Pacific Coast iris Iris douglasiana var. Canyon Snow (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Whenever I indulge in guacamole made from a Hass avocado, I am reminded of its unlikely origin.
In 1926, Rudolph Hass, a mail carrier in Pasadena, planted three avocado seeds in his avocado grove in La Habra Heights. Only one of them grew into an acceptable seedling, upon which he made several attempts to graft the Fuerte variety. Fuerte is a smooth, green-skinned type that was the most popular commercial avocado of that time and is still sold today.
Due to the graft failures, however, Hass was about to dispose of the seedling when an expert in tree grafting said the seedling was unusually robust and Hass should wait and see how it might develop. When the tree eventually did bear fruit, it was bumpy, of an unusual color and taste and so, once again, he expressed doubts about its value.
However, his children enjoyed the fruit and he was soon selling it to his colleagues in the post office and to gourmet chefs through a local grocery store, where the avocados fetched the incredible price of a dollar each, equivalent to $15 today. Although Hass owned the patent to the variety that bore his name, he made less than $5000 from it since the cuttings he sold, as they matured into trees, were used as propagation material – unprotected by patent laws of the time – for large orchards.
I was reminded of this story when learning about the Snow Flurry iris from Rich Loehr, whose great aunt, Clara Rees, created it as a hybrid after transferring pollen from a pink Thais iris onto the stigma of a white Purissima iris. The fruit capsule that formed contained only two seeds. One of them was shriveled up and unviable but the other grew into Snow Flurry, a white iris with a hint of blue and an unusually sweet fragrance. What made Snow Flurry special was its ruffled edges, an entirely new innovation in iris characteristics.
Tall bearded iris Iris germanica (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Ever since then, thousands of tall bearded iris varieties owe their ruffled petals to Snow Flurry. Although Snow Flurry does not produce pollen, its female flowers are receptive to the pollen of other varieties and thus forms capsules containing seeds of new hybrids. Unfortunately for Rees, patents on irises had yet to be registered and, until today, patenting irises has only rarely been done due to the ease of iris propagation, achieved by means of bulb-like rhizomes and the nearly impossible task of enforcing patent rights on these perennials.
Loehr wanted to know if Snow Flurry, a tall bearded iris, would grow in Indio, which is 75 miles east of Riverside in the Colorado Desert. Most irises are tolerant of desert heat, especially tall bearded irises, and of freezing temperatures as well. If I were you, I would contact the Inland Iris Society which is located in Riverside and has a presence on Facebook.
There are 250 species of irises, most of them native to dry climates like our own. I have had personal experience with six species.
1. Iris germanica and related hybrids. This is the tall bearded iris or fleur-de-lis, with thousands of cultivars available in every color and combination of colors you could imagine. Most bloom briefly in late winter or spring, but some cultivars, known as remontants, will flower on and off in summer and fall as well. Flag irises are easy to grow and are as nonchalant about water as most California natives and cacti. However, fertilization and some additional watering now and then will lead to more foliage and flowers, especially in the remontants. There are many Internet vendors with a wide variety of flag irises for sale.
2. Iris douglasiana. The habitat of this California native, known as Pacific Coast iris, stretches from Santa Barbara in the south to Oregon in the north. In Southern California, Pacific Coast irises require some sun protection in order to thrive. There is a wonderful selection of them available at the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery in Sun Valley.
3. Iris pseudacorus. Known as yellow flag iris, this is a species that, planted on the edge of a pond, will grow with weedy abandon. It is also suitable for planting in narrow, north-facing beds that are shielded from hot sun. Yellow flag iris grows taller with foliage that is lusher than that of other iris species listed here. I have seen this iris growing along the zigzag bridge in the Japanese garden at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.
4. Iris cristata. So-called crested irises grow in evergreen clumps in the shade. Plants reach no more than a foot tall. Flowers are typically white or lavender and fragrant, with golden crests on each sepal.
5. Iris hollandica. This is the classic Dutch iris, the one you see in van Gogh paintings. Colors of this bulbous iris vary, but the standard bearer is purple or royal blue with a strong blotch of yellow on each sepal.
6. Iris foetidissima. This plant goes by the unromantic name of stinking iris, alluding to the odor emitted by its crushed foliage. Its ornamental feature, however, is not its flowers but its vivid orange-red seeds which, clustered at more than 20 per pod, create quite a stir when dozens of pods open simultaneously on mature plants.
I would be remiss not to mention that there are dozens of flag iris cultivars with fragrant flowers and they are widely available through Internet vendors, easily accessed with a search of “fragrant irises.”
Are there any unusual or especially stunning irises that you grow and would like to share with readers of this column? If so, feel free to write about your iris experience and send it to the email address given below.
Two special two-day weekend events are taking place at the Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar. On March 18th and 19th, the North American Clivia Society will present a two-day Clivia (CLI-vee-ah) show and sale. Clivia is the only plant for the shade garden that flowers in glowing orange, although varieties with salmon, yellow, pink, red, and white flowers are also available. On April 1st and 2nd, members of the Saddleback Valley Bromeliad Society will be exhibiting some of their specimens as well as offering many plants for sale. Bromeliads are a highly diverse group of plants with flowers in every color, often with textured and uniquely patterned or variegated foliage. The exquisite Sherman Gardens, although not large, are packed with gorgeous flowering specimens as well as exotic ferns and other foliage plants. The Gardens are located at 2647 E. Coast Hwy in Corona del Mar. For more information, call (949) 673-2261 or visit www.thesherman.org.
California native of the week: I first encountered fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) while strolling through the California Botanic Garden, a native plant sanctuary in Claremont. Ever since, the thought of this superior ground cover – whose sweet scent is widely considered to be stronger than that of any other California native – has brought a smile to my face. Fragrant pitcher sage belongs to the mint family and may have either pink or white flowers, while the El Tigre cultivar has stronger coloration than the species. It grows easily from seed but, while perennial, may not live more than a few years. The fragrance emitted by its velvety leaves when you brush against them is powerfully fruity. Fragrant pitcher sage is not fussy about soil conditions and is drought-tolerant in the shade. Although pollinated mostly by bumblebees, it also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. It can grow up to six feet tall and as wide but is often of shorter stature. Flowers are vase-shaped and hang down decorously along low-arching one to two-foot stems.
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