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"Irises have been compared to orchids, and those who delight in the singular and beautiful color and to whom greenhouses and hot houses are denied may find a substitute for orchids in irises."

- William Robinson,"English Flower Garden," 1892

Irises are among the easiest and most successful plants to grow in our area. Their beautiful blossoms are often referred to as the poor man's orchid. There are more than 150 species and thousands of varieties. Most originate in the northern temperate regions of the world. Though most varieties finished blooming weeks ago, planting them now insures abundant blooms next year.

Irises are grouped in two categories: those that grow from rhizomes and those that grow from bulbs. They have long, narrow leaves, and the foliage sometimes resembles a grass. They tolerate a wide variety of soil types and climates and, except for the water iris, do best with well-drained soils.

The iris is named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow or messenger of the gods, who was depicted as a "radiant maiden born in the swift flight on golden wings." Her duties included leading the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. As a remembrance of this goddess, Greeks plant purple iris on the graves of women. I'm not sure whether that tradition carried into our pioneer cemeteries, but the purple iris or "flags" were about the only flowers to bloom in many of the unirrigated cemeteries of rural Utah.

Irises have inspired paintings and many different art forms. The heraldic fleur-de-lis almost certainly derives its form from the iris flower. According to legend, Clovis I, king of the Franks, was being pursued by the Goths. They thought they had his army trapped by a river, but the king realized they could escape across the river where the iris were growing because the water was shallow there. In gratitude he adopted the iris as his symbol. The symbol was later readopted by Louis VII, hence itsbecoming known as the flower of Louis, or fleur-de-lis.

Irises bloom for three to four weeks, and by selecting varieties carefully you can create a show-stopping iris border that blooms from early spring to midsummer. These beautiful flowers range in height from 4 inches up to 5 feet and can be planted with many different plants to add color and texture as needed. They make ex-cel-lent cut flowers when picked in the bud so the blossoms unfold indoors. Small bulb iris naturalize and make excellent rock garden plants, while others make beautiful additions to ponds or water areas.

Irises can be increased by dividing the rhizomes or the bulbs when they are large enough to produce plants identical to the parent plant. They are easily divided by pulling the clump apart, but timing is important. Divide and replant just when new roots start to grow. Single rhizomes should be planted about 12 inches apart in the garden. Dig these every few years, divide them and start new plants to enjoy your garden.

These tough plants have few if any pest problems. Rhizome rots are easily controlled by growing the plants in good, well-drained soils. Likewise, the few insects that attack them can easily be seen and controlled without much problem. Snails and slugs occasionally attack but are managed with appropriate controls.

In my opinion, weeds are the biggest pest problem in iris gardens. Although irises are quite competitive in most situations, excess water and fertilizer encourage serious weed problems. Select an area free from perennial weeds such as quackgrass and bindweed to reduce many of the frustrations of growing irises. Selective applications of herbicides help with some weed problems. Roundup applied with a paintbrush or similar device will selectively control most weeds. Poast and fusilade (purchased as Grass-B-Gon or Over-the-Top) are also effective grass killers and help remove problem grasses in plantings.

If you would like to acquire some outstanding irises for your own collection, attend the Utah Iris Society 1993 Plant Sale and Auction. It will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 31, at the Garden Center at Sugarhouse Park, 1602 E. 2100 South. Get specimens planted so they develop a root system before winter sets in. Iris Society members will be on hand to answer questions and provide additional information.

- LAWN WATER USE this week: 1.5 inches.