Thursday, May 27, 2010

Irises today

Out of the handful of irises I brought with me from the old house, two are blooming this year. I'm delighted that it's my two favorite heirloom varieties, 'Striped Butterfly' (pictured above) and 'Meadowlark' (below). Quite a while ago I fell in love with old-fashioned irises, the kind my great-aunt Edith used to grow. I barely remember her garden from when I was little, but my Dad remembers it well from when it was his grandmother's garden, and I've helped him and my mom to plant lots of irises at their house over the past 10 years. I stumbled into the love of heirloom plants during my early years of gardening, and I've had irises ever since. Two excellent mail-order sources I've used are Iris City Gardens and Argyle Acres.

The older iris varieties are just as nice as the more recent introductions. Often the oldies are simpler in form (less ruffled and top-heavy, more elegant) than newer ones. They all prefer a sunny location with well-drained soil, and don't like to have wet feet - soggy soil leads to rotten rhizomes. I've found that only a little mulch is fine for them, and they're easy to divide and share if a clump gets too big. As I drive around now, I see irises blooming everywhere, and I have the urge to stop and look at them up close. So many of them are heirloom varieties, planted by someone's mother or grandmother or great-grandfather. They're not just plants, they're memories, living and growing and being shared with friends and family.

Speaking of sharing irises: my friend Sharon asked me to help her divide some irises at her farm a couple weeks ago. These irises were planted on the farm by the previous owner's grandmother (possibly great-grandmother), and were brought over from Europe. They're nothing fancy, a fragrant light lavender-blue, apparently a common variety at the time - they seem to be all over this part of Upstate NY. But they are VIGOROUS. No nancy plants here, no pampered up-to-the-minute hybrids with finicky dispositions, needing staking and fertilizing to live up to their frowzy, overblown, garish potential. We dug up one tightly-grown clump, about 3 feet deep by 4 feet wide, and we had DOZENS and DOZENS of rhizomes to replant. A clump in full bloom would have hundreds of blooms. Sharon has several large clumps that need dividing. We haven't gotten to the rest of them yet, and may not be brave enough to tackle them till later this summer. Sharon said I could have as many as I wanted, and I did plant some of them at my house, out in the back bed where it's dry and sunny, and they can spread as much as they like. The moral of the story - divide vigorous irises often, or you'll need a backhoe to handle the project when you finally get around to it.

Irises and peonies - two plants that remind me of my grandmother and my great aunt, of simpler times and warm spring evenings, of sweet fragrances and lush bouquets. I'll get to peonies in a later post, when mine finally bloom - probably in a couple weeks.