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Re: Species Iris - Beginner's Primer Request


By Tom Dillard, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA    Nov. 23, 1996

Iris cristata will do to start, though I could just as easily begin with I.
danfordii.  The tiny crested iris was the first iris I ever grew.  It was
1964 and I went on a school picnic in April, and I came home with several
freshly collected miniature blue irises.

        Little did I know what I had dug (probably not against the law back
then!).  My mind was more on the girlfriend who accompanied me on the
picnic--but she was tolerant of my scratching around in the leaflitter of
that cool spring day, the skies overcast, and water rushing across the
large stones littering a streambed nearby.  When I got home, the irises
went into the ground under a shade tree in the back yard of my small family

        The collected specimens bloomed the following spring, but their
color was not nearly so dark and blue as I remembered from a year earlier.
I did not grow I. cristata again until 25 years later, and the things I was
struck with is how different the crested iris of today seems taller and
more robust, but the colors are not as blue as those on that long ago
Spring day.

        About 5 years ago as friend told me that crested irises were in
flower in neighboring Perry County, 35 or so miles west of Little Rock in
the foothills of the Ouachita (pronounced Wha-she-TAW) Mountains.  I found
quite a few clumps in flower one sunny Spring day, and one clump seemed
especially vigorous and floriferous.  I used a shovel and plastic bags to
transport several large specimens of iris to my home.  (Yes, I am sad to
admit, I probably DID break the law this time, since I did not have a
collecting permit.)

        With lots of water, a nice spring application of a rich compost,
and a site with high shade, I have gotten wonderful bloom on my cristata.
I garden in USDA Zone 7, where our winters can be quite cold (zero is rare,
but 15 degrees F is not unusual) but are usually relatively mild (most
mornings in January are frosty, with snow 2 or 3 times each year, but no
extended snow cover).  The tiny cristata rhizomes pay no attention to the
cold, and they tolerate heat well if not allowed to dry out and the shade
prevents sunburn.

        I have observed the Perry County rhizomes for 5 years now, and I
have selected several of the better performers.  Flower color is almost
uniformally pale blue-lavender.  I think the color is nice.

One of my favorite features of the cristata is their foliage (which dies
completely to the ground with Autumn).  The plants flower in late March and
early Spring for me.  The earliest flower date is March 22, and the same
year the clump was in flower for a long time, a few stragglers open on
April 9.  A more typical flowering date is April 1st.  This bloom season is
approximately 1 month before the usual TB iris bloom.

As soon as the flowers die, the foliage spurts upward, and it reaches a
mature height of about 8 inches.  The leaves are a rich green, without
midribs, and they stand reliably erect. (The clump always looks startled,
the leaves as erect as the tail of a frightened raccoon.)

        I grow a named variety, 'Summer Storm,' which is advertized as a
darker blue than the type.  However, it only seems slightly darker, and it
is not as vigorous as my collected specimens.  My white form is definately
less vigorous than the typical blue.

        I urge everyone to give Iris cristata a try.  They are easy to
grow, bloom reliably, and--now here I get carried away--I think they make a
good ground cover for a shady area.  (Obviously, since they are decideous,
the ground is bare in the winter.)  Give them plenty of water (with good
drainage), a yearly feeding, and dappled shade.  Avoid dense
shade...although I must admit that I have a clump growing UNDER the leaves
of a hugh species hosta, Hosta ventricosa...and that clump puts on a fairly
nice bloom in the Spring before the hosta really gets going.

        Enough said on a tiny iris.  I hope you will try this species.  I
will try to write again later on another good species.  (I hope this meets
all accepted posting criteria.)

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