Thursday, May 20, 2010

LOOK FOR: Blue Flag Iris

The first spring that we moved into our house, I was thrilled to discover an abundance of bearded irises in our front yard. Along with some daffodils and tulips and a crepe myrtle, the irises are among the few non-edible, non-native plants that we've kept, because they're just so pretty. But their place in my heart may soon be usurped by our thriving native blue flag iris, which is blooming right now.

Blue flag iris on the Northwest Branch
Blue flag iris on the Northwest Branch
Blue flag iris grows in a different environment, mind you -- it's a wetland plant. There are two species native to this area; we're in the overlapping part of the range of northern blue flag (Iris veriscolor) and southern blue flag (Iris virginica). Both are a little smaller and more delicate feeling than most cultivated irises -- but they've still got the long, spiky leaves and that amazing flower that's impossible to mistake for anything else.

The two native species are hard to tell apart, and I won't bore you with the details. But there is one similar non-native iris you may see growing in wetlands -- yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), which, as you might guess from the name "yellow flag", has bright yellow flowers. It's an import from Asia, and there's some concern that it's displacing blue flag in natural areas. Sure enough, there's been more and more yellow mixed in with the blue flag in our favorite spot over the last several years. We really should talk to someone about getting it out of there.

Blue flag iris in our pond
Blue flag iris in our pond
In the wild: We've seen blue flag scattered along the C&O canal here and there, and it's growing at Lake Artemesia. I'm sure there's some at Kenilworth Gardens, and it's worth looking at Huntley Meadows and Jug Bay. Or, if you're heading to look at the mountain laurels along the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia that I wrote about on Tuesday, there's some blue flag across the river. Rather than following the trail on the right hand side of Burnt Mills dam, cross the river (using the sidewalk along Colesville Road), follow the trail upstream on the left hand side, and keep an eye out to your right along the water.

In your yard: We've got a clump of blue flag iris submerged in our pond, and a few more in our rain garden. They seem to do well in both locations. And I love their spiky foliage, even when they're not in bloom!

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