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Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Red Hawk bearded iris

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Grow only a few bearded iris, and choose them well.  A true red is still in the future for any iris, but this bearded cultivar, 'Red Hawk', is one of the closest to date.  And how 'bout those ebony buds?  They're a double take in themselves.

 

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The black is the color of the three sepals that make up an iris flower's calyx.  The sepals unfurl into the voluptuous mahogany-burgundy "falls"—the petal-like things that cascade outward and downward around the base of the iris flower. 

 

The true petals—the "standards"—are held erect.  Spreading them apart with my fingers, we can peer into the center of the flower and see another round of swirling color and ruffling structure that, in hardy plants at least, might only be rivaled by parrot tulips or peonies.

 

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Could any flower be more generous in its display, more nuanced in its coloring and patterning?  And yet, bearded iris have very little place in any garden that strives for a steady show from Spring through frost.  See "Where to use it," "How to handle it," "Quirks", and "Variants" for the many reasons why.

 

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That bearded iris are so difficult to integrate into your general garden-at-large, as opposed to confined to their own secret garden that you visit only the two weeks in the year when the plants are in bloom, is all the more shocking given how many thousands (and thousands) of bearded-iris cultivars are out there for the choosing.  Select one out of every thousand, tops.  On my wishlist is a division of a bearded from a friend's garden, whose ebony buds open to ebony flowers. 

 

 

Here's how to grow this perennial, which, alas, should be one of your garden's ultimate specialty acts—but nothing more:

 

Latin Name

Iris x germanica 'Red Hawk'

Common Name

'Red Hawk' bearded iris

Family

Iridaceae, the Iris family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 3 - 10.

Habit

Strongly upright fans of spear-like foliage from thick slowly-creeping rhizomes, with flowering stems arising well above the foliage, to display the large and classically complex flowers to perfection.

Rate of Growth

Medium to fast.

Size in four years

A clump two feet across, with foliage about twenty inches high, and flower stalks ten or so inches higher still.  Bearded iris clumps are best divided every few years—they tend to die out in the center, which is where the oldest rhizomes are—so there's no benefit to letting clumps grow free-range for the long term.

Texture

Typical for bearded irises, with fans of sword-like foliage held far enough apart to be individually appreciated—but also far enough apart to allow plenty of sun and weeds to penetrate the colony.

Grown for

its flowers: True red is the holy grail of iris breeding, and 'Red Hawk' is one of the closest.  Deep purple buds bordered in honest-to-god black open to richly-hued flowers with the typical peculiar iris structure and terminology.  Those purple-black bud covers are the three sepals, and they mature into downward-arching petal-like structures, the "falls."  They are the deepest velvety burgundy imaginable, flaming to a burgundy-veined orange, yellow, and white as the fuzzy center-of-the-tongue beard appears at the crest of the arch just before the sepal descends into the interior of the flower. 

 

The three true petals, the "standards," are held voluptuously erect.  They are somewhat lighter—a rose that veers into pink—and while they are generously ruffly, their outwardly-visible pigment is almost solid.  If you peer into the blossom—spreading the standards apart with your fingers, if possible—you reveal an inner and even more remarkable display.  The inner face of the standards is as speckled and streaked in yellow and orange as the veined inner portion of the falls.

 

But the central mystery, in every sense, is yet another trio of petaloid structures, the "styles," each of which arches over a sepal to form somewhat of a clamshell.  The style's upper surface is also yellow and red-burgundy, but is neither veined, like the falls, nor speckled, like the standards.  Instead, the pattern is flowing and alluvial.  The lower reaches of the styles are solid butter-yellow, except for a narrow central stream of red-burgundy that flows upward, widening and mixing with the yellow as it does.  By the time it reaches the ends of the styles, this delta of darker color spans their entire width.

 

Hidden under each style is a stamen, and at the base of the style, the nectary that is the ultimate lure for insect pollinators.  To reach the nectary, they must squeeze downward, between the sepal below and its style above.  The style has a rigid rim, the pistil—think of it as the upper gum, with the style's outermost ruffliness being the upper lip—that scrapes pollen off the back of the pollinating insect just before, conveniently, the stamen slathers more of it onto that same insect back as the critter delves deeper into the flower to reach the nectary.

 

In quirky functioning, eccentric structure, sheer size, and ravishing coloring, iris flowers have detail-laden intrigue that's unrivaled in hardy flowers.  Only orchid flowers have comparable allure, both for pollinators and for humans. 

