June 16, 2013

Maine Gardener: Irises offer great color and longevity

They come in thousands of varieties, and their upright foliage looks good even after the blooms are past.


Irises are great plants for the Maine landscape - a great plant for the casual gardener as well as for those who become obsessed by a single species.

click image to enlarge

The "Crimson Fireworks" iris is a stunning hybrid.

Courtesy Jeff Dunlop

THE RAYMOND GARDEN TOUR, sponsored by the Raymond Village Library, will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 29. The tour includes 12 gardens, and the price is $15 in advance and $20 on the day of the show. Tickets are available at the library, at Raymond Village Florist on Route 302, and at www.raymondvillagelibrary.org.

The blooms can span from early spring for some of the dwarf-bearded irises to as late as early August for some of the Japanese irises, and blossoms range in color through purple, red, yellow, white, brown and many shades in between.

I spent a good part of June 8 at the 53rd annual iris show held by the Maine Iris Society at Auburn Middle School, and the striking blooms on display impressed me.

Peter Young of Buckfield, a past president of the Maine Iris Society, said irises are first divided into two categories - bearded and beardless. The bearded varieties are further divided into miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall bearded irises. The beardless varieties are Siberian, Japanese and species irises.

Jeff Dunlop of Windham said that in the Iris genus, there are more than 200 different species. And in those different species, there are thousands of varieties.

In a minor coincidence, when we got home from the Iris show, we had an email from White Flower Farm promoting the company's irises, and the company offered 40 tall bearded irises and 14 reblooming irises just in that promotion.

While most members of the Iris Society grow their irises in rows or blocks, they also work well as part of mixed perennial gardens. They need at least six hours of direct sun each day, and well-drained soil.

Sharon Whitney, who specializes in Japanese irises, hybridizing and selling them at Eartheart Gardens (eartheartgardens.com) in Harpswell, said that Japanese irises tend to be more fussy than Siberian or bearded irises, needing both a richer soil and more water. She will be holding open houses through the end of July on Sunday and Monday afternoons.

Dunlop, who works with Dean Cole of Gorham hybridizing Siberian irises, said Siberians work especially well in a landscape situation.

"They have good foliage that stands upright all year, even after they bloom, so they look good in the garden," he said.

Dunlop and Whitney are carrying on the work of Currier McEwen, a renowned hybridizer of Japanese and Siberian irises in Harpswell.

McEwen hybridized and introduced to market more than 100 irises in his iris career, which began in Harpswell after he retired from his career in medicine. He died at age 101 in 2003.

Dunlop and Cole do the Siberians, while Whitney grows mostly Japanese iris.

Dunlop was excited about one of his hybrids, "Crimson Fireworks," that was competing in the seedlings division of the iris show.

Bringing an iris to market is a long process. You hand-pollinate the irises when they are in bloom, then wait for seeds to develop in the pods. After you plant the seed, it takes at least two but usually three years for the plant to flower. And you might want to check out the flowers for several years before deciding to take it to market.

Any irises that Dunlop and Cole decide to bring to market, they sell through Fieldstone Gardens (fieldstonegardens.com) in Vassalboro.

All plants brought to market are created from the first selected plant, so the plant will have to be grown and divided for about 10 years for a company to have enough of the irises to sell.

Dunlop and Whitney said they are looking for a lot of different things when hybridizing plants. Part of it is to create new colors and shapes. They also aim to produce hardier plants, as well as plants that extend the blooming season.

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