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In Praise of Irises

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Reviewed by Karen Preuss

In Praise of IrisesBy Claire Austin

Published by Timber Press

339 pages, 1155 color photographs, $49.95

Even if you don't read a word of text in Clair Austin's new Irises: A Gardener's Encyclopedia, the photographs alone will make you want to add lots of these beauties to your garden. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for irises. Bearded, Japanese, reticulata, it doesn't matter. I'm utterly smitten with them all. And this book just makes me want more.

Do take the time to read the text, though. There's a wealth of information here. As a member of the David Austin Roses family, Ms. Austin brings her horticultural knowledge and pedigree to these pages. The Introduction briefly covers the history of the flower in art and medicine, its scent, uses of the plant in coloring and flavoring, and tips for use as a cut flower. It then discusses the botany and classification of irises, succinctly and clearly written for a general audience.

The last of the introductory pages explains the arrangement of the rest of the book, which is divided into four parts: bearded irises, beardless irises, bulbous irises, and cultivation. Each of the larger parts is divided into chapters corresponding to the botanical classification of the genus. Within each chapter, the author first describes the wild forms or species of the group, then the hybrids, both in alphabetical order by scientific name. As the subtitle indicates, this is an encyclopedia, so each plant entry receives a uniformly short description. For the wild forms, the name of the person who first discovered it and the year the plant name was first published is listed, along with the countries in which the plant grows in the wild. The plant description follows, including the height and the general flowering time in the wild. The entries for the hybrids of the group follow the same format, with the name of the hybridizer and the year the plant was registered included. Plant parentage is also listed for each hybrid.

Over half of the book is devoted to the bearded iris. The introduction to this large section is helpful to the neophyte iris grower as Austin explains the two types of bearded iris groups, the pogons and the aril irises. She includes the horticultural classification descriptions of the six categories of the pogon iris group: miniature dwarf bearded, standard dwarf, intermediate, border, miniature tall, and tall, although the chapters that come next do not follow in the same order.

Page after page of color close-ups will enchant both the casual browser and careful collector. Austin not only wrote the text of this volume, but is the photographer, as well. I found myself looking (okay, salivating) over the photos first, then reading the details of the plants I was most interested in. Every single entry has a corresponding photograph, so there is no guessing at what a particular flower will look like in your garden.

Parts two, beardless irises, and three, bulbous irises, follow the same format as the bearded iris section, again with a gorgeous color photograph for each entry. Chapters in the beardless iris section are broken down into Siberian, Laevigata, Japanese, Louisiana, Pacific Coast, Spuria, interspecies hybrids, and a chapter titled "other beardless species," which covers crested, Rocky Mountain, winter flowering, series Foetidissimae and series Tripetalae irises. While you will probably have to travel somewhere out of state, and in many cases, out of the country, to see the plants included in the "other beardless species" chapter, browsing these pages will surely deepen your appreciation for these little gems. There are three chapters within the bulbous iris section: reticulata, junos, and Dutch, Spanish and English irises.

The last and fourth part of Irises discusses cultivation of irises, including growing irises in the garden, a chapter on pests and diseases, and hybridizing and growing irises from seed. Each chapter is very brief, and gardeners who want to dig deeper, as it were, into these subjects would do better to consult one of the many Iris monographs that are available at the Miller Library or your local bookstore.

Very helpful, however, are the website and nurseries listings in the appendix. Austin provides contact information for iris nurseries in the United States, Canada, and Europe. I also appreciated the name index at the back of the volume. Gardeners who may know a particular plant name but not the corresponding classification chapter in which that plant will be found will find the index extremely useful. If the price tag is a little off-putting, check out the Miller Library's volume first, before deciding to add it to your personal library.

Whether you're a serious iris collector looking for that next purchase, or a hobby gardener with an appreciation for this elegant plant, you'll find Irises: A Gardener's Encyclopedia a treat.

Karen Preuss is the Library Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

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