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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday, May 2012 -- Pacific Coast Iris

One of the first plants I ever planted in my new Washington garden was Pacific Coast iris. I got it at a plant swap, with no idea what it was. I grew two kinds of iris in my old garden back in Massachusetts -- Iris reticulata, which bloomed every spring with the crocuses, and a tall purple bearded iris that came with our house when we first bought it. They both seemed and looked pretty exotic to me, and the idea of an iris that was native to North America was a revelation to me.

Pacific Coast iris is a wild beardless iris native to California, Oregon and Washington. There are 11 different wild species, also called "Pacificas", that can be crossed to make many intriguing hybrids with enhanced disease resistance, especially attractive colors and growth patterns, or longer blooming seasons.

There is a group called the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris, a sub-group of the American Iris Society, that is dedicated to this iris. You can check it out here.

It's a favorite of mine now, I very much look forward to it blooming every year. It has spread well. I'm thinking this winter I may have to dig and divide it, and spread its beauty around, probably into the new gravel garden, which sounds like it will be a perfect spot for it. Winter is the time to divide it here, with care taken not to leave its rhizomes exposed for too long. Unlike bearded irises, which can survive out of the ground for quite a while, even be left to dry out somewhat and still thrive when planted again, Pacific Coast irises must be replanted as quickly as possible, so that the little root hairs don't dry out.

Like many other Pacific Coast native plants, they are well adapted to our cycle of wet winters and dry, moderately warm summers. They like well-drained soil, but can manage with being wet all winter. But they will not like being kept wet all summer as well. Their foliage is evergreen but can be neatened up by cutting back in winter, like epimediums and hellebores.

I think I have four different varieties, three of which are currently blooming. They all had name tags when I first got them at the swap, but those tags have faded and disappeared since then.

Some are much more frilly than others, and some have a leanness to them that appeals to me. There are lots of named Pacific Coast iris hybrids that have much more flamboyant color patterns and frills than mine. Like tall bearded irises, they like to be planted with their crown just emerging from the surface of the soil. Their slender leaves and simple look (compared to exotic bearded irises), make them excellent candidates for a woodland garden.

Most Pacific Coast iris hybrids have as their parent Iris douglasiana (one of the 11 Pacificas mentioned above).  In the wild Douglas' iris grows on hillsides and cliffs near the coast at low elevations. Like many West Coast natives, it is named after the explorer and botanist David Douglas. In fact, it's one way I recognize West Coast natives, by checking out whether one of our region's explorers is given credit in the Latin name of the plant. Douglas spent ten years exploring, collecting and classifying plants of the Pacific Northwest, and our iconic huge conifer the Douglas fir is named after him.

I love the veining on the falls of these irises.

When I first got them, I had no clue where to put them so they would thrive. I wasn't familiar enough with my new garden to know where the moist spots were, and where the sunny spots were. I just plunked them down, and by pure dumb luck, they loved it there!

Like columbines, Pacific Coast iris tend to interbreed indiscriminately.

Every year, mine form seed pods, but I usually cut them off when I cut them back in the late fall/early winter. Some day I'm going to save the seeds, and sow them, and see what I get.

The very heavy rain we've had lately has beaten this poor thing into submission

Wildflower Wednesday is hosted by Gail Eichelberger of the blog clay and limestone. Check out the link to see other posts about wildflowers.


  1. Great post Alison, I enjoyed learning about a plant I see and hear mentioned a lot but knew nothing about!

  2. Wouldn't you know that even the wild iris would be so spectacular on the west coast. I'd be really interested to see what you get when you plant your iris seed. No doubt, they'll be gorgeous.

  3. You have taught me something new, I had no idea it was a wild one...Such a pretty thing too. xo

  4. Beautiful Alison! I love our wild native Iris. I don't grow the Douglas Iris here, as we have native Iris fernaldii growing on the property, I've been concerned they may cross, but I always admire the different Iris I see growing elsewhere along the coast. I'm always impressed at how tough these plants are. They survive occasional deer browsing (especially the flowers), and can go months without supplemental water in a dry year, and rebound when the rains return. I love the vivid colors in the ones you have photographed here. I'd love to see what you end up with if you sow seed! I'm hoping to sow some Iris fernaldii seeds this year too, they produce a lot of seed per plant!

  5. Looks like a great native to have in the garden. Nice photos of them, too.

    My poppies only started blooming yesterday. I'm afaid this rain is going to do them in.

  6. What a charmer! I can see why you love it. How cool to have seeds and to see what will develop. gail PS Alison, I've left German iris out all winter sitting on top of the soil and they continue to thrive!

  7. The irises you feature here are lovely. Irises don't grown wild in my area.

  8. Beautiful! I love iris... I have several varieties in my gardens and it's a real thrill to find wild iris along the hiking trails.

  9. What pretty irises!! I do like the veins in the petals, so lovely. Very interesting about David Douglas, makes sense!

  10. The third iris from the end is so crisp and neat! It's nice to learn about more plants adapted to our climate.

  11. Beautiful shots of the Irises! There are so many varieties and cultivars, and I never tire of them. If you ever travel to New Orleans, check out the botanical garden, which features so many different varieties of Irises!


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