Versatile iris brings out all the hues of spring’s palette

Local garden club readies blooms for annual show
By: Gloria Young,
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Sierra Foothills Iris Society’s 17th annual show
When: 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 4 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5
Where: Auburn Civic Center Rose Room, 1225 Lincoln Way, Auburn
Entry: Free and open to the public including entering irises in the competition

It’s bloom season for irises and that means it’s a busy time for Sierra Foothill Iris Society members as they prepare for this weekend’s show in Auburn.
American Iris Society judge Kathy Braaten is an expert at choosing and displaying the flowers.
“My mother got me into it,” Braaten said. “She was very active in starting the Sierra Foothills Iris Society.”
Braaten, who lives in Grass Valley, says choosing a specimen for the show is all in the luck of what is blooming those particular days.
“You want to pick a flower that’s open, preferably the top bloom,” she explained. “It must be insect free. You want a straight stalk that’s got some nice branching. … You want fresh flowers. You don’t want one that is closing.”
Besides single blossoms, which must be grown by the person entering them, there’s  an artistic arrangement division in the show.
“Iris must be the dominate flower in the design,” Braaten said in an email. “For the designs in this division, the iris need not be grown by the exhibitor.”
The club is encouraging youth to develop an interest in irises and will have a table at the show with information about irises tailored for youth.
Peak blooming season runs through mid May. And there are hundreds of varieties of the flower, which can be bearded or non-bearded.
Bearded species range from the miniature at 2 to 8 inches tall to the tall bearded, which grows to 36 inches to 48 inches tall.
Bearded irises are easy to grow and pretty forgiving.
“Hybrids take a little more work,” Braaten said. “They’re not as easy to grow as older irises.”
Society member Yvette Meador concentrates on the Aril iris, a more drought-tolerant version, distinguished by a white collar on the seeds, according to
“Most of the aril breeds have a great big spot — a deep dark color spot and that makes them very distinctive,” Meador said.
Bearded irises are the most popular but beardless irises are also special,  Braaten said.
“There are Pacific Coast irises. Of course they’re known to grow on the Pacific coast, but they will grow here, too,” she said. “They take more work. They like filtered sun. There’s the Louisiana (beardless) iris. They like to be wet — heat and humidity. Louisianas like to grow alongside water. There’s the Japanese (beardless) iris. They like more water also. You can put them in a pot in water and they’ll grow for you. Put it into a pond in a pot with soil.”
Siberian beardless irises do well in Grass Valley/Nevada City and higher elevations because they are cold tolerant. There’s also the spuria beardless iris, which grows very tall.
“Everyone forgets about the beardless and they’re beautiful in your garden,” Braaten said.
Tall bearded iris clumps have to be divided every two to three years. And when planting, give them plenty of space.
“If you have them by some other ones and want to remember what they are, you don’t want them to grow into each other,” she said.
A good time to fertilize is six weeks prior to bloom and then again after the bloom.
“I use a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10),” she said.
Some iris gardeners prefer a 6-10-10 fertilizer blend.
The club divides the rhizomes (roots) in July and has a sale at Eisley Nursery.
“You can plant the rhizomes right away and they should bloom the next year,” Braaten said.
At Horton Iris Garden in Loomis, Mary Ann Horton estimates she has well over 1,500 varieties, but started with only about 100 varieties when she opened the garden in 1999.
“It was gong to be a little hobby to be open a couple of months of the year,” she said. “Now I work every day because (it has gotten so big).”
But the sheer number of varieties means there’s something in bloom year-round.
“There are reblooming ones, too,” she said. “They don’t go dormant. There are 40 or 50 varieties in bloom at Christmas time.”
Among her favorite recent hybrids are Living on the Edge and Like a Rainbow.
“Like a Rainbow is white and the falls have almost a red in them — not a true red, a very magenta color and a little yellow. It is just striking,” she said. “Living on the Edge is yellow with a burgundy rim — very striking and showy.”
Tending the garden is a family effort. Horton and her son do most of the garden chores. Daughter- in-law and granddaughter help with sales. Her husband puts up flowers and handles the watering.
“I enjoy the bloom season when I get to talk to everybody,” she said. “Otherwise I’m out there by myself pulling weeds. It looks like a park and everyone is amazed when they get here.”
Horton, who is also a member of the Sierra Foothill Iris Society, sells irises through a website and catalog and on site in pots.
She also has hosted two conventions — one in 2008 and one this year.
The Sierra Foothill Iris Society’s show this weekend is free and open to the public, including entering iris for judging. Participants must know the name of the iris.
Attendees may enter  irises in the competition from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 3, and 7 to 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 4.  
This year’s theme is “In the Garden.” Sections in the artistic classes are Birdbath (designer’s choice using purple or blue iris in the design), Butterflies & Bees (designer’s choice using multi-colored, plicata or broken color iris in the design; Flower Basket (designer’s choice using any basket in design; Garden Path (designer’s choice using stones in the design) and Summer Breeze (designer’s choice and interpretation of design).
There are also divisions for collections like three of a kind identical iris in color and shape), youth division, seedling section (un-introduced iris), educational and much more, Meador said in an email.
Reach Gloria Young at