Flowering season

Mid-Spring, late May into June here in Rhode Island.

Color combinations

Despite the name, 'Red Hawk' is not truly red.  The closer you look, the more colors you see:  Pink, rose, orange, yellow, burgundy, and white.  But at a glance—and certainly from any distance—the impression is, indeed, of deep velvet red.  Because of the multicolor flaming of the veined portion of the falls, 'Red Hawk' can also associate with yellow, not just with the rose and burgundy that are predominant, or the black of the buds.  The flowers are so complicated in structure as well as coloring that almost any other colors will be a clash.  Avoid blue, light pink, or even orange: The flowers of bearded iris welcome only colors that are closely complementary, not contrasting.

Partner plants

Beards need careful partnering with plants that supply nearby interest from late Spring through frost but without shading the iris's foliage or the rhizomes.  Clumping perennials are best, because the limit of their foliage spread can be planned for and counted on, and they won't invade the iris clumps the way plants with creeping habit could.  The sword leaves of the iris welcome partner foliage that's round at any size, or notably larger or smaller any in any shape but grassy, which will look repetitive. 

 

Because bearded iris are normally trouble-free in my climate as long as their soil is well-drained in Winter, I've ignored my own advice, in part, by partnering with round(ish) leaves from epimediums, whose spreading habit and tolerance of shade means that, eventually, I'll be extracting iris from epimedium as well as vice-versa.  'Beehive' Japanese holly is another near neighbor; its tiny foliage is excellent contrast, and I'm pruning it into small-scale topiary, which will conveniently control its size.  Nasturiums provide additional round-leaved interest, while 'Bishop of Llandaff' dahlias, whose foliage is both purple as well as so dissected it looks almost like a Japanese maple's, provides contrast in both foliage color and form. 

 

Alchemilla could be a boon, with its mounding habit and rounded foliage.  True, the green color of Alchemilla foliage is, in itself, no great gift to the iris. 

 

Heuchera has the compatible foliage and habit of Alchemilla, and in cultivars with such specific and brightly-colorful leaves that a nuanced link, iris flower to Heuchera leaf, could be exciting.  While the foliage of the purple-foliaged forms is often too infused or overlaid with gray, silver, or overt pink to harmonize with the yellow and orange of the flaring of the 'Red Hawk' sepals, there are yellow and bright-green forms that would be a direct connection.  Culivars with (sometimes reputed) Heuchera villosa parentage are more tolerant of the heat and sun that the iris prefers.  'Caramel' would support the orange and pink in the 'Red Hawk' flowers, whereas 'Citronelle' would call out to the yellow in the flares.  Although its foliage provides no additional color than green, Heuchera villosa is, itself, an excellent choice.  It's sun-tolerant and mounding, and provides airy sprays of tiny white flowers in late Summer, when the interest of the iris is at its nadir. 

 

The flowering season of any bearded iris is so brief that it can be a challenge to partner with other flowers unless the flowering partner has a longer season of bloom.  If the partner is only in bloom for a week itself, the quirks of any given season's weather may make each plant the ship that passes the other in the night.  Another challenge is that iris flowers are so complicated and interesting in themselves that adjacent blooms are just as likely to look fussy, if complicated in themselves; or boring, if not. 

 

Perhaps best would be flowers that are small and carried in large groups; worst would be flowers that are similarly Rubenesque, or with roundness that's literal or even implied.  The need for colors that are distinctly deferential to those of the iris, instead of contrasting, is yet another limitation, ruling out all the early-season stalwarts such as roses, poppies, peonies, or alliums.  What about creamy camassia, C. leichtlinii 'Alba'?  It's a classic partner for Siberian iris, and blooms for a relatively long time.  True, the grassy foliage is no help at all.  

 

The caveats and outright limitations inherent in partnering with bearded iris are yet one more reason to limit their use in mixed plantings.  Another is the staggering effect that could be achieved by growing a very few cultivars—even one—planted en masse.  See "Where to use it" and "Quirks" below.   

Where to use it in your garden

Bearded iris as spectacular in flower as they are boring before and after.  And, like peonies, they typically need full sun all season long, so aren't easy to hide after flowering is through.  The flowers aren't long-lasting enough to use for cutting, either, so there isn't a place for "beards" in the cutting garden. 

