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There are few genera of plants that bear flowers in every color: from white to red to orange to yellow, tan, green, aqua, blue, purple, violet, brown and even near-black. One genus that does is Iris. Kelly D. Norris is a 25-year-old iris expert, horticulturist, plant breeder, and plantsman from Iowa. He tells us that there are not only a huge range of colors, there are also species and varieties for every growing condition, from alpine iris to water plants. He claims that there are some for shade, as well, but I wouldn’t try any in deep shade. (Two for partial shade might be Iris cristata and I. tectorum.)
Kelly is the award-winning author of three books including his latest one, A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts. He edits Irises: The Bulletin of the American Iris Society. He is the youngest person to receive the Iowa State Horticultural Society’s Presidential Citation, Award of Merit and Honor Award in the organization’s 150-year history. In 2011, the Perennial Plant Association presented him with the Young Professional Award, recognizing early contributions to the advancement of herbaceous perennials in America.
A decade earlier, when he was 15, Kelly talked his parents into buying an Iris nursery in Texas, packing 40,000 bare-root rhizomes into a semi and driving them to Iowa. "It took 325 man-hours to plant [them]," he said. He currently manages what came to be the Rainbow Iris Farm , a seven-acre nursery owned by his family. (Learn more from Kelly’s website.)
We talk about bearded irises, their history and care. For example, these irises have to be lifted and divided from time to time for peak performance. But I couldn’t resist asking about iris borer – I’ve never grown the bearded irises without these pests – the grub of a moth. Kelly says I should move – there are no borers west of the Rocky Mountains. How do they deal with borers at the nursery? Fire – they burn the fields in early spring to destroy the old leaves and most of the eggs and overwintering larvae that hide in faded bearded iris foliage.
Bearded iris? How did they get that name? Here’s the skinny on the source of the moniker. Some iris species do not have beards, some do. These fuzzy little appendages at the top center of the falls, the part of the flower (tepals) that grow downward, are thought to be pollinator guides – kind of like “WELCOME MATS" for bees.