Photographs courtesy of Richard GoulaDevotees of the Louisiana iris have their own tales of how they came to love the state’s flashiest native bloom. But collectively, they trace iris mania to one of those eureka moments: John K. Small, a botanist with the New York Botanical Society, was on a train through South Louisiana one spring in the 1920s during the height of the Louisiana iris blooming season, and the sight of tall, blue irises stretching into the landscape was almost more than he could bear. “He just went nuts,” says Richard Goula, a Lafayette oil executive and past president of the Society for Louisiana Irises.
Small was hardly the last person to flip over the flower. Iris aficionados have since discovered or developed scores of hybrids, and even casual gardeners have found a place for Louisiana irises in local landscapes. It’s still months away from the spring blooming season, but fall is the time to plant. And the rewards are worth the effort.
“They’re just beautiful plants,” says Goula, who has a 17-acre garden north of Lafayette, where a rainbow of Louisiana irises blankets the shores of three ponds. “They’re very showy flowers and they come in every color and hue imaginable.”
Iris giganticaerulea alba
Sadly, however, sightings like the one that struck Small so many years ago are becoming rare, as development and wetland loss chew into the iris’s native habitat. Which makes growing them an act, however small, of good environmental stewardship—and one that doesn’t require too much work. “I think it’s very important for people to understand that native plants are a whole lot easier on everybody, and on the environment,” says Rusty McSparrin, who with her husband, Bud, owns Bois d’Arc Gardens in Schriever, La. In 2006, the McSparrins donated more than 5,000 Louisiana irises to New Orleans City Park to help restore the hurricane-damaged landscaping around the park’s lagoons. Louisiana irises, she says, “have a diversity of shape, color and form found in few other plants. And they are very adaptable to our area,” making them both beautiful and practical.
The Fantastic Five
There are five species of Louisiana iris. Iris hexagona has blue and lilac flowers and grows to a height of three feet. Usually bearing deep red flowers, Iris fulva also comes in yellow, pink and white varieties, and grows as far north as Ohio. Iris brevicaulis is the shortest of the bunch, with zigzag stems and blue or blue-violet blooms. As its name suggests, Iris giganticaerulea is the most imposing species of Louisiana iris, easily reaching as high as four feet and often more than five. These are the magnificent blooms that erupt each spring in the Barataria Preserve, the unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park near Lafitte. Iris nelsonii, discovered in 1938, is the most localized of the five species, found in an area around Abbeville.
Irises planted this fall will begin blooming mid-March, and will keep their color through most of May. You can plant them in beds or in water or semi-water culture, but one rule must be observed: they need a lot of sunlight. Avoid placing them near shade trees or areas that get less than a half-day of full sun. Louisiana irises require a lot of water throughout the growing season, as well as fertilizer. Soil should be rich in organic matter and moderately to strongly acid. For much of the year, the plants are attractive even when not blooming, but many gardeners prefer to mix other plants into the installation to add variety and color. This technique is particularly effective when the irises go dormant during summer.
Louisiana irises will occasionally attract leaf miners or iris rust, a fungus that creates patches of powdery red-brown deposits on the leaves during warm months and can cause serious discoloration and stymie growth. Overall, however, Louisiana irises are more resistant to diseases and pests than most other ornamental plants.
Read all About it
The Society for Louisiana Irises publishes a wonderful guide to these native plants. “The Louisiana Iris: The History and Culture of Five Native American Species and Their Hybrids” (Texas Gardener Press, 1988) includes essays on the care and history of the plant, along with attractive photos and illustrations. Read up, plant now, and soak up the local color next spring.
These five types of irises are native to Louisiana. Add a few to your garden and see them bloom next spring!
Iris hexagona: Has blue and lilac flowers and grows to a height of three feet.
Iris fulva: Usually bears deep red flowers, and comes in yellow, pink and white varieties. It grows as far north as Ohio.
Iris brevicaulis: This variety is the shortest of the irises, with zigzag stems and blue or blue-violet blooms.
Iris giganticaerulea: The most imposing species of Louisiana iris, it can easily reach as high as four feet and often more than five. These are the magnificent blooms that erupt each spring in the Barataria Preserve, the unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park near Lafitte.
Iris nelsonii: This iris was discovered in 1938, and is the most localized of the five species. It is found in an area around Abbeville.