Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Spring in Washington, DC is a delightful season but all too short. We've just had 10 days in a row with temperatures above 80 (a new record for May), reminding me that heat and humidity often arrive early and that it's best to get most gardening chores out of the way by mid-May, before that window closes. But spring-blooming plants like my bearded irises look so nice this time of year with no care at all, whispering we don't need anything, look how well we're blooming, just sit back and enjoy us for a while. It's positively hypnotic. By the time I snap out of it, June has arrived with its muggy summer heat and perhaps worst of all, bugs. I was bitten by my first mosquito of the year just yesterday, marking spring as effectively over.
Purple! (Name lost)
It's true, I've done almost nothing in my garden this spring. Call me lazy, but I blame the irises. They require nothing but admiration right now. I have a few different cultivars, not just to appreciate their range of beauty but also to extend their blooming period because different cultivars bloom at different times. In my own garden, a bright yellow one (sold as 'Buckwheat' but I'm not sure that is correct) is the first to bloom, in fact is already finished; a deep purple one, whose label I lost long ago, is at its peak for another day or two, and the little heirloom iris that came with the house (tentatively identified as 'Honorabile' but according to some websites, more properly 'Sans Souci': see The Iris that lost its name) has just begun to bloom and will give me flowers for a few more days.
Iris 'Buckwheat' (?)
Irises have always been among my favorite spring flowers, and not just because they're beautiful and (relatively) carefree. Irises take me back to my childhood. They seemed exotic, perhaps because my father didn't grow irises. The lady across the street grew them, one of the old bluish purple cultivars, and I regularly raided her compost pile, hardly believing she would just toss the rhizomes out like trash, and hardly believing I could just stick them in the ground and grow them myself. My 4-H mentors later introduced me to siberian irises, but the bearded irises still have a special place in my garden. I feel like a little kid as I watch the buds swell, anticipating that performance when they finally pop open into ridiculously large, silky, frilly flowers like a magician's bouquet popping out of his wand.
More iris buds
That's not to say irises are completely carefree. The tall ones have a tendency to flop over, although I've had some success with selecting shorter cultivars that rarely need staking. They look a bit sad when they go dormant in the summer, and this is when they need to be divided and replanted, at the time of the year when I'm most reluctant to work in the garden.
Iris 'Honorabile' (or 'Sans Souci')
Another problem is capturing their color accurately. 'Buckwheat' is a lighter and brighter yellow, and the purple iris a deeper and more saturated purple, than my photos suggest. The epidermal cells of the flowers tend to reflect light, washing them out or producing odd highlights. I generally get the best results on a bright overcast day, but even then the colors often don't turn out quite right.
Iris 'Honorabile' (bud)
I've also had no luck with "remontant" irises, which are supposed to give a second bloom in the fall. The deep purple one is supposed to be a remontant, and in fact budded up last fall--for the first time ever--and just as it was beginning to open, we had a hard frost and that was that. I've seen irises blooming in other people's gardens in the fall, so I know it's possible. For now, I'll content myself with the spring display.
I'm certainly not the only one who love irises. Here are some irises I saw during a stroll through the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC on Sunday morning: