The Rainbow on the Hill

Often called “the poor man’s orchid,” irises are elegant, intricately formed and rich in history.  Happily for gardeners, they are also among the easiest of flowers to grow, thriving in spite of drought, neglect and missteps on the part of their admirers.

Named for Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, these shimmering spring blossoms offer an unparalleled range of color, spanning the spectrum from yellows and reds to blues and purples, from pastel shades to deep ones and from pure white to nearly black. In Homer’s “Iliad,” Iris was she who “runs on rainy wind,” slipping down the rainbow’s gleaming arc to carry missives between gods and men. To this day, in the language of flowers, irises signify the arrival of a message, as in “You’ve got mail!”

The Minoans featured irises in their frescoes, and the Egyptians carved these flowers into the 3,500-year-old walls of the great temple at Karnak. They were cultivated in the Middle East in biblical times, some say as the original “lilies of the field.”

Irises have cohabited with us through the ages and around the world. They were inspiration for the fleur-de-lis symbol of the French monarchy, pounded into perfume in 19th-century Florence and suspended by Germans in beer barrels to keep the brew fresh

And yet, they are no less fresh and welcome in a 21st-century garden. What more could you want these days than an easy-care flower, tough and drought-resistant, that generally is left unmolested by such browsers as rabbits and deer? Unlike most goddesses in the kingdom of myth, irises play well with others, mingling easily with other flowers that dominate the merry month of May – pansies, peonies, and pinks, for example.

While there are other attractive species – Siberian, Japanese and Louisiana irises to name three – most people know best the tall German or “bearded” iris, named for the fuzzy patches on the lower petals. This is the familiar iris about to bloom in thousands of garden beds across New Jersey.

Cultivated for centuries, irises have documented long-term trends in plant breeding as new shades were coaxed from the plant’s gene pool, more ruffles were added to their many-hued petals and variations were introduced in size and bloom period.  Their names have memorialized people, places, fads and poetic fancies in a sustained burst of creativity. You might not guess that ‘Fries Morel’ and ‘Perfection’ are souvenirs of the 19th century but you wouldn’t mistake ‘Splashacata,’ ‘Fringe Benefits’ or ‘Boogie Woogie’ as anything other than products of modern times.

The best place to encounter irises from the 1500s forward is Essex County’s Presby Memorial Iris Gardens at 474 Upper Mountain Road in Montclair, known far and wide as “The Rainbow on the Hill.” A living museum of the species, it has outlived other many other collections and now includes some 10,000 plants of more than 1,500 varieties. With 100,000 or so individual flowers, the gardens in full bloom are nothing short of spectacular.

The gardens date to an idea born in 1927 to commemorate Frank H. Presby, a noted Montclair horticulturist and plant breeder, and a founder of the American Iris Society. This year, the society’s national convention is held in Newark May 23 through 28 and the Presby garden is the major attraction.

Although the site is serene these days, it has seen some turmoil in recent years – vandalism in 2005 that wrecked 157 historic plants and financial crises in 2008 and 2009 that threatened to shut the gardens down. Its salvation was purchase of the site by Essex County in 2009 with money from a state Green Acres grant and the county’s Open Space Trust Fund.

But the gardens are durable and irises are, too. With us for millennia, irises have staying power. Displayed en mass at Presby, blooming at a modest doorstep or surviving in a crumbled stone foundation, irises deliver the message — “Spring celebrated here.”

Visiting the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens:

The peak of bloom at the gardens is mid May through early June but there are some dates to keep in mind. A plant sale is scheduled tomorrow through Sunday when thousands of or irises and other plants will be offered. Jazz music is on tap Sunday in a special salute to Mother’s Day. The Bloom Room Gift Shop is open the same days, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Japanese drummers make thunderous noise in the garden on May 15. Then, on May 21, the site hosts its annual Family Garden Party, with live music, refreshments and presentations by local environmental groups. Check the website for details or call 973-783-5974.