Iris: Greek goddess of the rainbow |

Iris: Greek goddess of the rainbow

Carolyn Singer
Special to The Union

Perhaps it is fitting that bearded iris, in their rainbow of colors, were beginning to bloom with the recent rains. At least in a mythological sense.

In Greek mythology, Iris is not a primary goddess, yet she is the messenger from the gods to humanity, identified with the rainbow. As a goddess of both the sea and the sky, she is credited with supplying the rain clouds bringing essential moisture to the earth.

The native iris is now blooming, too. Sweet stands of this delicate, low-growing native may be seen near the Empire Mine.

Next Saturday, May 10, Nevada and Placer County chapters of the California Native Plant Society combine efforts for the spring native plant sale at Sierra College in Rocklin.

Look for this treasure and others, plus lots of good advice about growing natives. Details are on the website for the Nevada County Redbud chapter (

While the wild iris is fleeting, there are many other garden species providing weeks of spring color.

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In one local iris garden, a bit of foothill history has been preserved. Decades ago, Sylvia Osman's family had an iris nursery near Placerville.

Appropriately, it was called Rainbow Hybridizing Gardens. Growing up in this garden must have been pure joy, and perhaps a bit of work, for Sylvia and her sister, Jewell deLapp, who has lived in Colfax for many years.

Sylvia gave me a copy of the nursery's last catalog, which was printed in 1963 following the sudden and unexpected death of her father, Lloyd Austin.

Her mother, Gladys, pays tribute to Lloyd for "daring to introduce new and startling forms and patterns of Iris."

She writes, "… most of his ideas were too new for Irisarians to appreciate and evaluate, but I feel sure his Iris will continue to inspire Irisarians the world over."

The back of the catalog heralds "the dawn of the space age in iris."

Half a century later, how wonderful that many of Sylvia's father's efforts continue to bloom each year in her Grass Valley garden, opening in a fragrant progression from late April into May. Jewell tells me that her Colfax garden has become too shady for the iris. She can enjoy her sister's garden.

According to the 1963 catalog, their father explored the world of the true Oncocyclus iris from the Holy Land and later worked with the rebloomers and his own "horned, spooned and flounced varieties."

While there are a few hundred iris species, the bearded iris often seen in gardens may in fact have a touch of Lloyd's hand. The range of colors (many indescribable) and forms is breathtaking. Cutting a single stalk will bring the fragrance inside and may give you a succession of blooms opening over several days. The buds, too, are striking.

Bearded iris grow from rhizomes, making their propagation very easy. The newer growth portions may be broken off from the parent when the foliage begins to collapse following the bloom period (usually in July). Iris growers who supply customers often hold open gardens during the May blooming season so that gardeners can select the colors they covet.

As soon as the bearded iris in my garden finish blooming, iris spuria begins.

Cultural requirements are simple for the iris mentioned: full sun or afternoon shade and an ample supply of natural phosphorus in the soil. Where a little compost has been added, the leaves and blooms may be larger.

Iris are certainly one of the most water-efficient native or introduced flowers for our gardens. And the deer usually leave them untouched.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She will be teaching a class on growing edibles in raised beds from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in Grass Valley. Please preregister, 272-4769 x 116. She is the author of the award-winning "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom", and two volumes of "Deer in My Garden" (deer-resistant plants), available locally. For more information and details of upcoming classes, visit

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