A bit about the lovely iris
Gardening in Santa Fe is a challenge. Our poor soils are baked in the summer and frozen in the winter. But one of the favorite perennials of local gardeners is the tall bearded iris (Iris germanica). This hearty, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance perennial not only survives but seems to thrive in the “City Different.” Now is the time to begin looking for them in gardens around Santa Fe.
Named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, iris come in many colors and varieties, from soft pastels, white, burgundy, and bronze to blue-black. When it blooms, the iris’ flowers are gorgeous and even flamboyant. Witness the Santa Fe Iris Society’s plantings on the corner of Alta Vista Street and Galisteo Street.
Because of its great elegance, the iris bloom has been the symbol of monarchs and royal families throughout history. One of the earliest known artworks of an iris is a fresco in King Minos’ palace on the Greek Island of Crete. The palace dates from 2100 BCE.
The most famous royal use of the iris as a symbol of power and position was that of the Bourbon kings of France, including Louis XIV. The iris was adapted on royal banners as the “Fleur de Lys,” the elegant, three-sectioned symbol that disappeared from the nation’s flag with the French Revolution but is still quite common in the decorative arts. In fact, today it proudly adorns the beautiful flag of the French-founded province of Quebec, Canada.
Iris are propagated by rhizomes (the brown, root-like structure at their base resembling a potato) similar to bulbs. They are best planted in late summer. Pick a spot with about six to eight hours of full sun per day as the rhizome needs to receive a summer “baking” to ripen the sugars inside and encourage the next season’s flowers. Never plant too deep— plant them six inches down and you might as well kiss them goodbye. Plant the rhizome so that it is half buried, half exposed, with the roots oriented downward and well-spread. Plant rhizomes singly or in groups of three with the fans outermost, one to two feet apart, depending on the size. After two to five years, when clumps become congested or lose vitality, divide and replant sound rhizomes in fresh soil. The best time to replant irises is soon after bloom.
As iris mature, the amount of time you’ll need to spend maintaining them should decrease drastically. Still, even when your plant has been established for years, it’s a good idea to give it a check-up every fewweeks just to ensure it has no problems. As long as it is receiving good sun during the growing season, occasional rainwater, and nutrients from the soil, it should be just fine.
Flicka lived 30+ years in Northern California where she had a large, successful garden. Little did she know how different growing things would be in Santa Fe. She became a Master Gardener, but had many failures along the way. One of her successes is iris, her “grandmother’s flowers.” She planted her first rhizomes in her Santa Fe yard exposed to no shade and lots of wind, but they thrived. She hopes that others will attempt to grow these regal flowers.