Idyllic Irises: The Pride of Tennessee

Idyllic Irises: The Pride of Tennessee

by Naomi Mathews

When glorious irises begin to bloom with unfurled petals waving gently in the breeze, sweet springtime memories often bloom along with them -- especially in Tennessee!

If you were to attend a spring festival in the "Iris City" of Nashville, you might even hear a little song being sung honoring this legendary flower. When It's Iris Time In Tennessee was written by Willa Waid Newman, who surely must have loved irises. Imagine her delight at having her song adopted as one of Tennessee's official state songs back in 1935!

It was in 1931 that iris fans in Tennessee campaigned to have their favorite flower adopted as the official state flower. Their campaign paid off in 1933, when Senate Joint Resolution 53 was adopted, designating the beautiful iris as Tennessee's official floral emblem.

No specific color or species of the iris was designated, the purple iris has been commonly accepted. This is not surprising, as much hybridizing has been done with irises since 1935. And who knows, purple irises may well have been the most prevalent color of irises growing in Tennessee in those days of yesteryear.

Interestingly, irises weren't Tennessee's first flower to capture the coveted title. Back in 1919, Senate Joint Resolution 13 provided the state flower was to be selected by Tennessee's school children. Various other flowers favored included goldenrods, wild roses, sunflowers, violets, daisies, and the passion flower {genus Passiflora}. Ultimately, the passion flower won and was officially adopted in 1919.

Years later, it was discovered that lawmakers had never formally rescinded the passion flower's title before formally bestowing it on the iris! This oversight resulted in a bit of confusion. What could be done to rectify this problem? Fortunately, the striking passion flower wasn't simply cast aside and forgotten. In 1973, the 88th General Assembly officially designated the passion flower as Tennessee's official wildflower and the iris as the official "cultivated" flower. Both flowers are still proudly wearing their Tennessee floral crowns, each equally beautiful in their own special way.

Iris Notes and Nostalgia

History suggests that irises have been grown for centuries and have been royal emblems of various kings. Irises {Iridaceae } were named after the Greek goddess, Iris. Greek mythology depicts Iris as a beautiful maiden, having wings and robes of bright colors and a beautiful halo around her head as she sweeps gracefully between Heaven and Earth, a rainbow in her wake. It's interesting that irises bloom in all colors of the rainbow -- except true red.

Irises are called "Flags" by many gardeners. I still recall them being called Flags when I was a youngster. Being curious by nature, I looked up the word "flag" in Webster's New World Dictionary (Warner Books). One meaning of this word is described as ". . . any of various irises, or a flower or leaf of one." Reading this definition satisfied my curiosity about irises versus flags -- perhaps it will yours too!

My dear mother loved flowers and always had rows or clumps of irises growing somewhere around our home. They were among the most faithful flowers in her garden. I nostalgically recall picking lavish mixed bouquets of purple, blue, and yellow irises. Mother lovingly arranged these floral beauties in a pretty vase (It might have been just a "Mason" jar!), filling it with cool water. Sometimes she placed it on our dining table, while other times it sat atop our imposing upright piano. After several days, the blossoms would slowly begin to shrink, then curl up in a tight, sticky blob, as if wanting to go back to sleep inside their tall stalks. I recall removing these spent blossoms one or two at a time, until only one lone flower remained on otherwise naked stalks.

Yes, my happy childhood memories are still vivid about picking fragrant irises, removing the sticky spent blossoms from long stalks, and leaving a few un-wilted ones to bloom -- just a little longer.

Primary Iris Groups

Irises are classified into two major groups: The Rhizome Group and the Bulbous Group. Within these groups there are countless species, varieties, cultivars, and hybrids. A brief description of these two major groups defines their differences.

Rhizome Irises:
Rhizomes are thickened stems that grow horizontally either underground or partially underground. After planting, iris rhizomes produce swordlike leaves that overlap, forming flat fans of green foliage.

Three popular irises grown by gardeners in this group are Bearded Irises, Beardless Irises, and Crested Irises.

Bearded Iris: blossoms with four distinct parts
- Standards (three erect inner petals)
- Falls (three outer petals that droop downwards)
- Stigma flaps (small outgrowths from the styles of the blossom)
- Beard (hairy beards on falls)

Beardless Iris: blossoms with three distinct parts
- Standards
- Falls
- Stigma flaps

Crested Iris: blossoms with four distinct parts
- Standards
- Falls
- Stigma flaps
- Crest ( a ridge on the falls of the blossom)

Bulbous Irises:
This group of irises grows from bulbs that require a period of dormancy after they have bloomed. Bulbous irises are typically smaller than rhizome irises and usually produce smaller blossoms. They are striking when planted in mixed colors in a front border and are excellent in rockeries.

A Brief Guide for Growing "Bearded Irises"

There are countless varieties of irises ranging from miniature alpines to those reaching 3-4 feet in height. Since it is virtually impossible to cover all varieties in a short article, this growing guide focuses only on the Bearded Iris.

Bearded irises are among the most widely grown by gardeners today. When Tennessee named the iris as her official state flower, it seems likely that Bearded irises may also have been the favorite of yesteryear's gardeners. Over the years a great many outstanding hybrids have been produced.

Soil preparation, planting, and care tips

Whether planting an entire bed or just a few clumps of your favorite Bearded irises, proper soil should be your first consideration. Irises prefer humus-rich soil with a pH of 6.5. Poor soil can be easily amended by adding some rich organic matter. Although irises like moist soil, good drainage is an essential for preventing rhizome rot.

If you live in a cool climate, select a sunny location. In warmer regions irises can tolerate full sun if offered a bit of light afternoon shade. Choosing a site where your irises won't need to be moved during the first few years is wise.

Bearded irises should be planted in the fall: July to August in colder zones; September to October in hotter zones. When planting a bed of rhizomes, space them 1-2 feet apart with their tops slightly beneath the soil's surface. Point the leafy end of the rhizome in the direction you want growth to begin. Gently tamp the soil around the rhizomes with your hand. Water rhizomes lightly until you see the new growth appear. Continue to water your irises regularly during the summer and through late fall. Fertilize after new growth has begun and again after blooming. Use a reliable moderate nitrogen fertilizer for optimal growth and blooming.

Deadhead spent blossoms to encourage further blooming and keep your beds looking appealing. Some noxious pests to watch for include aphids, thrips, and iris borers. It's best to remove and destroy any rhizomes infected with borers. Other pests can be treated with either insecticide or organic substances as needed.

With proper planting and care, Bearded irises will give you much pleasure with minimal care for many years. Don't forget to pick a few lovely bouquets to grace your home indoors. Gardeners should never become so involved with "gardening" that they don't have time to stop and SMELL THE FLOWERS. You may even find yourself singing along with many Tennesseans, "When It's Iris Time In Tennessee!"

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