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E-Garden Almanac: June 2009

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
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Monday, June 01, 2009

Plant Driven: Southwest Iowa & Virginia Iris

Nine days and counting before the Ozarks trip...

So I just couldn't help but satisfy the itch to check out some native plants by tromping about my local haunts over the weekend. Of particular interest this time of year in nearby swamps and wet prairie remnants is Iowa's only native iris--the Virginia iris (Iris virginica). I've collected a number of forms over the years; a handful of the best are still under evaluation including a few petite forms that totter in around 20" tall.
My quick foray on Sunday night turned up some neat forms and even a few tetraploids (I'm guessing). Ploidy level (the number of sets of chromsomes an organism has for you non-geeky readers) can be difficult to gauge in plants without a little microscopic examination. But a few tell-tale signs include larger flowers, foliage, and increased nectary production (ie-smells more)--all things I discovered on my trek. Check out the flower size relative to my hand!

Now look at the flower size from a "typical" population (dad's hand used for comparison).

What's the big deal about tetraploidy? It equates to double the genetic information! That means bigger flowers with more space to display color, heftier plants with coarser texture, and more opportunities to shake up the genetic sandbag. That's a plant breeder talking! Even though I don't have a serious breeding interest in them, I think that a great many more forms and varieties should be available to the gardening public. Stay tuned!

But the Virginia irises weren't the only plants catching my eye. It just so happens that early June marks the peak bloom season of the prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), a sorely underappreciated phlox with remarkable tolerances to the host of diseases that plague so many of the traditional varieties. Low-growing and with medium-textured foliage (not as coarse as P. paniculata or as fine as P. subulata), prairie phlox boasts charming clusters of firey pink blooms that can literally stop traffic. It's easy to grow too and goes great with dwarf irises, heucheras, and shorter ornamental grasses (like Molinia, Festuca, and Sporobolus). If those grasses sound enticing, stay tuned for more about them this summer! :)
My traveling companion for the evening was Dee Rankin, neighbor, dear friend, and biology teacher at a local high school. We stopped by an oak savannah cemetery that we've kept an eye on for nearly seven or eight years. In that time we've watched a stand of Michigan's lily (Lilium michiganense, a previously profiled, awesomelatudinous plant that you should ALL be growing) struggle to find its niche in a limited environment. In the wild, Michigan's lily prefers a marginal habitat between open grasslands and shade. Get the shade too dense and they won't bloom. But put them in the wide open and they'll cower to the ground. Though they sound finicky, they really are just particular and in the garden seem best suited in part shade (I've grown a handsome clump now for at least six seasons). All this aside, Dee and I were elated to discover the most seedlings we've ever seen, probably 20 or 30 scattered in a number of directions from the "original clump". A few will bloom this year but most look to be second or third year plants, which will really start to put on a show in their fourth year. How exciting to watch the pendulum of nature swing to and fro.