 

But, oh my, those flowers!  Large as well as prominently placed at the top of their erect and self-supporting stems, they are, conveniently, likely to be higher than the early-season growth of most perennials nearby.  Iris show up well from a distance, then, so you don't need more than an occasional clump to bring splashes of sui generis floral excitement to mixed plantings.  Those occasional clumps, in turn, are all the more easy to overlook (if not, exactly, to hide) after their two or three weeks of flamboyant flowering has past.  See "How to handle it" below.

 

If your garden and your capacity of gardening are both large enough, you might have a separate area for bearded iris, to which you would pilgrimage for viewing during the brief interval of flowering.  You don't have to look at it the rest of the year, although you would still have to maintain it.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!"  

Culture

Full sun, except in hot and mild climates, where part shade is tolerated and even preferred.  Gardeners from "continental" climates, which have sharp distinctions between the seasons, and where Winter is the real deal, with temperatures well below freezing and regular episodes of snow and ice, grow bearded iris with all possible sun if they want to maximize their flowering.  Gardeners in maritime climates, with cool wet Winters and, often, Summers that aren't much different, should site beards in full sun, too.  Gardeners in "mediterranean" climates, where Winters are cool and wet, but Summers are hot, long, and dry, often find that beards grow well in part shade. 

 

Irises used as a groundcover around the base of olive trees or pollarded plane trees in Italy are as startling a sight for cold-climate gardeners as would be, to mild-climate gardeners, the view of the very same iris cultivar planted in unrelentingly full-sun borders in Montreal.   

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in Spring or late Summer (the last half of August here in New England), with the top portion of the horizontal rhizomes exposed.  (In hot and mild climates, the rhizomes can be shallowly buried.)  Well-drained soil is essential, especially in the Winter.  Be sure that surface water drains out of and away from the colony by planting atop a mound or in a raised bed.  A difference in grade from the surroundings of only an inch or two is fine.

 

Water only occasionally, but thoroughly, so the rhizomes root deeply.  Cut the stalks of the spent flowers down to their origin in the crotch of the foliage fan.  In cool-Summer climates, it's traditional (but highly counter-intuitive) to cut the fans of foliage down to a foot after flowering, as well, to maximize the sun and heat that reaches the rhizomes.  That heat is, apparently, more beneficial to the colony than the loss of chlorophyll and energy-production capacity from cutting off so much of the foliage.  You could cut off the flower stalks and the foliage in the same fell swoop.

 

Lift colonies every three or four years, discarding the older central portions and replanting the newer rhizomes that were around the periphery.  Gardeners in climates with high rainfall and/or humidity often dust the retained rhizomes with a fungicide, especially any interior that had become exposed as a result of division.  Rhizomes can also be left in the sun for a day or two so that those exposed surfaces callous over.  Having hot sun and rain-free days is essential for both steps, so this replanting is often most conveniently done in late Summer. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

The display of bearded iris in full bloom is intense, if meteoric, and you might want to double down on it by having a garden just for them.  Iris are sun-lovers in all but hot and mild climates, so try to site your iris garden with unobstructed exposure to the south and west.  This can be a challenge, in that another priority is to screen it thoroughly from the rest of your property; if a clump of beards is a bore out of bloom, an entire bed of them are a snooze, indeed.  

 

Given the incredible diversity of flower colors, let alone plant and flower sizes and, to a lesser degree, time of bloom, it's an understandable temptation to have an iris garden that is a catalogue.  Unless your goal is a display that's botanic instead of aesthetic, such a celebration of diversity is likely to be a cacophony of color, not a pleasing picture.  If your urges are botanic more than aesthetic, you've all all the more reason to ensure that your iris garden is well screened.  See "Quirks" below for more stylish ways of creating an en masse display of beards.   

Quirks or special cases

Bearded iris en masse provide a stunning show of color with the density, intensity, and uniformity that is only otherwise possible possible with massed bulbs, such as hyacinths and tulips, or a sweep of dahlias or peonies.  The temptation to a large planting of iris is all the more acute because so many cultivars bloom in saturated hues of blue and indigo, which are always in short supply.  

 

There are three keys to success:  First, narrow your focus.  Limit the cultivars by color, habit, and timing, so that they all bloom at the same time, the same height, and within the same narrow range of hues.  White to pale yellow; deep blue to indigo; indigo to purple; purple to black; copper to reddish.  The narrower the range, the more the overall impression will be of shimmer and liveliness, without veering toward jumpy contrasts or sunglass-inducing counterpoints.

