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  • Writer's pictureHelen Newling Lawson

Pick Your Favorite: Iris

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Iris is is one of those wonderful plant families that have so many options to try, and all of

them deer resistant. Aside from the beautiful flowers, I particularly like how the strappy leaves provide interest and structure from spring until frost, instead of dying back like daffodils or other deer-resistant spring bulbs.

I'm not alone in admiring iris. The National Garden Bureau declared 2020 to be the Year of the Iris, and of course there are entire groups dedicated to iris, including the American Iris Society

I checked in with both of these organizations to pull together this list of the most common types of iris for your garden. Once you've found your favorites, get digging (but not too deep - learn more about the best way to plant iris later in this post). Fall is the perfect time to plant iris, no matter when they bloom (most are spring-flowering, but some varieties bloom later).

While there are lots of types of iris in heights ranging from just a few inches to several feet, they all have a similar arrangement of two distinctive types of petals. The three "standards" stand up straight (although some Japanese varieties have been bred to lay quite flat), and the "falls" curve down below. Here's an inspiring example I saw while #GardenSpotting in the Japanese Garden at Gibbs Gardens.

Popular Iris Types

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Bearded Iris

This is one of the most commonly-seen iris, and make a striking statement in the garden with their tall flower stalks and showy flowers. The name refers to the fuzzy "beards" on the falls. Bearded iris come in a wide range of colors, including white, yellow, purple, and nearly black. The variety shown here is 'Peach Jam' from Brecks, photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau. Reblooming irises will give you two seasons of flowers. They also come in a range of sizes, from miniature dwarf to tall.

Beardless Iris

I personally prefer beardless iris, and think the flowers have a more graceful look in the garden. Many have a flatter flower or much smaller standards than the bearded iris. This group includes Japanese (I. ensenata), Siberian (I. sibirica or hybrids), and Louisiana irises (a group that contains four species, including I. fulva). The one shown above is a Louisiana iris variety called 'Rhett' available from Longfield Gardens. You can also find Japanese iris with variegated leaves, which lends extra pizzazz to that long-lasting foliage.

Dutch Iris

Dutch iris grow from a bulb, not a rhizome like the bearded and beardless types. These are the types favored by florists for cut flower arrangements.

Unusual Iris Varieties

I turned to one of my favorite garden reference books, The New Southern Living Garden Book, to pull together a sampling of some less-commonly known but deserving-to-be-more-frequently grown iris.

Crested Iris

You don't often hear about crested iris, but it's one of my favorites. Crested iris (I. cristata) is a native North American plant that grows wild in lightly shaded spots in most of the Southeastern US. The flowers look like a smaller version of a bearded iris (except instead of a beard it has a comb-like crest), but the plants are just a few inches high and absolutely darling. They also spread beautifully in a woodland garden. Because the rhizomes are so shallow, they may seem a little tricky to relocate or share with a friend, but I have had success just scraping them up and resting them on top of soft, fertile soil in a new spot, with a light dusting of leaf litter to help protect them as they settle in.

Blackberry Iris

Blackberry iris (I. domestica) is also known by the botanical name Belamcanda chinensis. The orange flowers are held on zigzagged branches and dotted with red freckles (one variety is called 'Freckle Face'), and as they fade they turn to seedheads that split to reveal blackberry-like seeds.

Roof Iris

Roof iris (I. tectorum) is native to Japan, where it is traditionally planted on cottage roofs. Smaller in height than bearded iris at about a foot tall, with most varieties having purple and white flowers ('Alba' is white with yellow crests instead of beards).

Planting Iris

Bearded iris grow from a fleshy rhizome. Plant these shallowly (its best to leave the top half exposed) and don't cover with mulch. Every few years, dig the rhizomes to divide them and remove any old, rotten, or damaged sections. The plants will bloom more vigorously from the new sections, and like at least 5 hours of sun per day. This blog post from National Garden Bureau has more info (and pictures) to show you the right way to divide bearded iris.

Beardless iris grow from either a rhizome or a root. Japanese and Louisiana irises like damp soil and can even grow along a pond's edge (same with flag iris, or I. pseudoacorus). I use a floating planting ring to grow mine in a mini-water garden in a container on my deck.

Dutch iris bulbs should be planted about 5" deep with the pointy end up, and grow in sun or partial shady sites. The National Garden Bureau recommends planting them in groups of about a dozen bulbs per square foot.

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