A riot of colors, shapes and sizes await those who visit Nisqually property

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJune 5, 2013 

You can forgive Mel Cross for not remembering the names of his offspring — even when he comes face to face with them. He has more than 500. And to be clear: They’re irises, not children.

Add in the unnamed results of his ambitious hybridizing program and the number grows to more than 900 varieties of iris he grows on 6 acres in the Nisqually Valley with wife Luci.

While there are more than 250 species of iris, Cross specializes in tall bearded — the kind your grandmother and her grandmother grew. But it’s that ages-old pedigree that has given the iris an image problem, the Crosses say.

Many people can’t see irises beyond the old standard faded purple or yellow that still spring up in heritage gardens. But it’s time to take a new look at the iris, the Crosses say.

Dedicated growers have been hybridizing (the process of crossing parents of different characteristics to produce new and unique offspring) for decades. Today’s irises come in a riot of shapes, heights, combos and colors. Except one: red.

Call it the blue rose of the iris world.

At the Crosses’ property, Across Iris Lanes, the flowers are now in full bloom. Some come in ethereal pink, others in orange so vibrant you can almost taste the tang. Some seem like a science experiment gone horribly yet beautifully wrong.

One variety, “Brilliant Disguise,” has apricot-colored upper petals (called standards) and almost black lower petals (called falls). Another, “Rare Treat,” is white with indigo margins. Still others have stripes and spots.

Irises are not known for their aroma, but they do give off a sweet scent. One variety in the Crosses’ garden, an unnamed purple, gives off an aroma identical to root beer.

Cross shows off a bed with the offspring of just one cross-pollinated seed head. The flowers are blooming in a 31 Flavors of color, one bearing little resemblance to another. Still, Cross finds fault with them. One is too similar to another already sold in the trade. Another is too floppy.

After all his years of work and thousands of results, he’s introduced only nine named varieties.

Still, every spring is like Christmas for Cross when the results of his hybridizing start to bloom.

“He gets more excited about seeing his new seedlings than he ever did about our babies,” Luci said. Yes, she’s referring to their daughter and son.

In order for a new iris to be accepted by Irisarians (that’s what they call themselves), it must have a well-formed blossom, branches, numerous buds and, of course, it must look different from previously introduced irises.

“Every hybridizer is looking for that one flower that will make him famous,” Cross said.

Though Cross specializes in the tall bearded species, Irises come in a variety of heights, down to miniature varieties. There’s even native Pacific coast species that range from Washington to California. Some irises grow in water; some grow in clumps; some are clean-shaven (beardless).

Cross’ interest in the iris began when he was 14 and planted a rhizome in his Minnesota garden. He still grows that iris — “Lavender and Gold Lace” — from a descendant of that 1950s rhizome.

Fast-forward to 1994 when Cross began growing irises again.

“It’s something that revives itself when you don’t have all those commitments,” Cross said.

The Crosses joined the Pierce County Iris Society in 2003, and they started selling irises in 2008 at their acreage and on their website. The former radio announcer and dairy foods distributor retired last year and can devote more time to his hobby/business.

Now is the time to visit iris growers to see the flowers in full bloom. You won’t be able to take home the rhizomes, but Cross and other growers will ship them in time for the planting season (July through October.)

Iris aficionados who must have the latest introductions will pay $30 to $60 for the next big thing. Most of the Crosses’ rhizomes go for $5 each.

An unfussy plant, the iris is mostly worry-free. It needs full sun, good drainage and a sweet (alkaline) soil, although beardless varieties prefer acidic soils. Irises don’t need summer water and are bothered by few pests.

The earliest varieties of iris bloom in mid-April, and the last ones finish in mid-July. Bearded irises are peaking now but can bloom from mid-May through June. GROWING TIPS

 • Cross grows his irises in raised mounds of sandy loam to provide good drainage.

 • Soil pH should be 6.5-6.9 for bearded varieties.

 • Cover rhizomes with no more than a half-inch of soil. “The most common mistake is that people plant them too deep,” Cross said.

 • Space rhizomes 12 to 24 inches apart.

 • Dig up and replant rhizomes every three to four years.

IF YOU GO

Across Iris Lanes

Hours: Noon- 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday through June 15.

Where: 11320 Durgin Road SE, Olympia.

More info: 360-459-0555, acrossiris lanes.com, aisregion13.org.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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