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Lola Gazda – Iris


By Connie Cottingham

One Thursday Lola Gazda pulled out her phone to show me a photo of tall screen she is painting with four flowers. One of the four panels is a tall purple iris. “I don’t know the variety, but I have many purple iris in my front yard and they are beautiful when they bloom. In fact, there are many different irises throughout my garden.”  Lola and several other ladies in the Athens Lace Association gather in the bright conservatory in the State Botanical Garden of Georgia every Thursday morning, happily explaining this intricate craft to curious passerbys.  She also spends time in the Lyndon House as a member of the Athens Art Association (including her beautiful oil paintings in shows), the Cotton Patch Quilters Guild, and Quilting for the Poor. 

Books have been written about iris, which includes 200-300 species. Iris history dates back to at least 1950 – that is, 1950 B.C., when the Pharaoh of Egypt brought home a bounty of botanicals (roots, seeds, plants) from his Syrian wars, probably for the court physicians. Most iris are native to Europe and Asia and like full sun and good drainage. Of course, with such a large genus there are many variations – dwarf or tall, shade or sun loving, demanding good drainage or happily at the water’s edge.  About 28 species are native to the United States, including Iris verna, a dwarf iris native to the southeast that thrives in dappled sun or bright shade.

I have many iris in my garden, mainly bearded iris (Iris germanica hybrids). They are not only dramatic when they bloom and are great cut flowers to bring inside, but they are also dramatic when they do not bloom, with fans of upright, sword shape leaves that add texture in the garden. Although they demand sunlight I do place a few in my shade garden for the bold foliage, knowing those will not bloom in deep shade. I have several variegated iris from my mother’s garden, with cream stripes along the length of each leaf, and old fashioned muted burgundy iris from Great Uncle John’s garden. That is another positive about these flowers. They are passalong plants, quick to spread and easy to share with others. I have shared my favorite bearded iris – ‘Goodnight Moon’ - with several friends. The huge lemon-yellow blooms standing almost waist high and fun name makes it a winner. Hot July is a good time to dig up and divide bearded iris rhizomes. This will be easy to do, since these rhizomes are very shallow, with about half of the horizonal tuber in the ground and half exposed to the sun. Cut back the foliage to about a 2” fan to help you handle the plants. There are plenty of people on YouTube to help you divide iris. When you do divide a healthy iris clump, you are sure to have some to share. 

Another plus for my garden is the fact that our grazing deer pass the iris by, making it safe for the woodland edge.

There are many, many other types of iris which bloom in different environments and at different times. The Japanese and Siberian iris take more moisture but still want good drainage and are very easy to grow. If iris borers are a problem with your bearded iris, the Japanese and Siberian iris will probably fare better in your garden. They generally have more airy blooms on taller stems, with narrower foliage. Iris that love wet feet include the Louisiana iris, blue flag and yellow flag iris. Dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata, about 4” high) and dwarf iris (Iris verna, about 6” high) are small iris native to this area. I have a large clump of white cemetery iris, which are tough as nails and early to bloom. They are everywhere, making me believe that Johnny Appleseed up north had a cousin spreading cemetery iris in the South.

With so many available in pinks, purples, yellows, copper, white and combinations, plus varying habitats, heights, bloom time, foliage width and more, a gardener can easily find a few to add to their garden.