***image3***Papaya Parfait. Coyote Ugly. Temporal Anomaly. These aren't cryptic military code names, nor are they fancy drinks served up with little paper umbrellas. They're the whimsical names of iris hybrids, as are Pyroclast, Chimney Soot and Out of the Dark. In fact, according to Alverton Elliott, president of The Santa Fe Iris Society, tens of thousands of iris hybrids have been named and approximately 4,000 are currently on the market. Named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, coveted by a cadre of plant fanciers, sometimes the only splash or swath of vibrant color in a Santa Fe xeriscape comes from irises, a local favorite.***image2***
"Some grow well here in Santa Fe and some don't," the somewhat laconic Elliott says, as he pores over his list of premium varieties at an Iris Society meeting.
Pat Feather, acquisitions chairwoman for the society, explains, "We trade free irises with the understanding that after two years we have to give back two starts of the same plant. We get kind of serious about it because the rhizomes otherwise sell for about $40 to $60 each."
On the telephone before the meeting, I had indicated to Feather my interest in fall bulbs. "Well, you don't want irises then. The irises we're into are bearded and grow from rhizomes, not bulbs." This turns out to be a distinction of some importance. A bulb is a modified bud. A rhizome is an underground stem that puts out roots. There are bulbous irises, including the Dutch iris and some miniatures such as Iris reticulata, but they are not as widely coveted by gardeners. The real deal for iris fanatics are the ones grown from rhizomes.
Three trays of rhizomes are set out on a table, each one tagged with its name. The bounty represents about $4,000 worth of humble-looking iris rhizomes. Each is basically a few crew-cut leaves attached to a pale, tan cylinder with scraggly roots hanging out into the air. From these humble beginnings spring a variety of ornamental flowers with fringed petals: bearded irises classified as TB (tall bearded), MTB (medium tall bearded) and SDB (standard dwarf bearded).
***image4***"How do you expect me to concentrate on the list with all this talking going on?" asks a society member who goes by the name Stormy. Eventually, due to a combination of my interview questions and society members talking and joking around, Stormy gets exasperated and moves to the side of the house where it's quiet. "We get kind of serious about all this," Elliott says apologetically, echoing Feather's earlier caveat.
"We're freaks," another society member says, and some in the assembled group chuckle nervously.
But Santa Fe Iris Society members aren't alone. The American Iris Society has thousands of members and holds an annual convention featuring introductions of new hybrids, lectures and seminars about iris cultivation and a highly competitive show. In this way, iris fanciers are no different from rose maniacs or cactus and succulent addicts. There are several plants that have, for mysterious reasons, attracted an obsessed, sometimes fanatical group of growers. Far beyond a casual fondness, these growers display an expert's degree of knowledge, a highly discerning eye for the details of their plants and a (usually) gently dismissive attitude toward the average gardener. When I asked if there were any local nurseries selling worthy iris rhizomes, the entire group took a millisecond to look away from their acquisition lists to bark, in unison, a resounding, "No!" As it turns out, there are high-quality rhizomes available at the Santa Fe Farmer's Market, offered by a member of the society.
Each spring, several irises at my humble Santa Fe residence put out fans of healthy leaves. But the plants have never flowered. "They're buried too deep," Al Elliott's wife, Sherron, who is the membership coordinator for the society, offers. Irises, once established, don't need a tremendous amount of coddling. Most forms growing well in Santa Fe are highly xeric, requiring little if any water other than existing rainfall. But there are tricks and tips, as with any group of plants. "Try digging them up and replanting them with the rhizome just below the soil," Sherron Elliott says. Late summer and early fall (i.e. right now) is a good time to plant or replant irises.
The Santa Fe Iris Society, in its 26th year, meets from 2-4 pm on last Sunday of every month, usually at the Rodeo Grounds. There are 38 members, some of whom come from as far away as Taos and Belen. If you prefer simply admiring irises rather than growing them, check out the Jill Ward Memorial Iris Garden in Rose Park on Galisteo Street between Cordova Road and Alta Vista Street during peak flowering time, which is usually early to mid-June in Santa Fe. Unless, of course, there's a Temporal Anomaly.