It may be mid-January, and the temperature outside may be below freezing, but I, for one, am dreaming of spring. Already tired of the seemingly endless greyscale environment that Northeastern winters bring, I long for the vibrant colors of warmer seasons. I often find myself staring at the beautiful purple cabbage in the grocery store these days simply because I miss those hues. There is certainly no shortage of color in the garden beds in the summer, but alas in the winter, it is sorely missed.
While I dream of spring, whether by perusing seed catalogs, looking back at photographs from past garden seasons, or imagining the upcoming gardening season in my mind, one of the flowers I am anxious to see wake from its long winter’s nap is the iris. Perhaps not as synonymous with spring as the daffodil, crocus, tulip, or hyacinth, but to me, when the irises are in bloom, it signals that warmer days are to come. Irises, standing tall in the garden, unfurl their showy flowers in early May in my zone 5 gardens. While their bloom time is short, they put on a dazzling show and have indeed won my heart.
In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, and the flowers certainly live up to their namesake, coming in a beautiful array of colors. Affection for these flowers has been entwined within history for many centuries. The Greek goddess Persephone was gathering flowers, including irises, when she was abducted by the Greek god Hades. The fleur-de-lis, a stylized iris, was adopted as a symbol by the French King Louis VII in the 12th century and has since become a prominent symbol on many coat-of-arms and regional flags. The iris even captivated the imagination of painter Vincent van Gogh in his 1889 piece entitled Irises. With their mesmerizing palette of colors, shapes, and sizes, along with their early bloom time, it is no wonder that irises have captivated the attention of gardeners, artists, and even royalty for centuries.
While the iris genus has 250-300 species of flowering plants, there are two broad groups: rhizome irises and bulbous irises, categorized based on the apparent criteria of whether they grow from rhizomes or bulbs. The most familiar and popular species among home gardeners are the bearded iris and the crested or beardless iris, comprised of the Dutch iris, Siberian iris, and Japanese iris. Bearded irises (Iris germanica) are tall (at least 28 inches) and have six distinct petals, three inner upright petals called standards, and three outer hanging petals called falls. Along the center of the falls, there are soft hairs, thus the “bearded” designation. In the crested iris, the hairs form a comb or ridge.
Over the years, I have grown many irises in my garden beds, predominately the bearded and Siberian type. Some have come and gone, unfortunate victims to the insatiable pest, the iris borer. Others have stayed within the family for generations. One such iris has grown on my property for over seventeen years. Regardless of how long they grace my garden beds, they always bring me joy. Their blooms are both a welcomed sign of spring and a promise of the garden season to come.
As I dream of spring during these long winter months, I will think affectionately about my irises, along with my peonies, daffodils, and other spring-blooming flowers. For now, the pictures in my mind and within my photo albums will have to suffice. I will keep dreaming and anxiously count down the days until we will see each other again.
Photographs (top to bottom): Feature image: Iris sibirica-cultivar unknown Photo 1: Iris germanica ‘Cranberry Crush’ Photo 2: Iris germanica ‘Mesmeriser’ Photo 3: Iris germanica ‘Code Red’ Photo 4: Iris germanica ‘Flirtatious’ Photo 5: Iris germanica ‘First Interstate’ Photo 6: Iris germanica ‘Califlora Clarence’ Photo 7: Iris germanica ‘Jolt’ Photo 8: Iris sibirica-cultivar unknown Photo 9: Iris sibirica ‘Butter and Sugar’ Photo 10: Iris germanica ‘Royal Storm’ Photo 11-13: Iris germanica ‘Batik’