Why Aren’t Pacific Coast Used More in Landscapes? Like a Lot More?
Why Aren’t Pacific Coast Used More in Landscapes? Like a Lot More?– By Bob Sussman
(While this article is somewhat long and more than a bit sarcastic in a few places, the point is that these are easy to grow if planted at the right time of year in the right place. At least look at the pictures to see what could be in your garden!)
As many of you know we are a “mostly” California native plant nursery located in Ventura County. To my realtor friends they might phrase it we’re ‘Los Angeles adjacent’. People in Los Angeles often think of themselves as being on the edge of social, style, and of course environmental change or what may be referred to as, yes, …”woke”. That means, among other things, sustainable landscapes. Sustainable landscapes would translate to minimal resource use (including time to maintain) and still be aesthetically attractive as well as providing residences for many elements of the wild kingdom. Los Angeles County has about 10 million people, the neighboring counties about the same combined. Given all this, one would think there should be a lot of demand for pacific coast irises but no so much the case at least for now.
What exactly are pacific coast irises? They are irises that are native to the coastal regions of California above Santa Barbara and up into Washington State, with some in Sierra Nevada and San Bernardino Mountain ranges. In the field the various species tend to have a very charming with lots of flowers and colorful appearance. The flowers range in size to about 2” to 3” across, fairly big for the wild and native.
Below are some me my photos from various areas where they naturally grow.
A mass planting of these iris natives has an artistic quality that’s about as good as it gets- very difficult to make changes and get a better result.
Still, plant people being plant people do what they do and cross these again and again and again to get bigger and more colorful flowers. The hybrids are also bigger, much bigger averaging between 4” and 5” across when in full bloom or roughly 3x larger then they typical species flowers. Some work has also been done on increasing the growing range as well. The result of some of this work is absolute living art. Here are a “few” of mine –I’m not sure if this would constitute living art but I don’t need permission to publish it my own photos:
Not making this up these flowers are really big when fully opened.
Certainly, many other hybridizers that have been doing this for years have grown as beautiful or better pacific coast hybrids than I. You can see their work on the web just type in “pacific coast irises” and click images, or the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris has many of these.
Now we finally get to the really, really, really big question to put in terms that Ed Sullivan might have used…..Why aren’t more of these used in landscapes or a least native landscapes? If you don’t know who Ed Sullivan was, well check the web. He introduced the Beatles to America and if you’re too young to know who the Beatles are then well you ain’t “woke” or worse.
I do have some idea as to why these irises are used much more often in various landscapes, but I also asked some of our clients that do garden design work. These are people that design very extensive gardens for the rich and famous (or so they think) to the more modest residential gardens the real people. I also checked with some of my buddies at botanical gardens. The consensus seems center around two points. The first of these is “lack of information” leading to what might be called risk aversion. The second is lack of supply.
Let’s take the first point first, lack of information and risk aversion. A professional landscape design person is on the “hook” for both the artistic appeal of the design plus it’s durability. Will it last? Will it perform as promised? If the plants fail then it’s just a giant mess. The designer’s reputation is severely damaged, or worse may have to replace the plant material at his/her own expense. So, without knowledge and confidence as to the performance of specific plant material, no matter how beautiful, the rational decision is one of avoidance.
What’s the truth? How difficult are these irises to grow? We’ll in Northern California, Oregon, Washington State, and other area around the world with similar climate, they’re pretty easy to grow and are thought of as easy to grow. The West Coast is part of their natural range you can see them growing on the hillsides and meadows and people seem accept that growing them in residential or commercial landscapes is no big challenge. In Southern California, a few hundred miles to the south, it’s warmer, dryer, and the soils tend to be a bit different. They can’t be seen growing along the coast and so the assumption that these are easy to grow just isn’t the case.
However…in Southern California, there are several examples of pacific coast irises growing prolifically in some of our botanical gardens. The Santa Barbara Botanical has several sections devoted to pacific coat irises. However, Santa Barbara is also cooler, gets more rain and is fairly close to their native range (actually I. douglasiana starts in northern Santa Barbara County). The climate in Santa Barbara is similar to the coast areas from there all the way down to San Diego. This maybe a good example of how they do in coastal California or other regions with the same conditions. What about more inland? Just a little more inland from the ocean can make a big difference.
