If you like your flowers plain and simple, the bearded iris is not for you.
It is hard to say which aspect of the iris is the most ornate: its range and mixes of colors, its frills, its size or its intricate form. It is a baroque fop, as adorable as it is outrageous.
I love the iris not just for its flamboyance, but for the way it touches the gardener's heart. People who grow bearded iris are inherently interested in the process of gardening, which is to say, the joy of gardening. The iris can grow with neglect if it finds its happy niche, but generally it is a perennial that requires attention, in its cultivation and in its preening at this time of year.
The iris has been a favorite for generations, though to think it dwells in the past would be incorrect: The iris marches on in its velour splendor.
The flower lends itself to hybridizing, hence the continued twirling of the iris kaleidoscope by fanciers such as Don and Ginny Spoon. "This is a man-made plant, from five or six species and 300 years of hybridizing," said Don Spoon, taking me on a tour of the couple's three-acre iris garden near Cross Junction, Va., a few miles north of Winchester.
How many irises can you raise in such an area? The last time they counted, a decade ago, they had 7,000 varieties, with tens of thousands of individual clumps. Each has several stalks, each stalk has as many as a dozen iris blooms. In sum, the couple has spent the past 19 years creating one of the richest collections of modern iris cultivars out there. When you first step into their garden, to keep sane, it is better to subordinate all these choice specimens as blobs of color. You're in a field of irises. Don't observe. Luxuriate.
The Spoons, active in the Chesapeake and Potomac Iris Society for years, operate an iris nursery at their property, Winterberry Gardens, selling varieties bred by them and others.
When you do get around to actually seeing the iris, you have to deconstruct so intricate a bloom. Each flower has a cluster of three vertical petals - standards - that sit atop three outward petals named falls. Each fall is marked by a furry ridge - the beard - which is designed to entice a bee pollinator to land for a sugary reward while spreading pollen.
Hybridizers take the place of the bee and make crosses they think will produce a variety that is an advance in some regard. Discerning breeders cull the vast majority of their seedlings, but a few of the offspring are considered keepers, adding something new to the iris world.
The most obvious differences are in color - the iris gets its name from the Greek goddess who walked on rainbows - and the results, Don Spoon explains, depend on which latent pigments come to the fore. The expressions and permutations are so varied that an iris beloved by one gardener is bound to be rejected by another. I am not drawn to bicolors that mix yellows with magenta purples, or bright pinks with darker purples, though I understand why some people would. I find solid hues - "selfs" - or subdued bicolors tastier. I wonder whether white and yellow - beloved by many - are too light to sustain such bold architecture. But I like salmons, apricots and oranges.
Hybridizers have been working to raise irises that have stronger reds and purer blues, to the gardener's delight.
One of Don Spoon's introductions, Spice It Up, is a strong maroon, nicely ruffled, full of blooms and attractive foliage. More recently, he introduced Linda Laing, a lovely rosy red iris with velvety ruffles.
Ginny Spoon has brought us Autumn Rose, which is rose pink, with darker red veins and tangerine beards. This year, she introduced Allegheny Rose, a light rose color that resists fading, with tight, upright standards and large falls. (Such new irises fetch a premium - $45 - though older introductions typically sell for between $4 and $10 apiece).
The Spoons have in the works a variety called Red Hot Mamma, which is their reddest to date. It will be available next year.
In the field, Don Spoon shows me an entirely different iris named Secret Santa. It has soft pink standards and showy plum purple falls, with thick stripey veins on either side of its orange beard. "I named it that because it has a secret," he said. "You have to smell it."
Irises make you work for the scent; you have to get close, and the fragrance can be a tad musky (to my nostrils). He asks me what I think of Secret Santa. It smelled peachy to me.
"I say coconut and vanilla," he said. I would defer to the master's judgment.
But as they say, I know what I like, and if I were to go to town with irises, I would plant an orange such as Trillionaire (on the yellow side) or the strong orange self called Tennessee Vol. Some of the varieties, alas, are not in sufficient number to make it in the catalog, but they catch the eye, anyway. I'm thinking of Magical Realism, whose rich violet purple standards, black-purple falls and orange beard suggest forbidden Gothic qualities.
Fanciers group bearded irises into half a dozen classes. The low-growing miniature dwarf bearded iris starts to bloom in late March. Some of the later tall bearded irises bloom well into June.
Perhaps the most radical change in the iris in recent years has been the introduction of reblooming varieties that can give as much of a show in October as they do in May. Of the 1,300 varieties that the Spoons sell, almost 400 are rebloomers. They need extra care, in soil preparation, feeding and watering, but can bloom for a couple of weeks in the spring and then flower again for three weeks in the fall.
Hybridizers are also developing rebloomers that can start the fall show earlier, and even hybrids that will bloom continuously through the season, if they are denied summer dormancy through feeding and watering. Don Spoon wonders if we need them. "We need a break." He pauses. "Maybe."