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Iris: A story of generational love

Regular readers of this column will know I am a third-generation iris lover. My grandparents were founding members of the New Zealand Iris Society, and one of my uncles was [much later] the national president.

My grandfather was a typical flower fanatic – he liked tall bearded iris, and the bigger and brighter they were, the happier he was. My uncle’s tastes were less restricted – he liked most types and introduced some of his own hybrids – a couple of dwarf bearded types, and a tall spuria type.

My own tastes probably more reflect my grandmother’s – she was more interested in smaller plants, and different species. She bred dwarf bearded types, although she never introduced any. My preference is for smaller beardless types, particularly what my grandmother called Californian irises, now called Pacific Coast iris. I breed a hundred or so of these each year.

I also grow a few of the less ordinary kinds, and this weekend I spent a couple of hours removing parts of one of these that had gone a little feral on me.

There is a group of irises sometimes called the “crested“ irises. They do not have beards, but they do have an elevated crest in the area where beards are usually to be found. Undoubtedly the most common of these plants is the species Iris japonica. Those of you familiar with botanical Latin will know this means Japanese iris, but to make things confusing, this is not the plant gardeners call Japanese iris, and does not resemble it much either.

Whereas the garden Japanese iris is a deciduous water-loving plant, with upright leaves to over a metre, and [at least in its most usual forms] large flat flowers that resemble a dinner plate, Iris japonica is a low-growing species, with leaves that grow in broad fans, slightly tipping at the ends. These are born on thin rhizomes, which are shallow rooted and can spread slightly, but it is not invasive.

The flowers are only about 5cm across, usually pale lavender with darker markings and a prominent yellow splash. They are ephemeral – each only lasting a day or two – but they are carried in along succession, up to a month or so. Their delicate shape and ethereal nature has sometimes earned them the name of “fairy iris” or even “poor man’s orchids”.

My mother grew these, their spring blooming coinciding with flowering period for lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, and I have strong memories of small cutglass vases filled with the delicate flowers and the glorious fragrance of the small bell-shaped flowers of the lily of the valley.

There is a white form that is sometimes around, and a variegated type is often found in massed plantings. I have to say that the delicate flowers are somewhat lost among the lighter-variegated foliage, and it is best grown for the leaves alone.

When we came here there were some scruffy Iris japonica plants growing in a very dry part of the garden, so I sought out its near cousin, I. confusa. This is similar in most ways [that’s why it is called confusa!] but it’s larger in all dimensions – grows taller, has bigger flowers and also grows more vigorously. Unlike most iris species the foliage grows atop bamboo-like canes, bright green leaves that grow to about 1.5 metres.

I planted this in a sheltered garden at the rear of the section, largely filled with woodland plants. The soil is very friable and its arching growth, with drooping foliage, made a nice contrast to the other plants. It is a reliable flowerer, doing better after warm summers and mild winters, and it has the bonus of flowering with the lily of the valley growing in a nearby bed, so I can replicate my mother’s floral efforts in spring.

However, these guys are more adventurous than I. japonica, and over the years I have had to thin them out a couple of times. This time around they had spread into some heavily mulched soil, and were romping away vigorously, so I had to get the fork out and take away a couple of meters of growth.

My grandparents grew an even larger crested species, I. wattii. This is like I. japonica on steroids, with taller growth and larger flowers, but is not quite so easily grown as the other two.

I grow another species, I. tectorum, usually found in blue but I have the white form. This is the famed “roof iris” of Japan, so-called because the roots were made into a powder which was used for cosmetic purposes. When the government decreed that all land should be used for vegetable production, Japanese women commenced growing it in the thatched roofs of their houses.

Breeders have been at work among these plants. The two species I. confusa and I. wattii were crossed in Havelock North, resulting in ‘Question Mark’. Carterton doyen of the New Zealand Iris Society, and my grandmother’s friend, Frances Love, then crossed this with I. tectorum, giving rise to a hybrid she named after her granddaughter, ‘Honiana’.

In a very New Zealand-like twist, the person Honiana Love is a friend of mine and is currently my son’s boss. It’s a small world.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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