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, California also does an outstanding job with their pacific coast irises too. Unlike Santa Barbara they have very warm summers with several days above 100 degrees. Here are a couple of pictures from the pacific coast irises growing at Rancho Santa Ana and a third shot growing in of all places Disneyland. Anyone that’s been to Disneyland in the summer knows it’s hot!
Now the Disneyland photo – not the flowering time of year but growing just fine in Anaheim, California.
I do have to admit; as the temps get warmer the challenges do indeed get greater. Still, the range in which this particular type of plant material can be successfully grown is fairly broad.
If your climate is just like the California’s coast north of Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles) these will easily grow. Plant them out sun or even to part shade. Water 1x/weekly until about the end of May then 1x/month seems to be beneficial. That’s about it. Using some time release fertilizer seems to produce better results to an extent. If you’re further south and inland like much of Los Angeles here’s what you do.
- Plant in fall through the early spring and plant in the shade. Not in sunny areas and not in summer!
- When you plant they need to be above ground a bit, like on a small mound that’s a little (1/2”) above grade. That so the water doesn’t drain toward the center and rot the plant.
- For new plants water 1x/week down to the roots until the beginning of May then 1x/month there after.
- A bit of time release fertilizer like 14-14-14 +/- in winter – sprinkled around the plant on the surface – ½ tbs seems to help. I do it and it seems to help.
- Apply mulch around the plant but not on top or touching the leaves- leaving some space – a couple of 2 to 4 inches. That’ll keep things cool in summer allow some drying out again reducing the chance of rotting.
That’s really it on the growing side, not much to it. Do your planting in the cooler months and in the shade. Water 1x/week for the new plants until pretty much the end of spring then down to 1x/month. There well be some losses, right around 10%+/-.
Now the next issue to look at is that of supply. In actuality, supply and demand are probably about matched. The cost of growing/producing pacific coast irises may indeed be a little high relative to other types of competing plant material. So what?
There are always differences between the cost and resultant pricing of similar products from cars to shoes to food, etc. The somewhat higher cost of growing these types of plants – irises has to do primarily with the length of the growing cycle. Growing from seed, it’s at least a year from planting the seeds to saleable 1-gallon iris. Further, seedlings will always look a little different to a lot different from the parent.
So you want a selected hybrid? You want all the irises to be the same? Really? Okay, the production associated with specific hybrids is a little bit more complicated and raises pricing somewhat. From “cross” to flower to create a new hybrids is at least two years and can be three years. To increase the stock and produce a saleable quantity requires an addition 3+ years. And, over this 5 year period there can be losses. This is why selected hybrids can cost more than mixed or species seedlings.
The cost differences are of selected hybrids relative to mixed seedlings is somewhere between 50% and 100%. This doesn’t represent all that big of an expense if you’re a collector – as many of us are and the quantities are relatively small and the satisfaction high to have a piece of “living art”. The cost as a percentage of the total landscape is likely to be small too.
Now, to summarize all of this, pacific coast irises can add a lot of aesthetic appeal to many landscapes. Planting out species or “mixed” pacific coast hybrids can provide a real natural look. Planting out fancy hybrids give it the appearance of a living art gallery. The growing part in your garden can be relatively easy. Too much love and tinkering can be deadly. After the first year – ignore – monthly watering works best. The more inland the garden the more shade they need (I’m paraphrasing Kathleen Sayce and can’t improve on that). Plus, once they’re growing they’ll last and flowers for many, many years. You’re also likely to get new seedlings too.
If you accept my premise that pacific coast irises are actually easy to grow the perceived level of fear and risk drops, this is the same as a reduction in cost. A reduction in cost, even implied results in greater demand and growers will grow more, more quantity and more selection – guaranteed.
And a little more eye candy for our ending. The first shot is from mass plantings at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic and then are some of specific eye candy hybrids!
Now for more living art or eye candy!
I want to thank and acknowledge the people that gave me input on this article:
Bruce Reed from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Trisha Munro- Trisha’s Garden Design, Laura Bauer – Southern California Horticultural Society, Nancy Navarro – owner of Fanciful Gardens. And the help and a different point of view from Lucinda McDade ph.d. and Peter Evans both from the Ranch Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont.