Green Scene

It’s iris season, and it’s really worth a trip to Montclair


I have always had mixed feelings about irises. Because my garden is shady, I haven’t bothered with the bearded irises. 

Instead, years ago, I bought Siberian irises, and fell in love with their beautifully furled buds and velvety, purplish-blue petals, marked with yellow. But each plant has only two buds, and each bloom lasts only a single day. And while I hungrily watch each bloom, they are gone too soon.

Friends told me about the marvelous Presby Memorial Iris Garden in Montclair, New Jersey. We were there years ago during peak blooming, and wandered along paths lined with endless varieties of bearded irises. Since then, I usually remember the garden either too early or too late in the season for a proper visit. 

On May 7, we decided to venture out. The day was overcast and cool, so I figured even a lengthy visit would not be marred by hot sunlight. 

Our timing was still a bit off although, by the time you’re reading this, conditions should be “just right.” The optimal bloom time apparently is from May 14 to June 4. 

The paths were beautifully laid out, and each patch of plants was carefully labeled with a metal plant marker, giving the cultivar name, the name of the hybridizer, and the year it was hybridized or introduced. There are about 3,000 registered varieties. 

We did see a few early bloomers, although most of them seemed to be dwarf varieties.

The garden is named in honor of Frank Presby, a businessman and community leader in Montclair. He was an early advocate for the formation of the American Iris Society, and was its treasurer when he died suddenly in 1924. The township at that time had recently purchased the last available vacant land creating Mountainside Park. Local residents felt that an iris garden would be a fitting memorial, and requested locals to bring their spare rhizomes for planting. 

John Wister, a noted horticulturalist and president of the American Iris Society at that time, helped design the garden as well as donated the bulk of the 99 historical irises, many of which are more than 100 years old. 

The design intent was a rainbow of color symbolizing Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow for whom these flowers are named. The Presby Memorial Iris Garden is now listed in the state and national historic sites registers.

The iris has been known since antiquity having been seen on Minoan frescoes (on the island of Crete). Traces of iris oil, used in the making of perfumes, have been found in a Minoan workshop from before 1700 B.C. The iris is possibly the basis for the fleur-de-lis, symbol of French kings since the 12th century, although there is some conjecture that the symbol may be a stylized lily.

As we have come to expect, there is no such thing as a simple iris. There are flower characteristics that generally make it easy to identify the group. All iris flowers have six petals (alright, the lower “petals” are strictly speaking sepals, but for our purposes here, they look like petals). The upper three are called “standards,” and the lower three are named “falls.” 

Some irises have “beards,” which is a fuzzy patch at the base of each of the “falls.” There are other iris flowers that have a colored patch in that location. However, if the patch is not fuzzy, then it is not a beard. 

Other flowers have a crest instead of a beard. These crests look like a ridge running front-to-back in the spot where a beard can be found otherwise.

Irises are members of family Iridaceae and are monocots — those plants that have only a single embryonic leaf and comprise a separate category of flowering plants. Monocotyledonous plants cannot synthesize wood, but they include important crops such as grains (Poaceae) as well as sugar cane, bamboo and palms.

There are different ways to divide irises. The American Iris Society divides them into three broad categories: bearded irises, aril irises and beardless irises. 

The six groups of bearded irises, natives of southern and central Europe, are categorized primarily by height. The arils coming from the Middle East are characterized by having an aril — a white collar of material wrapped around the base of an elongated seed. 

The six eponymous beardless types, while including some native American varieties, primarily come from Asia.

I rather like Robert Pavlis’ groupings. He first divides irises into two types based on how they are propagated: by rhizomes (by far, the most common) or bulbs. Then, he divides the rest into bearded, beardless or crested.

So join the thousands of visitors this year at this magnificent display!

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