Critter Resistant, Rare and Beautiful-
The Best Early Spring Bulbs For Nourishing Pollinators
Each fall, Harvesting History creates a series of newsletters about flower bulbs that must be planted in autumn so that they can produce magnificent flowers throughout the spring. For the past 15 years we have noticed a decline in interest on the part of the gardening public when it comes to spring bulbs. The decline is the result of critters which eat the bulbs throughout the winter or devour the blossoms just as they are about to burst into blossom throughout the spring. All the hard work of the fall produces little or no results in the spring.
This year, we are going to focus on bulbs that, for the most part, are critter resistant. As all of you know, nothing is entirely critter resistant, but some bulbs, because of fragrance, texture or naturally occurring chemicals within the bulb or plant, are repugnant to critters and so are only eaten if there is absolutely nothing else to consume.
The first bulbs we are going to discuss in this series are the Iris Reticulatas, also known as Rock Garden Iris or Dwarf Iris.
For whatever the reason, Rock Garden Iris do not appeal to the garden’s critters. The deer, moles, voles and rabbits tend to ignore them.
Rock Garden Irises are the tiny (4-6 inch) irises that produce, for their size, large (3-4inch) blossoms early in the spring. They are descendants of the iris, I. pumila, an iris that is indigenous to Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Even today this tiny iris can be observed in vast drifts clinging to the precipitous cliffs of the Greek Isles.
The name, iris, was derived from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris, probably because few flowers bloom in as many colors as the iris. Rock Garden Iris produce yellow, blue, white and purple blossoms.
The first Rock Garden Iris were introduced into Europe in 1596. These early plants produced lilac-purple blossoms. They remained rare in the flower gardens of Europe until 1945 when a group of American plant breeders began an intensive campaign to produce a vast array of colors in dwarf iris. Even today though, Rock Garden Iris are rarely seen in American gardens.
Because of their tiny size, it is recommended that you plant Iris Reticulatas in drifts of 10-25 bulbs. They multiply quickly, doubling in number approximately yearly. Iris reticulata bulbs are prone to splitting. Sometimes deep planting prevents this. The recommended planting depth is 4 inches with 4 inches between bulbs. To prevent splitting, try planting at a depth of 6 inches.
These sturdy, vigorous little troopers of the early spring garden deserve more attention. They bloom so early that sometimes they bloom before the snowdrops. They are an important pollinator plant because at the time they are producing blossoms few other plants are in bloom, thus they are critical for bees. They are also among the most forgiving of spring bulbs/tubers. They survive, even flourish, in poor soil, drought and strong wind conditions. They thrive when their bulbs are barely buried in soil with good drainage and full sunlight.
Iris reticulata Harmony was introduced in 1953. It is the darkest of the Rock Garden Irises with standards and falls that vary from dark purple to dark blue. Sometimes the standards and falls exhibit white or yellow blotches.
This iris came from a cross between Iris histrioides ‘Major’ and the original Iris reticulata produced by CJH Hoog in the Netherlands. The result, ‘Harmony’, was a plant whose blossoms were far larger than either of its parents. In fact, to this day, Harmony produces some of the largest blossoms in its class.
Iris danfordiae was introduced in 1876. She is a fragrant, sunshine yellow charmer. Her bottom petals, known as ‘falls’, are usually much broader than those of her cousins, Iris reticulatas Alida and Harmony.
These broader falls give her an air of voluptuousness that Alida and Harmony just do not have. She rarely reaches a height over 4 inches, and she is hardy from Zone 4 to Zone 9.
I think every spring garden should have at least one variety of Rock Garden Iris. They epitomize everything that is wonderful about the flowers of spring – beauty, fragrance, exotic shape, intrigue and vigor. Iris danfordiae possesses all of these qualities and more.
Iris Reticulatas make excellent container plants, but plant the bulbs much closer together (1-2 inches) and feed them lots of bone meal in rich (1/2 topsoil and 1/2 peat moss and 1/2c. bonemeal) soil. If you leave the pots outside for the winter, they should be protected with bales of straw on all sides and the top in Hardiness Zones 2-4. Once they start to bloom, you may want to bring small pots inside to enjoy their blossoms.
If you want to force the bulbs for winter blooms, bury the bulbs 2 inches deep in their pots, water and let drain thoroughly, place the pots in plastic grocery bags, tie the bags tightly and place in the refrigerator. Leave the pots for at least 10 weeks and then bring them out and place in a bright window and water. Using a Blossom Booster fertilizer helps. Never let the pots stand in water.
The following chart suggests the number of iris reticulata bulbs that can be planted per pot:
6 inch pot 7 bulbs
8 inch pot 12-14 bulbs
10-12 inch pot 22-25 bulbs
For 100 years, an heirloom Iris Reticulata known as Cantab graced many gardens, but in recent years the commercial stock of Cantab coming from Europe has had many problems. Alida has been introduced to replace Cantab. Like Cantab, Alida’s blossom is a stunning flax blue. The shape and size of the standards and falls (upper and lower petals) is nearly identical to Cantab.
The French have called the iris, fleur-de-lis, ‘flower of the lily’, though they are not related to lilies. The stylized picture of the iris, known as the fleur-de-lis, has been the symbol of valor and chivalry and the much beloved royal emblem of France for centuries.
I love the Iris reticulatas because they are one of the very first bulbs to bloom in the spring. A drift of these beauties blooming through the last snow melt will take your breath away.
I have found that all Iris Reticulatas are hardy in my Zone 4 garden where they bloom at the end of March or early April. In Hardiness Zones 5-8, these irises can bloom as early as January. In my opinion, this very special little family of flowers belongs in every garden…. and by the way, THE BEES AGREE WITH ME!!!
Don’t miss our Tuesday, September 3,2019 newsletter
on Snowdrops and Chionodoxa. Two more spring
blooming bulbs that the critters do not like.
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