Garden yarns: Irises have stories to tell


The best plants to share are the ones you received as gifts. That’s my takeaway this spring while enjoying the beautiful irises my friend Jenny Garrett McLaurin gave me last year. While new to me, these Chatham County beauties have a distinguished history.

“When I moved into the old home place in 1991, there were already a few bold, purple Siberian irises here,” Jenny said. “But Claytie McIver, Richard Webster’s grandmother and an old friend of my mother (who was in her nineties), gave me two big boxes of bearded German irises, labeled by color. She had her son Hoyle dig them up and bring them to me.”

Irises are my mother’s favorites, but I never set out to buy any for myself. It’s a shame, really, because irises are rugged and easy to care for, they transplant well and brighten up your garden. In the many boxes of irises Jenny gave me, there’s at least six different varieties. This year, they fill in the empty spaces in the gardens around my house with waist-high blooms spanning the full spectrum of blues and purples.

Sharing these perennial favorites is the way to help ensure long life. She told me, “I’m always tempted to leave a clump on someone’s porch with a request that they share with me their variety I don’t have (yet).”

Jenny’s irises are the rhizome variety, and look like long, skinny, rooty potatoes. Thinning them out helps promote blooming. “If you don’t thin them,” she said, “eventually you’ll just get the leaves and no blooms.” Whether you’ve got irises to share, or you’re the lucky recipient, transplanting is easy. Use a shovel and dig it straight down into the clump, between the leaves. Make sure to catch roots and leaves with the rhizome, plant them shallowly (roots down) about eight inches apart, and cover with a thin layer of mulch.

“I have beautiful irises on the east, south and west sides of the house,” she said, “where they get several hours of light, though not necessarily full sun. They don’t bloom well in full shade.”

And just like Jenny’s irises, other plants (and rhizomes) have stories to tell. Denise Effrein moved down from upstate New York last fall and became fast friends with Pat Decator (and me!). I ran across them last week while they were digging up some canna lilies.

“The cannas came to us as bulbs from Marshall Bowden during a housewarming party in March 2002,” Pat told me. “He was the pharmacist at the Clinical Cancer Center’s pharmacy at UNC Hospitals. They came from his grandmother’s home and were over 100 years old at the time.”

Pat has thinned out her cannas four times over the last 18 years. “I move them around our property where I think I need a pop of color…ours are all red,” she said.

Sharing plants with others is a blessing, Pat told me, and even after all this time is still learning new things about her cannas. “We have Chatham County red soil, and these cannas like moisture and sun. Some have not done as well in the shade, but they keep coming back. If you’re going to plant cannas, look at your soil, where you’re going to place them, and your drainage. Then, just be the best artist you can be so it’s fun and not regimented.”

Before moving to N.C., Denise tried to grow cannas in upstate New York with little fanfare. They never grew more than just green leaves and she had to winter the bulbs in the garage.

“I’m excited to live in an area where they’ll be able to grow,” she said. “They remind me of childhood vacations with my family—very exotic and tropical.”

She’s going to put the cannas in a prominent area of her garden to re-create the feeling of being on vacation. And between you and me, I’ll bet she’s relieved to know she can leave the bulbs in the ground!

For more information

Old Farmer’s Almanac:

• Growing Irises:

• Growing Cannas:

N.C. Cooperative Extension – Chatham:

• Bearded Iris for the Home Landscape:

• Summer and Fall Flowering Bulbs for the Landscape:

Behind the Scenes:


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