A Survivor

by admin on April 17, 2010

I was very happy to see this iris blooming last weekend and for a couple of reasons.  First, it is a survivor.  It is growing in the shallow edge of the New Orleans City Park lagoon that is a remnant of old Bayou Metairie.   The City Park lagoon system is connected to Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John, another remnant waterway that at one time was part of a system of canals that connected the Lake with the commercial district downtown.   That was back before there were roads all the way out to the lakefront.

Storms can push brackish Lake water up Bayou St. John and into the lagoons.   After the levees failed in Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t primarily the open Bayou that channeled  the salty water;  the water poured through the breeches to the tune of seven feet and more in some areas the City.  Plant life suffered unbelievably and the irises were among them.

Some varieties of Louisiana iris are a little tolerant of salt water, but prolonged exposure will kill them.  Because a drought after Katrina denied a good flushing with fresh water, there was quite a  bit of damage, and salinity in the lagoons remained high.  I grew Louisianas not far from the Park in half barrels with no drain holes, and the salt water could not get out during the six or so weeks that passed before I could return.  A few were entirely dead and all were badly damaged.  Removed from the barrels though, they did recover well.

To all outward appearances, the City Park lagoons look like a natural home for Louisiana irises.  And before New Orleans became entirely developed, there were  vast numbers of native irises growing in what were cypress swamps and low areas.  After Katrina, the salty lagoons did not seem so hospitable.

Today there is better control of the entry of brackish water as a result of a weir and fresh water pumps that add good salt-free water to the mix.  A few years ago as the lagoons were in recovery, a group of local iris enthusiasts planted a large number of rhizomes along the banks of Bayou Metairie, including some down in the water.   It does appear that a number did not make it, but last weekend there were many scapes up with buds about to open.  And the early bloom in the picture showed that the lagoons are indeed a habitat in which Louisiana irises can grow.  Another big storm will provide a better test, but so far, so good.

The second  reason this picture made me happy is that a Louisiana iris just looks so “right” blooming in water.  The flowers and foliage have a graceful form.   Both wild and hybrid Louisiana iris flowers can be showy, but the plants are not just a vehicle for gaudy blossoms.  There are different flower shapes but this flaring one is my favorite.   It approximates the natural shape of the species I. giganticaerulea.

Louisiana irises irises look good on dry land, too.  Most people grow them in ordinary flower beds, and as long as they don’t dry out, they do just fine.

City Park is 1300 acres large.  It has made tremendous strides in recovery from Katrina.  In fact, it is booming.  Those interested can take a look at its website, including a map that shows the lagoon system.  http://neworleanscitypark.com/mapofpark.html The Bayou Metairie remnant is in the lower right.  Bayou St. John runs the entire length of the park along the right side of the map.


This past Saturday, Longue Vue House and Garden held its “Iris Day” emphasizing the contributions of Caroline Dormon, the Louisiana conservationist who originally designed the Wild Garden there, I think in the 1940s.   The event was very nice but was one of the casualties of the lingering winter since only a half dozen irises were in bloom.  All were species, including several fulvas, a giganticaerulea and an I. hexagona collected by Benny Trahan in Florida.

Iris hexagona from Florida

Iris hexagona collected in Florida

All the irises were pretty, but the hexagona was the one that interested me most, for two reasons:  one, in form the flower looked exactly like a Louisiana giganticaerulea, but the plant was notably shorter.  Two, it was an early bloomer, right there with the fulva and giganticearulea, which are known to be early.  And yet, one of the characteristics associated with I. hexagona is that it is a late bloomer.  In fact, plants from South Carolina given to me as I. hexagona have  always bloomed very late, just as does I. brevicaulis, reputed to be the latest blooming Louisiana.

So, what’s up?  Just a fluke in an oddball bloom season?  Anything is possible and you shouldn’t generalize from a single instance.   But who’s going to stop me?   I fall in with those who think that the taxonomy of the native irises of Florida has not been entirely sorted out yet.   The generally accepted view is that all the native irises of Florida that are broadly in the Louisiana group are I. hexagona and that I. hexagona is limited to the East Coast of the U. S. (not including Louisiana).  It would not surprise me if careful study eventually concluded that some irises in Florida were essentially the same thing as Louisiana’s  giganticaeruleas, but that others are significantly different critters.

One difference between the Florida iris blooming at Longue Vue this week and Louisiana gigantaeruleas is that the Florida flower is a much deeper blue.  I would call it a blue-purple.  Giganticaeruleas are much lighter blue, sometimes light lavender, or even pale blue approaching white.  By no means are all Florida irises this dark, but except for hybrids, irises found in Louisiana don’t show such a dark blue.

It is unfortunate that the Florida natives have barely worked their way into the ancestry of the modern Louisiana iris hybrids.  The sensation caused by the discovery of Louisiana irises in the 1920s and 1930s was limited to Louisiana itself where the vast bulk of collecting occurred and where amazingly varied natural hybrids were found.  With scant exception, the stock of the modern hybrids originated in Louisiana.  But given that dark blue color found in Florida, that is an unfortunate omission.

Those interested in Florida’s native irises might want to check out an article that appeared in the Society for Louisiana Irises’ quarterly magazine.


First Bloom Of The Season

April 3, 2010

Here is the first Louisiana iris bloom of the very late season. It’s a relatively short (24″) seedling (No. 03-07) with a smallish, open flower. There’s no huge splash in the garden since it is not a huge flower, but the color pattern is interesting. The parentage is complicated: (Mudbug x ((Harland [...]

Read the full article →

The Longue And Short Of It

March 29, 2010

I took a look today at the Louisiana irises at Longue Vue House and Garden in New Orleans.  There’ s nothing in bloom yet, but the plants look fantastic.  There are many, many scapes showing, and the work of the last couple of years will be paying off very soon.   With the damage from Hurricane [...]

Read the full article →

A Start

March 28, 2010

You have to start somewhere.  I’ve worked a good bit on the structure of this new blog but have waited to actually write an entry.  With the first Louisiana iris bloom of the season a couple of days ago, the time is right.  The first order of business will be to report on the progress [...]

Read the full article →