The Perfect Perennial? Bearded Iris
How hard is it to find a perennial that takes hellish heat, bitter cold, plus withering drought and STILL produces powerfully fragrant flowers in a rainbow of colors every spring for the rest of your life? Not hard at all, really. Just ask for bearded iris.
Bearded irises don't grow from bulbs (a popular misconception), but from large fleshy roots called rhizomes. In days gone by, gardeners often called them "German irises," despite the fact that they're not native to Germany, but the Mediterranean region. Modern selections are so heavily hybridized there's no telling where the genes came from, so we just call them "bearded irises" and leave it at that.
Bearded irises get their common name from their flowers, which consist of upright petals called "standards," pendant petals called "falls," and fuzzy, caterpillar-like "beards" that rest atop the falls. Standards and falls may be the same color or radically different colors. Dream up any color combination and you can probably find it. Flower spikes stand anywhere from 2 to 4 feet tall and are great for cutting. Cut a flower stalk in bud, place it in a vase with water, and watch the flowers unfurl one-by-one, filling a room with sweet perfume. When Grumpy was a wee lad, my mother told me irises were her favorite flowers. It didn't hurt that her older sister was named Iris.
What do you need to grow bearded irises? Two things: sun and well-drained soil. During my recent ambassadorial trip to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco (the location can now be revealed), I witnessed purple bearded irises blooming everywhere. Here's a shot from the gardens at our guest house in Imlil.
Morocco is an arid country with very hot summers, cold winters, gritty soil, little rain, and sunny skies 345 days a year. If bearded iris thrive there, they'll thrive for you. Like I said, all they need is sun and well-drained soil. In the U.S., they'll flourish all the way from the Upper Midwest (USDA Zone 3) to the Gulf Coast (USDA Zone 8B). It's vital not to plant the rhizomes too deeply. The top of the rhizome (the surface without roots) should be even with the soil surface. Don't mulch.
Where can you get bearded irises? Well, most garden centers have pots of them in stock now. If you want an extra-special kind, you can order online from Schreiner's Iris Gardens. Or you can beg a friend or neighbor with beautiful irises to give you one.
Irises make great passalong plants, because they're easily divided in late summer and fall. All you have to do is use a garden fork to lift a clump from the ground, cut the rhizome into sections so that each has roots on the bottom and a fan of leaves on the top, and replant. That's how Grumpy obtained the lovely yellow iris pictured above. It was a gift received from Margaret Sanders of Columbus, Mississippi years ago. It's blooming as we speak.