A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts

A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts

by Kelly Norris


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The diversity of bearded irises rivals that of any other perennial grown in temperate climates. For some gardeners, they bring back warm memories of a grandparent's garden; for others, they're a cutting-edge plant with a seemingly endless capacity for producing new forms and patterns.

As the manager of Rainbow Iris Farm and co-editor of the Bulletin of the American Iris Society, Kelly Norris is the authority on gardening with bearded irises. His introductory chapters offer tips for successful growth, garden design, plant selection, and "creating" new irises. A Guide to Bearded Irises also provides portraits of the most outstanding plants in each of the six recognized categories, from the dainty miniature dwarf bearded irises to the stately tall bearded irises. A resource section lists specialty nurseries, organizations devoted to bearded irises, and public gardens with notable iris collections.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604692082
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Pages: 348
Sales rank: 496,153
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

As a speaker, plant breeder, and expert plantsman, Kelly Norris has garnered national acclaim for his high-energy, zealous presentations. He is the award-winning author of four books, the horticulture manager at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, and the director of Horticulture Now. Visit his website at kellynorris.com. 

Read an Excerpt

I love irises—all kinds, really. But I’m head-over-heels crazy for bearded irises. I guess it all started in 1999 at the kitchen table of Cal Reuter, a well-known irisarian from Wisner, Nebraska. Irisarian—that’s the proper terminology for someone crazier about irises than a normal person would think healthy. I’m one, and I’d venture a guess that if you aren’t one already, you will be, by book’s end. I was all of 12 the summer I sat at Cal’s kitchen table, poring through his small-type catalog in search of what I didn’t know would become an all-consuming passion. I walked away with ten cultivars that day, vowing to keep track of their names as a promise to Cal. He dug them from his expansive front-yard “field,” marked them, and sent them home with me in a box that got stuffed under the backseat of my grandma’s van. I remember feeling giddy about the whole excursion, and as we ambled down the dusty road, away from Cal’s Spruce Gardens, I checked over the seat to see that my box of plants was riding snugly, as the trees at the edge of Cal’s property faded in the distance.
Fast forward three years. In that short span of time, those ten irises cultivated something deeper in me than I did in them. My collection had grown to almost 350 varieties by the summer of 2002, when I sent an email to a man named Cliff Snyder, who at the time owned Rainbow Iris Farm in Bartlett, Texas. Though I had no idea then, my life changed on 30 July 2002.
To make a long story short, I (a mere 15-year-old) talked my parents into flying to Texas, buying, and subsequently relocating Rainbow Iris Farm to our farm in rural Bedford, Iowa. We tilled up seven acres, spent 320-plus man-hours planting 40,000 rhizomes, and watched a former cattle pasture grow into a field of dreams. We opened for business on 18 May 2003 and haven’t looked back, except to chuckle at our craziness, since.
With this book, I feel like I’m telling an epic story about how to grow and love magically colored bearded irises, complete with a dashing cast of characters, a rich historical backdrop, and an optimistic and enterprising protagonist—you. This is a book for iris lovers—plant lovers of a special kind who seek out rhizome sales like garage sales, track the comings and goings of bearded irises with unabashed addiction, and approach color-laden standards, falls, and beards without fear. If you’re holding this book, you’re an iris lover already, or one in eager training. I hope reading it will be like having a dirt-inspired conversation over a cuppa or a flute of bubbling Moscato. And here’s full disclosure: I hope to cultivate nothing less than an all-out obsession in you by the time you close its cover.
More than ever in the 21st century, gardeners demand that their gardens look and feel like them, with plants that express their character and sense of style. Gardens should teem with our favorite plants. Mine teems with bearded irises, and with any luck yours does (or will) too. Bearded irises are a part of our horticultural heritage, grown throughout the world for a millennium and revered for their inarguable place of honor at the colorful table that is spring. From humble beginnings in the wilds of the Caucasus and central Europe, these “flags” evolved into banners of that season, thanks to the efforts of hybridizers from the 1840s to the present. They’re timeless, classic perennials. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and next-door neighbors brought bearded irises into the lives of a new generation, decade on decade, sharing their passion for the rainbow with every twinkly-eyed neophyte that strolled past on a mid-May afternoon. In that way bearded irises are beatnik passalongs, entering gardens more often through the back gate in a paper grocery bag than through the front in a black plastic pot.
The diversity of bearded irises rivals that of any herbaceous perennial we can grow in temperate climates, sporting nearly all colors of the rainbow and innumerable permutations and variations thereof. With such a banquet of cultivars and types to relish, we’re going to have a merry time. Amplify that with the tending-toward-hyperbolic way I talk about plants, and this conversation is going to get thick in no time. I have so many cultivars to share but limited pages in which to share them! I’ve consulted with my fellow “lovers” in the iris world to help me winnow the thousands of worth-growing varieties into a dashing selection of must-haves and can’t-live-withouts in the six classes (taken on one at a time in chapters 6 through 11). After well over a decade of growing and loving bearded irises, I hardly lack for an opinion!
Sitting in front of my bookshelves, looking at my nearly complete collection of the Bulletin of the American Iris Society from 1920 through the present, I’m daunted by the legions of passionate iris soldiers that have gone before me—breeding, writing, lecturing, judging, and exhibiting for decades before I was even born. Though a little overwhelmed by the magnitude and depth of inquiry possessed in these tomes, I’ve found relief in one unifying idea—their body of work exists because of an undying love for the genus Iris. I’ve taken it as a rallying cry to translate that love into words and images in this volume, which I hope will keep a special place on shelves next to works probably wiser than mine.

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