 

Second, bring the viewer right to the display.  If the best location is longer than wide, create a long border with a pathway at the side or, even better, right down the middle.  If the space is about as deep as wide, welcome the viewer right into the center—into the deep water of the swimming pool, as it were—by having a pathway lead to a small central terrace.  If the space is also on a south-facing slope, terrace into it as much as practical at the back and sides, to create concentric "stadium-style" beds around that small viewing spot:  An iris bowl where, at least for a week or two, the viewer will feel immersed in color. 

 

Third, avoid any other floral competition.  This takes discipline, in that beards are in bloom when so much else is, too.  No other flowers can compete with a full platoon of flowering iris; anything else would look out-gunned or, if not, almost an assault on the eye, given the intensity that the irises themselves should be achieving.  A mass display of iris is the rare occasion where there are no desirable flowering partners.  Since the display is so brief, though, you could consider pairing the iris with showy foliage.  A bed of indigo iris ringed with a glowing yellow halo of 'Ogon' spirea would have almost Wagnerian symbolism and power.  And when you've had your fill, you can return to the rest of your garden for views whose intensity is bearable for more than a few minutes.  

Downsides

Not only is the flowering season brief, it occurs at the one time of year when needed the least, when gardens are already bursting with flowers in Spring.  If bearded iris flowered in August, when all possible color and excitement are welcome, these extraordinary perennials would be much more useful.  Yes, there are some Iris cultivars that can bloom a second time in the season—and just the time, September, when they'd be most appreciated.  These "remontant" irises need attentive care (regular watering, most of all) to stay in energetic-enough condition through the Summer but, even so, may still not rebloom.  If you've got the passion and the persistence, give them a try.

 

Although my clumps are untroubled, bearded iris can be susceptible to borers, fungus, aphids, and thrips, the control of which usually requires unpleasant chemicals.  The modest presence that bearded iris merit in general garden plantings helps reduce the chance of infestations, as well as the size of the task to control them, as does growing the clumps in very well-drained beds, with plenty of separation from surrounding plants.  But that isolation only calls attention to the plant's boring look when not in bloom.  If bearded iris are so much of a challenge where you're gardening that chemical intervention is essential, I recommend you forego them entirely.  There are far too many other incredible plants to grow, with a seasonal peak more advantageously timed.  And how about with interesting foliage in the meanwhile?

Variants

Larger than those of rhododendrons, hostas, roses, tulips, and daylilies—but still second to orchids—the genus Iris is the broadest and deepest of any plant likely to be included in your garden.  There are over 250 species of Iris, with natives in every habitat from low-land swamps, to semi-arid subtropics, to alpine meadows.  There are, literally, countless thousands of hybrids among them. 

 

The name "iris," itself, implies similar breadth and diversity, but in terms of color: Iris was the Greek messenger of the gods, whose rainbow spanned the gap between heaven and earth.  Indeed, the range of colors in iris flowers is horizon-wide, from pure white through yellow, pink, rose, copper, blue, and purple, to near-black.  Almost any combination of bi-colors and multi-colors has been achieved—or will be soon, such is in the intensity of hybridizing that Iris attracts.  Many of these combinations will seem as horrifyingly excessive to some as they are precious and sophisticated to others.

 

The diversity within just the bearded iris is still so broad—reportedly, there are over 100,000 cultivars—as to make summary a challenge.  With the same eye-crossing range of colorings as the genus as a whole, and heights when in bloom from mere inches to over four feet, there's an iris—no, there are scores of iris—that could, potentially, grace any possible color scheme or setting from the most abstemious to the most adventurous, the most compact to the most expansive. 

 

Why, then, aren't most gardens stuffed with bearded iris?  With the exception of the tricky "remontant" cultivars (see "Downsides above"), iris all bloom once and, more or less, in mid-Spring, and have little visual interest the rest of the year.  Other iris bloom much earlier in the season (even in late Winter) as well as later (through the first half of July), although there's not a one that's in bloom when most needed, around Labor Day.  What with the seasonal advantages of these non-bearded iris, as well as, frankly, the boring sameness of iris foliage across so much of the genus, and particularly that of bearded iris, beards merit only a modest presence in the garden.  Choose your few cultivars well!   

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Iris x germanica has been cultivated for centuries.  While its constituent species are unknown, it is thought to be of Mediterranean origin.  The red in hybrid irises such as 'Red Hawk' usually arises from crosses with Iris fulva, whose flowers can be copper-colored and even reddish.  Iris fulva is native to the entire southeast United States, from Kentucky to Florida to Texas.

 
 
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