Garden Notes: Interesting history, beauty make iris a favorite flower

Some iris lovers take offense when their favorite flower is called a “flag.” But today is Flag Day, so I’m declaring an armistice for the duration of this article.

The Altoona Area Public Library has a beautiful book by Anna Pavord simply titled “Bulb.” She devotes 30 pages to the iris genus, Iridaceous, and writes about the history of this flower.

According to Pavord, an iris emblem was adopted by the king of the Franks after he and his army were trapped between “an army of raging Goths” and the Rhine. When he saw a patch of yellow iris growing in the middle of the river, he knew he’d found the shallow ford where his army could cross to safety. He considered the iris a sign from God.

Eventually, stylized images of the iris became the fleur-de-lis that is now used as a heraldic symbol throughout the world.

Bearded or German iris are easy to grow. The 6- to 8-inch flowers have three petals that stand upright in the center of the flower, (standards) and three petals that hang down (falls). Each fall has a tiny, fuzzy, “beard.” These iris easily multiply into a nice little patch, so plan to divide them every three years or so.

Dividing flags is easy to do. Lift a clump of the rhizomes and remove anything suspicious, spongy or moving. Iris borers will sometimes tunnel into the rhizomes, destroying the tissue and leaving the plant open to infection, so you’ll want to be thorough. Cut the leaves to about a third of their original height to reduce moisture loss.

Some experts recommend soaking the rhizomes in a 10 percent solution of bleach, dusting with powdered sulfur and drying them in the shade. That helps the cut ends heal and dry.

You might trade some freshly dug flags if you covet another gardener’s Siberian iris. It will bloom right after your Bearded iris. If you can make a deal, you’ll find Siberians easier to grow in partial shade and resistant to those truly loathsome Iris borers. The 5- to 6-inch Siberian Iris blooms are flatter, and lacking the beard, but will extend your show of color. And re-bloomers have been developed, so you don’t have to settle for just one show.

Japanese iris are always late to the party, and the last to leave. Some varieties produce saucer-sized flowers on three foot stems. Most blooms stay for three weeks and because they enjoy a drink or more, they’ll naturalize in areas with plenty of moisture. It’s fitting to note that Henry Mitchell, America’s most entertaining garden writer, grew his Japanese iris in a whiskey barrel.

Experts claim the grass that grows between the leaves of flags can be pulled by hand and will eventually stop sending up shoots. Don’t believe them.

Coming up:

n 2 to 6 p.m., June 19, Master Gardener Plant Clinic, Farmer’s Market, Penn State Altoona

n 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., June 21, Master Gardener Plant Clinic, Bellwood Library

Contact Teresa Futrick by e-mail at