They seem to keep politeness and punctuality about them – showing themselves on schedule every day and not treading on my rose bushes or my other coveted plants.  Perhaps they know best as they’ve shown up in spots that were left bare by me and now my garden has filled out in a lovely way.

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