Standing Tall and Beautiful : Irises tend to be the first things you see in the garden, and for that reason they should be chosen carefully--no small trick since there are thousands of colorful, bearded hybrids

Irises should be part of any flower garden--and a special part at that. All year long, the fans of their dagger-shaped leaves are an attractive blue-gray-green--a sharp point of interest among the mounding foliage of bushier things. Then come the flowers, and in Southern California many kinds bloom at least twice--once in spring and then again in the fall or winter.

Most useful are the traditional, tall, bearded irises because their large flowers stand well above any other foliage or flowers. When they are in bloom, they tend to be the first things you see in the garden. For that reason, they should be chosen carefully--no small trick since there are probably more hybrids of bearded iris than of any other plant, even roses; there are thousands.

Blue- and purple-flowered irises come to mind first, such as Alpine Castle with white standards (the upright petals) infused with pale-blue and deeper violet-blue falls (the lower petals). But hybridizing also has created flowers in shades of yellow, gold, pink, apricot, orange, maroon, brown, white, and even black (as in the shadowy iris named Interpol). The only color not represented in the iris clan is a true bright red. If you haven't seen some of these modern irises, you are in for a surprise.

Pictured on these pages are some favorites of local fanciers that hint at what hybridizers have been up to during the past few years. All are TBs (tall bearded iris), as they are affectionately called by their growers, although some are taller than others.

The aptly named Well Endowed has just about everything that could be desired in a modern iris. It is blessed with what might be the biggest of all iris flowers. Its perfect form wins ribbons at iris shows and in the garden, and it never tires of flowering in spring and summer, sending up spike after spike, each about 40 inches tall.

Bitones combine distinct shades of the same color. Autumn Echo is an example--an unusually prolific one since this particular iris blooms much of the year, especially through fall and winter. Blends combine several colors, and one tends to slide into another.

Plicatas have distinct edges, traditionally one color against a white background, such as in the iris Charmed Circle or Splash o' Wine--the latter a "trustworthy rebloomer." What is not well represented in these photographs are the frillier forms of modern iris, those with edges that are quite fancy, usually decribed as being crimped, ruffled, fluted or laced. These are luxuriant.

What about solid-colored irises? Probably the most exciting of the selfs (as the single-colored iris are called) are the new, more-vibrant pink varieties such as the pristine Vanity. These pinks are deeper and purer than it was thought possible.

Where can you see these new irises? Neither at public gardens nor at retail nurseries. In late winter, the dormant tubers are sometimes sold in plastic packages, but the photographs on the package labels leave something to be desired, and that something is seeing them in person.

But we have a suggestion: If you act quickly, you can join the annual trek sponsored by the San Fernando Iris Society on Saturday, April 20 from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. It costs $25, but transportation and lunch are provided. You will visit 10 San Fernando Valley gardens that are chock-full of irises (three of them are also commercial iris nurseries), and you will see the newest and best hybrids--440 of them--from the country's best hybridizers growing in the display gardens. This year, the trek will be the best place in the country to see irises, because freezing weather has damaged the gardens in the East and South.

To tag along on the trek, you must send in your reservation by April 1. Send checks made payable to the San Fernando Valley Iris Society to registrar Esther Kraines, 6200 Arcadia Ave., Agoura 91301. For more information, telephone (818) 889-8622 or (818) 343-3755.

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