Monday, December 28, 2020

Wild Pacifica Irises in Northern California

By Kathleen Sayce, with Photos by Tom Lofken

Tom lives in northern California, and took the photos for this essay over several years. 

Iris douglasiana

First up is a tough, widely distributed iris, Iris douglasiana, which grows naturally from southern Oregon to southern California near Santa Barbara. Tom took this image at Point Reyes, where an extensive purple-flowered population can be found. 

Yellow, white, rose pink and lavender flowers are also common for this species, which produces some of the toughest plants the Pacifica Iris group for gardens. 

Iris hartwegii ssp. pinetorum

Next, from the Sierra Nevada foothills, Iris hartwegii ssp. pinetorum.  This subspecies may eventually be re-elevated to species status as its genetics are distinctly different from other subspecies. I. h. pinetorum grows in the California Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada, where it prefers flats in open pine forests. 

[Readers may recall I grow Iris hartwegii ssp. australis in my garden; this subspecies grows only in the Transverse Ranges of southern California.]

Iris macrosiphon

Iris macrosiphon is widespread in northern California and also varies in flower color. It is found around the Bay Area in the mountains, and north in the Coast Range to the Klamath Range, northern California. I. macrosiphon has a very long ovary tube—the ‘stem’ between the ovary and the flower petals. The leafy bracts in the photo cover the long tube. The ovary sits just above the base of the bracts and well below the flower. 

Iris tenuissima ssp. tenuissima 

Iris tenuissima ssp. tenuissima is found in northern California, in the Sierra Nevada foothills and Coast Range. Flowers are pale yellow to white, with dark maroon to red veins. 

Iris bracteata

Iris bracteata grows in northern California and southern Oregon, has pale yellow flowers with dark veins, often with a reddish color to the perianth tubed, and is typically found in yellow pine forests above 1,000 ft elevation. This photo is from Josephine County, Oregon. 

Iris chrysophylla

Iris chrysophylla has strikingly long stigmatic crests, those petal bits that stick up on the style arms.  These look like two long teeth (a vampire’s long canines), in an otherwise typical wild Pacifica Iris flower. Flowers are usually pale yellow, can be white, and are veined burgundy on the falls. This species grows in open coniferous forests in northern California and southern Oregon. 

Iris thompsonii

Tom looked for the golden iris, Iris innominata in northern California, which grows wild only in southern Oregon. It has lovely yellow (dark gold to pale yellow) flowers. 

Instead, he found a hybrid of Iris thompsonii, possibly crossed with I. bracteata or I. tenuissima, showing pale petals, strong veining, and growing in densely floriferous clumps. 

Like I. innominata, I. thompsonii is deciduous, with leaves dying back to the ground each winter. 

Other species that share this trait are Iris tenax and I. hartwegii. 


For current taxonomy, refer to The Jepson Manual, 2nd edition, for a key to Irises species in this subsection. All taxa except Iris tenax ssp. tenax and ssp. gormanii are covered in this key.  

Older taxonomy references include Victor Cohen, A field guide to species, and Lee Lentz’s books. The latter three publications are available to download by members of the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris on the SPCNI website in the members only area. 

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