The hunt for irises brings glorious rewards
Blue flag iris turned up this cool March morning in my neighborhood blog. “Beautiful flower” read the caption under the photograph. It evoked decades of memories and a little angst as I contemplated this iconic plant, which loves watery places.
In 2005, passing a ditch filled with of blue flag irises near Gainesville, I pull over and wade into the muck. I had always loved these beautiful plants but rarely experienced the real thing. From then on, I have been on the outlook for them.
At first I thought every tall, slender leafed plant could be iris. Now I ask myself, are they irises… or cattails? There are differences. Cattails grow taller, greener, fuller, with twisted stalks. Irises are finer and straighter, and now, to my practiced eye, their stalks seem a little lighter green. But in March and April, there is no mistaking them for anything else. Their magnificent purple and white blooms set them apart. A cattail could not hope to don such spring finery, not even a cheap knockoff!
In 1984, I am climbing a staircase in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. At the top of the stairs, “Irises” comes into view. Seeing it is like emerging into some paradisiacal springtime. I stand for long minutes and suddenly am with the artist in the garden at St Remy as he applies paint to canvas, carefully delineating each bloom. The furies that haunt him have evaporated in this place of air and life.
Vincent Van Gogh died by his own hand at the age of 37, disconsolate with his life mission. Wouldn’t he be astounded to know that Irises has become an icon of the natural world!
On an April day, showers are not in the picture as my botanizer friend John Beckner and I ride through Hardee and DeSoto counties. For John, discovery is always just around the bend. Interesting plants turn up with a regularity that is astonishing and delightful (although some days it is like looking for a needle in a haystack of ranches, citrus groves and tomato farms).
We head for Horse Creek, the largest tributary of the Peace River, where John found irises years ago. He has documented field trips for 50 years and knows what was where and when. Sometimes, there is a dark side to our field trips. Today it is phosphate mining. This $5 billion industry with toxic byproducts has decimated landscapes and drawn down water. We hold our breath as we pass huge radioactive gypsum stacks in a landscape of little stunted pines and sickly green grass.
Relief comes when irises turn up at the creek. So do some unusual palms. John recalls that royal palms had been spotted along the creek, but we are seeing what appear to be very tall queen palms. But not quite queens — more like hybrids. This day’s discovery!
You do not have to travel far to experience iris. Delightful excursions await you at Sleeping Turtles Preserve and Carlton Reserve in Venice. I look for irises along the banks of the Myakka River and in wet areas along trails. A third option is Old Myakka Preserve at the eastern end of Fruitville Road, where irises bloom along the bank of the shallow stream that runs through the park.
Months before spring, I look for telltale green stalks along the trail off the equestrian parking lot at Carlton Reserve in Venice. It has not rained for months. I have noticed that places in parks where irises grow can be broiling in summer, desiccated in fall and winter. Will they have survived winter drought, hurricanes and summer heat? Those are the questions uppermost in my mind. Have they been poached? I have seen “collectors” exiting county parks in full view on a Sunday morning. Then the following spring with a few showers, the irises appear like the Phoenix.
In March and April, nature rolls out a blue carpet along back roads in Florida. Sometimes there are just cattle ranches, orange groves, tree farms and residences. But at times you hit “pay dirt”: blue-eyed grass along the edges of a road or in seasonally wet areas; irises blooming in a field full of live oaks.
The ride is worth it. There is always something new. Yesterday I was serenaded by meadowlarks the whole way. Blue crabs flailed about in the muddy ditch and then surfaced to eat their catch. Thistle had popped up everywhere in the fields. And of course, irises.
Stay-at-homes can grow their own. You can buy Blue Flag iris and blue-eyed grass at nearby nurseries (consult the Florida Association of Native Nurseries — FANN — online, for a list of native plant nurseries that sell retail.) Plant iris in a seasonally wet place in your yard. They do well in wet and dry conditions. It does not matter if the area dries out in fall and winter. If you have room, add some companion plants: Fakahatchee grass, mimosa, golden canna lilies, tickseed, mistflowers, yellow tops and spiderworts are good choices. A tree would be a lovely addition — maple, elderberry, buttonwood or Walter’s viburnum. Birds, butterflies — all of nature — will thank you for creating a little oasis — not to mention the neighbors who might copycat you.
Photographing the first iris of spring, I feel slightly tipsy — a “Drunkard in Springtime.” That such beauty should exist in this torn-up world of ours seems a miracle. It gives me hope that if the irises survive, we too may muddle through.