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Royalty blooms where irises grow
The iris received its name from a Greek legend that told of the goddess, Iris, who transported messages between Earth and Heaven by using the arc of the rainbow. In fact, “iris” means “rainbow” in Greek.
With such a heavenly name, it is only appropriate that irises bloom in a myriad of beautiful colors.
French royalty in the 12th century were captivated by the iris bloom and created an emblem for their coat of arms and flags depicting the iris as a three-petaled flower representing faith, wisdom and chivalry. This stylized flower was called fleur-de-lys, “flower of the lily,” and eventually became associated with Christianity.
In Italy, images of Mary holding the fleur-de-lys appeared on coins issued by cathedrals dedicated to her and also on seals of the cathedrals, starting with Notre Dame de Paris. It was often used to symbolize the Holy Trinity. It still adorns the flag of the French-founded province of Quebec, Canada.
In the U.S., Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout organization, chose the fleur-de-lys to be used on the world scout emblem badge. Baden-Powell had served in the British Army, where reconnaissance specialists, known as “scouts,” wore the fleur-de-lys on their armbands.
Each part of the world Scout emblem symbolizes certain aspects of the Boy Scout program, and the three petals of the fleur-de-lys represent the three parts of the Scout Promise: Service to others, duty to God and obedience to the Scout law.
Irises belong to the family Iridaceae. There are thousands of hybrid varieties. The Louisiana beardless iris grows in freshwater wetlands of the Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast region and has a more flattened bloom in a deep purple color. Wild iris include “Blue Flag” and “Yellow Flag.'”They, too, grow in more damp conditions than other varieties of iris like.
The four most common iris groups are reticulated iris, Dutch iris, bearded iris and Siberian iris. Reticulated and Dutch iris grow from bulbs, while bearded and Siberian iris grow from rhizomes, a thickened underground stem.
The bearded iris has three petals that arch upward, creating a cap, and three petals bending downward (called falls). Its name comes from the yellow “hairs” (known as the beard), which congregate along each fall's midline.
Bearded irises are grouped into several types: miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall iris. Shorter varieties of irises bloom first, followed by intermediate and then taller ones. If you plant different types, you will have continual blooms for several months.
As flowers fade, cut back flower stalks to the base of the plant. Do not trim away foliage.
Bearded iris do not require a season of cold to bloom. Although rated USDA zones 3-9, I grow them in a shady north flower bed. They are not flamboyant bloomers like those grown in a colder climate, but they do bloom and are fun to grow.
Plant bearded irises in fall, spacing rhizomes 1-2 feet apart. A north location receiving morning sun and afternoon shade is a perfect spot.
Prepare the area by loosening the soil and adding 2-4 inches of compost and digging it in. Make a mound of soil and place a rhizome on top, spreading its roots down around the mound. Fill in with soil, leaving most of the rhizome exposed, and press the soil firmly around the roots to ensure the rhizome is stabilized. Do not plant bearded iris deeply.
Overwatering is a mistake gardeners make when caring for irises. Once established, they should be watered when the top three inches of soil are dry. If kept too wet, the rhizomes rot.
Irises are clumping plants and will slowly stop blooming if not divided. This usually occurs in three to four years. When blooming is finished for the year, plants can be divided. Dig up the rhizomes being careful not to cut off their root systems, wash any soil from the roots and cut away dried or rotted areas on the rhizomes.
If you notice a soft, black interior, the rhizome has bacterial soft rot. The rotted portion should be cut off and thrown in the garbage, not your compost pile. Cut the rhizomes into three-inch pieces, with each piece having a fan of three to four leaves.
When the plants have been divided, trim the leaves to six inches in length. This helps the rhizomes put their energy into building good root systems once replanted. Before replanting, amend the soil with new compost.
It is common practice to plant rhizomes so the fan of leaves face the same direction on each plant. Some gardeners use a triangle-shaped piece of cardboard, a foot long on each side, as a guide. They plant a rhizome at each point and then move the triangle over to plant more rhizomes.
In fall, iris borer moths may lay eggs on iris leaves. In spring, the eggs hatch into tiny grubs that chew their way down into the rhizomes. To eliminate this problem, when leaves have died, cut them back to a couple of inches. Throw trimmings and any debris or mulch near the plants in the garbage, not the compost pile.
Bearded iris require little maintenance, and their beautiful foliage and regal flowers make them a nice addition to a flower bed.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.