We usually imagine sunflowers when thoughts turn to Van Gogh. But the iris was his favorite–its drooping petals often show up in his furious paintings, much more so than the broad-brimmed sunflower.
For the cover of her charming and informative gardening book, Magic of Irises (published by Fulcrum Publishing and available online and at bookstores), Barbara Perry Lawton chose Van Gogh’s Irises, finished in 1899 shortly after the artist committed himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Arles, France.
Van Gogh prized irises for their design–delicately bowed and ruffled–and robust colors. Lawton praises irises for the same reasons, as do the people who grow them.
“Most gardeners probably like the rose the best,” said Cynthia Francis, who raises a bank of irises in the backyard of her Costa Mesa home in southern California, along with other varieties.
“I love roses, too, but irises are just so lovely, one of my favorites. The bluish ones are especially rich, like a deep purple.”
Handsome Blossoms and Pretty Stems
In her book, which veers from the practical to the history and lore of the flower, Lawton is even more appreciative: “They are exquisitely beautiful,” she writes. “I can’t think of more handsome blossoms than those of wild and cultivated irises. Likewise, I can’t think of foliage more graceful than the sword-like iris.
“It’s no wonder that irises have played major roles in history and art.”
And if not major, then certainly interesting. Lawton points out that the iris was seen as an expression of life by ancient Egyptians, who often connected it with Horus, the god of light and heaven.
The Greeks also gave the iris significance. In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris was a celestial messenger, the go-between when the gods, especially Hera, wanted to communicate with man.
“To this day, the Greeks plant irises on women’s graves, believing that the goddess Iris will guide the souls of women to their last resting places,” Lawton writes.
Early Christians Embraced the Iris
Christians turned the fleur-de-lis, usually associated with the tri-petaled iris, into a sacred symbol evoking the Virgin Mary. Eventually, the fleur-de-lis became a pervasive emblem of the French monarchy. Closer to home, the iris was adopted as Tennessee’s official flower in 1933. Artists as different as Albrecht Durer and Georgia O’Keeffe frequently used the iris as a subject.
“I didn’t know much about their history,” Mark Seres said while examining a row of irises at a California nursery. “It’s surprising [that the iris] has been such a big deal, [but] it makes sense when you think about it. It’s an unusual flower, especially with the hues” that cover a wide spectrum.
“I like them just because they look great,” added Seres, who lives not far from San Francisco. “And they’re pretty easy to take care of. No sweat, really.”
Cultivation Tips for Several Varieties
Lawton agrees that irises are one of the sturdiest flowers. In describing several varieties–the Pacific Coast, Spuria, Japanese, scorpio, Siberian and Louisiana, among others–she routinely refers to their ability to thrive in many climates, including Southern California.
“I’d be willing to bet that irises will provide more beauty for less effort than just about any garden perennials I know,” Lawton said.
When cultivating the flowers, remember that they like the full sun (at least a half-day of it) and are relatively thrifty when it comes to moisture. Water them regularly, but also make sure they have good drainage.
If your soil is dense, sandy or clay-rich, Lawton recommends adding compost or high quality peat moss to the mix. To fertilize in the spring planting season, Lawton suggests avoiding those high in nitrogen, which can rot the rhizome.
Once irises flourish, thin them out at least every three to five years.
Also watch out for weeds. If you don’t remove them, they can cut off the sunshine that reaches the plant’s stalks, Lawton writes. Pine needles can thwart weeds, so mix them into a mulch and lay down an inch-thick layer near, but not touching, the rhizome.
Author’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in Small Gardens can be Great Gardens.