Monday, July 31, 2017

US Native Iris: A Look at Vernae, Tripetalae, Longipetalae and Laevigatae

by Robert Gabella

Iris virginica Shrevei on the banks of the Fox River - Batavia, IL

Childhood Indiscretion and Missed Opportunities

As kids, we had the freedom to wander the local woods. Mom was happy to get us out of the house, so long as we came home by dinner. If we were parked in front of the TV, she'd turn it off and say "Get outdoors, you're not going to sit at home and watch cartoons on a nice summer day!"

Dad was a career Army officer, so we had a chance to wander state after state - Texas, Alabama, Maryland, Florida, Alaska, Illinois, Colorado and anywhere we visited in between. With no cell phones, and often beyond the distance of a shout, we found our own adventures and made our own discoveries - occasionally getting into trouble. Somehow, we managed always to come home in one piece.

Iris verna Cleo Chapel Road, in the garden

The exact reason I first saw Iris (subgenus Limniris, series Vernae) verna in a dimly-lit but open wood in Southeast Alabama, several blocks from our on-base home, is up in the air. Meaning - giant woody lianas of undetermined species were literally hanging from the air, from high in the trees – so I, my brother and a friend set out to swing from them like Tarzan! During the acrobatics, I noticed little purple dots not far in the distance, even more startling with bright orange signals.

Though only 9 years old, I'd become familiar with Bearded & Beardless Iris at a prior residence in Maryland. Later, Bearded Iris grew, and rebloomed, around our school courtyard in Tallahassee, Florida. A voracious garden reader even then, I'd read about but never seen Iris (Subgenus Lophiris) cristata. But these were different, a puzzle! They varied slightly in color and form. And the need to possess overcame me. Choosing the flower I liked best, I unceremoniously (and unwisely) ripped a plant out of the ground. Surprised at the rope-like rhizome, distance between the small fans, and scarcity of actual roots - I got what I could. Transplanted into a little garden space I had, it grew for the remaining three years we lived there, but bloomed again only once.

Iris verna Cleo Chapel Road, in the garden

It took years, but I finally made a proper purchase of this gem - Darrell Probst's 2012 intro, 'Cleo Chapel Road'. Planted in my Zone 5 Chicagoland garden, it bloomed beautifully, and reconnected me to that childhood discovery! 


Unless you have a state-issued collection permit, private property owner's permission, or are lucky enough to have them wild on your own land, buy nursery grown plants of Iris species, or raise them from SIGNA (Species Iris Group of North America) seed:
This way, you harness the beauty of native Iris without putting pressure on wild populations.

And Much Further North…

Fast forward to a move from Alabama to Alaska, and close encounters with lots of Iris (subgenus Limniris, series Tripetalae) setosa.

I. setosa, Alaska; Photo courtesy of Mabin

My first sighting was a thick clump blooming in a neighbor's garden, a gorgeous dark purple with 3 falls and no standards – could it be a Japanese, I wondered. But I learned quickly, as Mom had picked up The Alaska-Yukon Wildflower Guide. At about the same time. the Alaska Department of Transportation then put out a notice that they were giving away Iris for the digging, near Eklutna Flats, north of Anchorage, in the path of major construction. Though we took a look at them as we drove past, on the way to elsewhere, my parents (sadly for me) chose not to go through the muddy routine.

I. setosa, Alaska; Photo courtesy of Raymona Pooler/

I. setosa, Alaska; photo courtesy of Karen Danenauer/ 

But I got my revenge almost 20 years later, with a dig permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for I. setosa interior, the taller subspecies in East Central Alaska. In advance, I'd written Larry Duffy who'd collected them in a wide range of colors, from white to pink and burgundy plus the usuals. We later met in a coffee shop in Fairbanks, after my digging, and he showed me his slides. At that point I encouraged him to register them, which he did. Though I collected several forms, there was doom in their future. With my good friend, the late Florence Stout from Northern Illinois Iris Society, we planted them in her garden. Though they grew in muck. we mixed in sand, and now I forget why. I was there constantly, doting over them and watering, probably unwisely, and they all eventually died. That was a love's lesson lost. Sooner or later, the old VHS tapes of me doing the selecting will be digitized. And I hope to collect again someday, but maybe just seed.

Making up for Past Mistakes

After Alaska, two more family moves landed me in Southern Colorado. But distracted by non-gardening pursuits, only in my senior year of High School did I first notice Iris (subgenus Limniris, series Longipetalae) missouriensis. Between Cañon City and Cripple Creek, growing on a scraped-off roadside embankment, the plants were short, widely spaced, and flowers were mainly bright lavender purple with yellow signals. Only in return visits, did I become aware that these high desert and foothill populations naturally hug runoff and melt areas. So those I first saw, pitched high and dry, by a hot roadside, were likely remnants from construction and grading. But growing as they were, it showed their adaptability and strength.

Iris missouriensis, upland form, NW of Crested Butte, Colorado, 10,000'

Iris missouriensis, upland form, NW of Crested Butte, Colorado, 10,000'

Iris missouriensis, upland form, NW of Crested Butte, Colorado, 10,000'

This past summer, in late June, I made a point to chase this species from the rugged Colorado lowlands (still high, over 5,000 feet), where it was nearly finished blooming, to the interior mountains, where it was just peaking. In all areas, plant habit and flower color were variable. The wetland forms were generally much taller, about 3 feet. The thickest patches in the high mountains were half that height, mostly pale blue. But in the distance, obstructed by a rushing creek, were some in white and darker purple colonies. At over 10,000 feet, it was breathtaking to see these plants, watch their pollinating bumblebees at work, and bask in the miracle of how they even got there.

