by John Richmond
'Shouldn't you move that orchid to a more prominent position?' my wife commented one late spring day. I was puzzled. I don't grow any hardy orchids. Then the penny dropped.
What she'd seen was the first of the season's flowers on Iris 'Broadleigh Peacock', which belongs to the group of irises collectively known as the Pacific Coast hybrids.
Even among the vast range of beautiful irises available these are particular gems. The delicate beauty of the petals do have much of the grace of an orchid flower and the colour variation among the many varieties is possibly the widest of all the iris groups. Everything from white to blue, encompassing gold, yellow, red and rich purple along the spectrum - and virtually always painted on in two or three contrasting tones. Derived from the hybridization (both natural and man made) of a number of Californian and Oregon species such as Iris innominata, I.tenuissima and I.douglasiana they offer an attractive and easily grown variation on the normal iris fare. They are even untroubled by my resident slug and snail population, a decided asset in my eyes.
Clump forming evergreens, I've found that even in South West England they resent hot summer sunlight during the middle of the day. They are best positioned in the dappled shade of a light foliage canopy, tucked among taller plants that can offer some protection, or in the lee of a wall. Each flower lasts only a few days before declining into a tight knot of crumpled petals but in a well nourished clump another will soon replace it during the 3 - 4 week late spring and early summer flowering season.
One thing they do insist on is acid soil and reasonable winter drainage. Sandy soils are normally recommended but I grow them on my rather heavy loam without problems or losses. Like the rest of the plants in the garden they get an annual thin mulch of well rotted or bought in manure and a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone or other organic to provide both soil condition and nutrients. I rarely have a problem with summer drought but in drier areas than west Devon they may need to be watered during dry spells.
Hardiness is reasonable. Established clumps are generally hardy to around -15° C, but growth will be best and flowering earliest in areas with moist, mild winters such as the western coastal areas of the UK or the US. Once established they soon make good, ground covering clumps of narrow, rush-like, evergreen leaves to about 20 - 30cm high. The flowers are borne on slightly taller stalks and make a good show above the foliage.
Although not always easy to find it is certainly possible to get named varieties such as Broadleigh Peacock, Blue Ballerina and Banbury Beauty. But unless a particular colour is required a mixed selection grown from seed can also provide a good range and variety. With a number of colour forms in the garden I can now collect my own seed in late summer from the fat pods as they open. Sown fresh on gritty seed compost and protected in a cold frame I've found the seed germinates reasonably quickly over a one to four month period. I give the young seedlings some winter protection in a frame and leave them in the seed pot until spring when they can be potted on. By the following late summer the surviving seedlings should have clumped up enough to go into permanent positions. Flowering could be as early as the following spring or you may have to wait another year.
From the contents of a single seedpod I sowed in September 1997 I raised three youngsters (and lost others when the pot was blown over in a howling gale). One is almost identical to the seed parent (Broadleigh Peacock), one golden yellow, and one still to flower. It could be the best of the three - or it could be fit for nothing but the compost heap. Time will tell. And in the meantime there are other seedlings coming on.
Propagation of good forms or overcrowded clumps is by division. I prefer to do this about a month or two after flowering when root growth begins again. This gives the plants the maximum chance to re-establish before the following fall and winter.
No plant should be grown in isolation and even such beauties as these benefit from being grown as part of larger plant groupings that enjoy similar conditions. I find the smaller hardy geraniums, dicentras, antique violas such as 'Ardross Gem' or 'Jackanapes', or ground cover such as Ajuga reptans 'Braunherz' offer the contrasts of foliage and form needed to produce an attractive garden picture.
Try just one and you'll be delighted. Try a few and you could find yourself hooked.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. Correspondence from other gardeners is always welcome.