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Beardless is beautiful

If you miss the bearded iris of northern grow zones, get to know the beardless variety, Louisiana belles that thrive in the Southland.

By JUDY STARK
Published February 3, 2007


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Are you a northern transplant who annually pines away for the regal splendor of bearded iris? Are you a Florida native who has never known what you were missing when folks speak of them? Just invite the lovely, lush, yet easy-to-grow Louisiana iris to bring pinnacles of floral perfection to your landscape, and to create lots of oohs and ahhs from passersby.

Bearded iris' ancestors hailed from Eurasia, and they need deep winter dormancy and dryer summers to survive and thrive. Florida denies them both. But the Louisiana iris, classified as "beardless," are complex hybrids bred mainly from five species of wild swamp iris native to the southeastern United States, including Florida: Iris fulva, I. hexagona, I. nelsonii, I. giganticaerulea and L. brevicaulis.

They glory in our acid soil, muggy summers and cool winters, if given full sun and damp conditions, and thus are the perfect solution for low, wet spots in a landscape, or near rain gutter down spouts and air conditioner drip lines.

I grow many in pots lowered into trays of water or into my fish ponds, where they thrive with zero attention. I did not feed mine once last year, yet they outgrew their one-gallon pots, allowing me to divide them to share with friends, while providing plenty of spares for me.

Oddly, they are rarely seen for sale at Florida nurseries, but I hope that changes soon, as word of their beauty and reliability spreads.

The dedication and creativity of the breeders working with those five species have resulted in a spectacular array of colors and forms, all boasting or even surpassing the grand beauty of bearded irises. Choose from solid colors to wonderful splashes of mixed hues, patterned with stripes and speckles. Your only problem will be finding the spaces in your landscape to grow all your favorites.

One way to solve that pleasant dilemma is to buy cheap plastic pots with no drainage holes, or small plastic storage bins. Puncture the bottom three times with a paring knife blade to create tiny drainage holes, fill with an acidic soil mix that incorporates peat moss, oak leaves, native soil and compost, cover a piece of the rhizome root three inches deep, then bury it all in a deep hole in a landscape bed. Cover the rim with soil, then mulch. Presto: You've created an invisible underground minibog for each iris to thrive in.

I keep my soil somewhat "sweet" pH neutral with dolomite annually because it benefits my roses, but these "buried bogs" allow me to enjoy the stellar beauty of acid-loving Louisiana iris among my hundreds of own-root roses.

When your pieces of iris rhizome arrive in the mail next fall, don't let their small size disappoint you. Their growth rate is phenomenal, especially vigorous varieties like Hurricane Party, Wood Violet and Vermillion Treasure. If planted in a low, wet area, like a drainage ditch, or above a septic drain field, in a couple of years they will be massive clumps, offering armloads of long-stemmed dazzlers that will be stunning in floral arrangements each spring.

So don't wish for iris. Grow them.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

Fast Facts:

Iris sources

Visit www.iriscitygardens.com or call toll-free 1-800-934-4747.

 

[Last modified February 2, 2007, 19:36:28]


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