Iris missouriensis, wetland form, NW of Cañon City, Colorado, 6,200'

After settling in the Chicagoland area decades ago, I first completed a degree in Horticulture and then went on to complete two more stabs at college. Through much local exploration, I began to see our native Iris (subgenus Limniris, series Laevigatae) virginica Shrevei in our many local wet areas.

Even years ago, I noticed it was often competing with the shade of invasive glossy buckthorn, Frangula alnus, or encroached by the aggressive Eurasian Iris (subgenus Limniris, series Laevigatae) pseudacorus. In these photos, snapped in late May along the Fox River, in Batavia, you can see the pseudacorus are not only photobombing this lovely and highly variable population but edging them out.
Iris virginica Shrevei, hiding near encroaching I. pseudacorus - near the Fox River - Batavia, IL

Iris virginica Shrevei on the banks of the Fox River - Batavia, IL

A pale lilac colored Iris virginica Shrevei on the banks of the Fox River - Batavia, IL
Though much damage to native Iris populations as well as wildlife habitats has already been done, in 2013, Iris pseudacorus was added to the ILLINOIS INJURIOUS SPECIES LIST, and it is now illegal to transport, barter, buy, sell or trade here. Fines for infractions are not less than $1,000 or more than $5,000 per incident. Now to begin cleaning up the mess of the pseudacorus that's already here.
In the detention pond of a local McDonald's, without pseudacorus encroachment, a burgeoning population of I. v. Shrevei has emerged.

Iris virginica Shrevei with encroaching I. pseudacorus, on the banks of the Fox River - Batavia, IL

The site was bulldozed and reconstructed a dozen years ago, and it seemed there was only one Iris remaining - but they have gradually increased, and this past spring was the best bloom so far. This group also included a dark specimen, as well as one plant with exceptionally small flowers. What's really fascinating is that scattered juvenile fans vastly outnumbered the many blooming plants.

McDonald's management assisted with the photo shoot, and the GM said she grew up with Iris but never noticed these, behind the site and out of view. It just proves you never know where or when you'll make an Iris Friend - and they now have a new appreciation for "the ditch" out back!


These plants don't read their own press, and whenever you find wild Iris, individual plants may look quite different from one another mere feet apart!  Appreciation of the best of these differences leads to potential selection, and Horticulture – "the art and science of growing plants (well)” – my parentheses!  To see the lovely gradation of flower color, pattern, form, presence or absence of gold signals, and floral velocity in a Shrevei population to realize how diverse they are - even in a small area. Here are some of the lovely forms from the McDonald's population.

Iris virginica Shrevei growing in a stormwater detention (dry) pond McDonald's, Oak Brook, IL

Iris virginica Shrevei growing in a stormwater detention (dry) pond McDonald's, Oak Brook, IL

However, not all of our Chicagoland populations of I. v. Shrevei are as robust and variable as the Batavia or McDonald's populations. At Volo Bog State Natural Area, the few specimens appear sporadically, and the main encroachment is by cattail, Typha latifolia. The end result of the smaller localized gene pool is a lessening of natural variability.
Iris virginica Shrevei growing at Volo Bog State Natural Area, Volo, IL.

Iris virginica Shrevei growing at Volo Bog State Natural Area, Volo, IL.

Where to find them: Where will you see US native Iris in the wild?  Well, it depends where you live, and where and how hard you look. Check with SIGNA, your local botanic gardens, native plant societies, and Iris folks from your region.  Many US residents are within a 100 mile drive of one species or another – across two subgenera (Limniris, Lophiris) and a number of series.  They are mainly absent over extreme southern Florida and the harshest desert areas, but in some places locally abundant.  Whenever you see them, take note of location, bloom time, population characteristics and density, and natural variability – as well as other floral and faunal associations (including invaders). And please take photos and share them with other Iris Lovers, this is how we learn from one another! And in cases of fascinating variability within a population, it’s also how we assert that the plants don’t read their own descriptions.


Editor's Note: Robert F. Gabella is a Horticulturist, Hybridist, Author, Consultant, and Project Manager based in Villa Park, Illinois - which Hardiness Zones 5a and 5b have managed to split in half - down the middle of his street! More at GardenOpus - and on Facebook & Twitter as GardenOpus.


  1. What a wonderful article, packed with information. Kudos to Robert for a very personal and unique report on his life search for native irises!

    1. Thank you Phil, and my sincere apologies for not acknowledging sooner, maybe there's a way I can set up notifications. Appreciate your thoughtfulness, and excited about new World of Irises features I'm working on - coming soon!

  2. Like always, this was so fun to read! I never had heard of these wild Iris until a few months ago on Iris Lover's a member posted pictures from Alaska and I was amazed to see such a beautiful countryside full of them. I'm so passionate about iris but didn't know they grew wild in Alaska! Then a few weeks ago my parents went on an a Alaskan cruise and came home with an abundance of seed packets. They had no clue they were actual seeds because the front said postcard! Thank you so much for this article and for always being kind when answering my silly questions. I'm so excited to try these! I'm in the same zone as you in Utah so I'm guessing they will do ok? Thank you for the awesome article!

  3. Thank you Alyce, and very sorry I did not see and acknowledged this sooner. Though our zones are similar, summer and winter characteristics are somewhat different - but not enough to impact success adversely, you will do fine. And very exciting about all those postcard packets! I enjoy picking up souvenir seeds when I'm traveling as well. And there are no silly questions, keep asking away and thank you again!


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