All irises have a particular flower shape. While a daisy has all the petals the same shape radiating from the center like a pinwheel, an iris flower has a distinct top and bottom. The flower petals that stand up like flags are called the standards (an old word for flag, by the way). The bottom petals which orient downwards are called the falls; they act as well-marked landing platforms for the insect pollinator.
Blooming now is a very common iris found along ponds and stream sides here in The Catskills is the Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus). Like many plants in our landscape, it is not native to here but was introduced from Europe and it is now naturalized. This water-loving plant develops into massive clumps and spreads itself liberally through seed which are dispersed every time there is flooding. It is sometimes planted in gardens but it often quickly overwhelms. Occasionally found in similar habitats is the Catskills’ only native iris, Iris versicolor, the Blue Flag.
There are two types of iris which we are most likely to find in Catskills gardens. Siberian Iris (Iris siberica) is another Eurasian native whose flower structure is similar to the Yellow Flag. It is however much better behaved in the garden. It forms sturdy clumps and its flowers are mostly different shades of blue, although there are white and pink varieties as well.
German Bearded Iris (Iris germanica) are the best known of the iris we are likely to find in Catskills gardens. They may be a bit more fussy in order to grow and flower well, but the sumptuous flowers and their broad color range make them worth the extra effort. The basic flower structure of standards and falls is still evident.
Besides the difference in flowers, Siberian and German Bearded Iris are easy to distinguish when not flowering. One picture shows the base of a Siberian iris plant – note the clump of skinny grass-like leaves. The other picture shows the Bearded Iris growth habit – note the somewhat flattened fan-shaped clumps.
There are a few other types of iris also planted in Catskills gardens. In the earliest spring bloom two species of Iris, Iris danfordiae (yellow) and Iris reticulata (shades of blue) which I have discussed my Dwarf Iris post. The Japanese Iris, Iris ensata, blooms much later in the season, and is an excellent candidate for a future post.