Horticultural Senility: Snowdrops and Dwarf Iris

Every year in early spring, after a long winter of daydreaming about gardening, I see the first flowers appear and then I swear to myself that come fall I will remember to plant more bulbs for next spring. But by fall, I seem to forget my resolution to plant hundreds, or better yet, thousands of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in our yard. So instead, I'm forced to walk around our neighborhood in spring feeling envious of those people with either better horticultural memories, or stronger determination for planting bulbs in fall.

One unknown homeowner a few blocks away even tolerated me kneeling down on the sidewalk in their front yard to snap the pictures of blooming snowdrops (above) and crocus now appearing in our spring photo gallery, "Spring Is Here". Of course, it doesn't help that the clay-based soil in my excavated urban lot is quite literally hard as concrete in early fall. But that's another story. Oh well, maybe this coming fall.....

Even without snowdrops, each spring, my wife and I are surprised by the first blossoms appearing in our garden. Inevitably, we sit at our breakfast table and look out the window onto the flower garden lining the wooden fence and notice a bright spot of color. And one of us says, "Oh look, a crocus!" But when we rush out the door and investigate, it's always a dwarf iris.

Dwarf Iris

Dwarf irises, along with snowdrops and early crocus, are among the very first flowers to bloom in the Moscow-Pullman area. The two species that people commonly see are Iris reticulata and Iris danfordiae. I've got both in my garden, but I don't know how they got there. Being a research scientist, I've got two theories.

One is that my advancing age is leading to horticultural senility. Here's my reasoning. It's my garden and no one one else other than my wife and I have planted flowers there, so perhaps I must be subject to horticultural senility. Unfortunately, my wife, who as an amateur botanist has an excellent memory for flowers and scientific names, also is no help because she doesn't remember how they got there either. So it seems likely that I planted them in some empty spot in the garden after buying a small pot of flowering dwarf iris in late winter at our local grocery store. By the next spring when they pop forth and flower in the garden, I've simply forgotten that I put them there.

Another likely explanation for isolated clumps of dwarf iris spreading into new spots in my garden is that I accidentally dig up some of the bulbs each summer as I try to find a spot to squeeze just one more summer flower into the garden. So some of the iris bulbs get put into small empty spots in the garden only to magically appear in new places next spring.

My other theory for not remembering where dwarf iris are in my garden is that there must be Iris elves that take great delight in planting iris in my garden and then watching my confusion in spring when blooms pop up unexpectedly here and there. How else could a single iris appear in this, that, or the other spot in the garden any other way? Of the two theories, I certainly prefer the latter explanation in preference to senility, but instead of setting up an experiment to test the two hypotheses, I'm simply going to enjoy the surprise of dwarf iris appearing in unexpected spots in my garden every spring. I hope you do too.

Now if only there were Snowdrop elves........

More on Dwarf Iris

Wild Iris reticulata were originally found in the Caucasus mountain region in and around Turkey. The Dutch have cultivated dwarf irises for centuries and there are now many shades of blues and purples in modern cultivars. If you have dwarf iris in your garden and see bright canary yellow blossoms with green spots on the petals (below), you probably also have Iris danfordiae, which often occur in fall bulb collections or pots of mixed dwarf iris sold in stores.

Dwarf iris should be treated much like tulips in the garden. After flowering, the grass-like leaves will shoot up to almost a foot in height and then eventually wither and turn brown later in spring and early summer. By then, cutting or removing the leaves does not harm the plant.

Iris danfordiae

Dwarf iris are readily forced for indoor blooming by planting bulbs in small pots with potting soil and then placing them in a cold frame or refrigerator for about 15 weeks. Keep the potting soil moist, but not drenched. After that, move them to a warm, sunny spot indoors for blooming. However, for greater longevity of indoor blooms, move them to indirect light and keep them on the cool side if possible. No hot, sunny window sills!

The planted bulbs do well in ordinary, well-drained garden soil in full sun, but you should avoid perpetually wet soil. The yellow blossoms of Iris danfordiae are more prone to being toppled by the wind or being downed by heavy rains than Iris reticulata, but even if more delicate, they are well worth adding to the spring garden.

A Dwarf Iris Secret

While I've had dwarf iris in my garden for years, I've only recently learned a little secret about them. I suppose I didn't know this tiny secret because until today, I hadn't yet taken a towel out into the garden and kneeled down on the moist soil to smell the absolutely delightful scent coming from these bright little flowers. Don't worry about your neighbor thinking that you've lost your mind when she peers over the fence and sees you kneeling face down in your garden. Dwarf iris have a wonderful scent - but only close up. Just tell her that you lost a contact lens in the garden and she probably won't think much about it - at least until she sees you do it again.

R. Sayler