Irises: lush in spring, water saving in summer

Bearded iris – Iris germanica – originated somewhere in a Mediterranean climate, not Northern Europe. That means that they grow with little or no care here in California, as long as the soil has adequate drainage.

If someone asks you which is better adapted in Northern California, an agave or a bearded iris you would answer…. the iris! Agaves are water conserving desert plants, but most come from places that get summer rain and are dry during our typically wet, cold winters.

As Mediterranean plants, irises flourish when they have rain, then go dormant over summer – just like our native plants. Since they have the same cultural requirements as many natives, you can even grow them together if you’re not too much of a purist about plant origins (they’ll grow with your agaves, too). Most of the time, natural (non-drought) rainfall is enough to keep your irises happy.

The best time to photograph irises is after a storm in soft, diffuse light. A macro lens doesn’t hurt, either – it lets you zoom in on the details and discover the flowers as objects of abstract art.

The yellow irises are native to California, so they don’t have beards. The don’t seem to need them. Native irises are much lower and more compact than bearded iris, and are more suited to the front of the planting area, near a path.

Bearded iris can be dwarf or giant, so you need to know what your plants will do before you stick them in the ground. Our experience with dwarf varieties has been mixed, some being fussy, some blooming later than the taller varieties. There are many, many varieties of irises available from specialty nurseries with all the colors of the iris rainbow: indigo, midnight blue, ultramarine, cerulean, yellow, white, brown, chocolate, mocha (the colors get more creative when the flowers are in fact some shade of brown)…