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Wild Child

The untamed Beauty of the elusive Iris is a break from the conventional

April 01, 2001|SUSAN HEEGER

Compared to a crisp, starched tea rose, the iris appears tattered and tremulous--as if a sudden breeze might just carry it off. Named for another fleeting beauty, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, the iris blooms in most colors of the spectrum, from pale creams and golds to shrieking yellows and rusty apricots to moody blues and almost-blacks. Its scents vary widely, too, evoking ginger or citrus, or more classically, ripe grapes. Long beloved among gardeners, the iris is one of the oldest flowers in cultivation. In the 15th century BC, Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III spotted its blooms as he sacked Syria and ordered his men to bring them home. Greek physician Dioscorides wrote in the 1st century AD of fragrant Iris florentina, used as raw material for perfumes as well as medicines for a variety of ills. In medieval times, the iris traveled with the crusaders to the Holy Land, appearing on French flags as the fleur-de-lis, symbol of royalty and divine might. More recently, Victorians planted irises like mad, which explains its nostalgic associations, though modern varieties bear scant resemblance to what our grannies grew.

Of the 300-some iris species, the most popular are the bearded types, those with fuzzy hairs at the base of their petal-like falls. Descendants of European and Asian natives, they're sun lovers that grow from shallow rhizomes and thrive in well-drained soil enriched with plenty of organic matter. They range in size from miniature dwarfs (8 inches or shorter) to talls (between 2 1/2 and 4 feet), the scale of choice for maximum garden impact.

Currently the most sought-after of the bearded hybrids are the new "rebloomers," which flower several times, thereby silencing critics of the iris, who disparage their normally short-lived annual show. John Schoustra, owner of Riverside's Greenwood Daylily + Iris, the Southland's biggest iris grower, names 'Frequent Flyer,' a white cultivar, as one of the hottest in the field. With its "modern" form--which is larger, perkier, more crimped and ruffled than old-fashioned types--it makes a major splash in a flower border and does it, Schoustra says, four or five times a year. Other top repeaters include grape-scented 'Silent Patriot,' a more traditionally shaped and scaled violet-blue, and 'Summer Olympics,' a vibrant yellow.

But there's more than blooms to a bearded iris. Its olive-green swordlike leaves, which precede the flowers and persist after they fade, bring a lively edge to a foliage mix and offer a foil for billowing plants such as lavender and sage. Iris pallida 'Zebra,' a mutation of an old species dating to the Middle Ages, even has variegated leaves. Though 'Zebra' is briefly deciduous in Southern California (during December and January), most bearded irises aren't, particularly rebloomers, which never really stop growing.

The best time to plant iris, or to divide rhizomes that have been in the ground a few years, is from midsummer into fall. Feed plants in February, when they start putting on size. By late March or early April, they will unfurl their shy yet plucky faces in the sun.

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