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Wild irises finding their voice after decades of silence

“You who do not remember

passage from the other world

I tell you I could speak again: whatever

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice:

From the center of my life came

a great fountain, deep blue

shadows on azure seawater.”

– Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris,” 1992

American poet Louise Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for her slim volume titled after the first poem “The Wild Iris.” All of the poems are set in a Vermont garden at different times of the year and are told in one or more of three voices: flowers in the garden, the gardener, and/or a deity.

In “The Wild Iris,” the flower tells the gardener how it was “buried in the dark earth” and then re-emerged in the springtime to find its voice — its beautiful color — once again. The poem provides fitting imagery for my discovery of a species of native iris called Douglas’ iris emerging on our property in Bandon, where Jerry and I have escaped the summer heat.

For decades, the iris seeds were denied germination by a dense thicket of prickly gorse that claimed the disturbed earth after previous human inhabitants vacated the premises. When we came along and removed the gorse, the dormant seeds seized the opportunity afforded by the newfound sun and moisture, and this year iris shoots began popping up all over the property in clusters.

They’re too immature to bloom yet, but I’m eagerly anticipating next spring when the irises will finally find their voice once again.

In the meantime, I’ve been learning more about Oregon’s wild irises: Douglas’ iris (I. douglasiana), Siskiyou iris (I. bracteata), yellow-leaf iris (I. chrysophylla), golden iris (I. innominata), western blue flag (I. missouriensis), and tough-leaf iris (I. tenax). Together, these irises are part of a group called the Pacific Coast natives. The PCN irises readily cross-pollinate and produce natural hybrids with beautiful color combinations.

The Douglas’ iris growing on our cleared property is the only evergreen native species. Like the Douglas fir (actually a pine tree) growing in abundance on the property, Douglas’ iris is named after David Douglas, a 19th century botanist who described the plant after finding it growing in the open woodlands and coastal grasslands of Northern California.

Douglas’ iris has adapted to Southern Oregon’s rainy winters and dry summers. This native grows best in full sun along the coast, but appreciates some afternoon shade in inland areas. It prefers well-draining, slightly acidic soils (pH 6.5) with plenty of organic matter.

Douglas’ irises grow from a tiny rhizome, which makes the plants difficult to transplant successfully. The strappy, grass-like leaves grow in fans 1-2 feet tall, and the stalks bearing flowers grow another foot above the foliage. Each branched stem produces two or three flowers in the spring, which range in color from white-cream to light blue-violet to dark purple. The flower structure consists of three upright petals called standards, three sepals curving downward called falls, and a yellow or white patch called a signal. Douglas’ irises are beardless, meaning they do not have a fuzzy, caterpillar-looking growth on the top of the falls.

Douglas’ irises and other PCN irises are naturally resistant to insect pests and diseases, and they are deer resistant. They are open-pollinated by native bees.

Now that I know that Douglas’ iris wants to grow on my property, my plan is to include them in a mixture of PCN irises and naturally occurring hybrids when we transform the area that used to be a gorse thicket into a meadow of native plants. We have been preparing the site by growing cover crops and adding compost to replenish the soil.

The best way to grow PCN irises is by seed, although rhizomes can be planted in the fall. I may experiment with transplanting some of the Douglas’ iris shoots that have been popping up on the property to see if any survive.

I bought packets of PCN iris seeds that thrive in similar conditions to Douglas’ irises: Siskiyou iris, yellow-leaf iris and tough-leaf iris. This fall, I’ll sow the seeds about 3/4-inch deep in drifts spread throughout the meadow area. Iris seeds will germinate faster if they are soaked in water for a day or two before planting.

Next year when my Douglas’ irises bloom, I can collect the seeds after the pods dry out and then sow the seeds in the meadow in the fall. Some gardeners recommend starting PCN iris seeds in compostable pots indoors, and then transplanting starts in the spring. It would be interesting to try both methods and see which one is most effective with my growing conditions.

Once the PCN irises establish, I expect them to self-seed. I want to fill the meadow with other native plants that will thrive in the same conditions alongside the PCN irises, including camas lilies, western columbine, California fuchsia, showy milkweed and others.

I am inspired by Louise Glück’s poem “The Wild Iris,” and by the wild irises unexpectedly growing in Bandon. I like to think that my presence has helped the Douglas’ irises to find their voice and speak again.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.