Regarding the African Iris

I taught myself to read pretty early in life, age three or thereabouts. My memories of the time before that are unreliable, mainly remanufactured from stories I’d heard told about those days, with a layer of remembered visual image plastered atop the whole thing. I remember the rough layout of the house we lived in then. I remember the phone number we had back then, which is droll considering I don’t quite remember the one I have now. But I’ve lost more of those times than I’ve retained, and what I’ve retained is suspect.

I don’t remember what it was like not to be able to read. To live in a world where a huge percentage of your sensory intake has meaning, and you know it but can’t decipher it? I approach that feeling around here sometimes with neighborhood signage in alphabets from Ge’ez to Hangul to Thai, but that seems different. I’ve learned a couple languages well enough to know that all I have to do is sit down and puzzle the new ones out. Before I learned to read English I didn’t have those previous successes to bolster my confidence.

But I remember what it was like before I learned how to read plants, and I suspect that’s much the same feeling: all that information out there waiting to be interpreted, and me without any of the tools I’d need to do so.

Consider, for example, the plant pictured above, the African Iris, Dietes iridoides. Those of you who’ve known this plant may well have known it by a previous Latinate binomial, Dietes vegeta. In places where the winter low temperatures don’t drop too far below freezing, Dietes is planted widely as a fairly reliable, un-fussy landscape plant. It’s what gardeners sometimes refer to as a “landscape architect plant” — a plant you can install in a spot like a piece of hardware, and which, given certain basic necessities, will do exactly what it is supposed to do and no more.

What the African Iris does is simply this: it puts out meter-long, gracefully tapered leaves of a uniform, sophisticated dark green, punctuated by cream-to-white flowers with markings in shades somewhere along the yellow brown and purple spectrum. The flowers resemble those of their iris cousins in their basic design, but are far less showy than most irises. Though its subtropical nature might lend it some cachet as far as cold-climate gardeners are concerned, it’s an unassuming plant. It’s reliable. It does what it’s asked.

And it doesn’t ask much in return: a few hours of sun, enough water to become established after transplanting, that’s about it. Cutting back the occasional spent flower stalk and dividing the clumps every decade or so are thoughtful but not really necessary gestures. Dietes is low maintenance.

And so a lot of gardeners take it for granted out here on the West Coast, the way gardeners back east might take a yew for granted, or a patch of lawn.

People who don’t read plants usually don’t even see Dietes. To them, the plant is just one more of those green objects that one occasionally walks past on one’s way somewhere. If you read plants, it takes only a moment’s acquaintance with a Dietes to see its basic nature: it sends up strappy leaves and slender inflorescences from its base. But many people, even if they tend gardens for a living, do not see this basic nature even after years of exposure to the plant.

Which is how you get things like this:

Dietes, whacked

That’s an African Iris growing not far from me here in Los Angeles. The people who maintain the landscape in which it lives might know what it’s called, but they have no idea what it is. So they come by periodically and shear it, and its compatriots, at about a foot from ground level.

It will live. It will never flower and its shorn leaves will never look like anything but crap, but it will live. There are a thousand and one shrubs that can be kept in meatball shape a foot off the ground, many of them attractively so. Dietes is not one of them.

What this plant needs is to be dug up, the clump broken into five or six smaller pieces and replanted, and then watered and weeded but otherwise left alone. The clumps will grow gratefully, loose and informal and yet more or less tidy. Barring that, if the grateful informal loose but tidy look is absolutely wrong for the spot, it should be put somewhere else and replaced with a Pittosporum or Raphiolepis or some other such landscape architect plant that better withstands being sheared.

But people don’t do that: people don’t see the problem. And so throughout Los Angeles, and on up and down the Pacific coast, you see sheared African Iris everywhere once you know to look for it, in apartment complex walkways, in storefront planter boxes, in gas station sidewalk strips and street medians.

It actually takes more work to go against this plant’s nature. It actually takes more work to make it look bad than to let it look good. There’s a metaphor for something there.

5 thoughts on “Regarding the African Iris

  1. Jan

    I love your photo and the flower itself. We don’t have it in Michigan, but I hope people who have the plant in their gardens become more aware of caring for it properly. Your insights make me glad I’ve decided on filling our small backyard with wild flowers. I’d rather be on more intimate terms with my ‘babies,’ watching them unfold and grow to their own potential.

  2. Holly

    I love irises in general and now wish it were blooming time for the African iris so I could learn to read it myself.  Beautiful post.

  3. Leigh Williams

    A popular plant here, too—and I’ve never seen it mutilated, either, although some landscapers here use all the right native shrubs and then butcher them so they’ll look like gray boxwoods.  I myself am not much into botanical S&M.

    Your comment about learning to read plants does resonate with me, though.  I moved here from East Texas, an Old South place with lots of lush shrubs, passalongs and heirlooms, all of which I knew intimately.  I’ve had to learn an entirely new plant palette, which turned out to be a blessing because I also learned to propagate some of the harder-to-find natives. 

    The landscape itself, however, needs a lot of rearranging.  The size and ranginess of my new friends was hard to judge, and it’s taken me a while to get to know them as full-grown specimens.  I’ve had to kill a lot of bermuda grass off to make new plant beds.  I’ll move and divide my three large clumps of African daylilies (the most common name for the plant here) to a sunnier location this spring, and I’ve got a lot of cuttings ready for moving to the expanded beds.

    I’ve also learned to love rocks and decomposed granite.  And deer-resistant plants, too.  Alas, my big heirloom kitchen garden project came to naught, thanks to the deer.

  4. Lexi

    Truthfully, they do look horrid, but like a lot of other people on the east coast, I do prune my african iris all the way back after winter because it is impossible to just cut out what is dead after hard freezes.  Our plants are as big around as the size of a large truck tire, and cutting out the dead foliage on over 50 plants on our property would take more time than the season provides. They will come back so you just need patients.  I have divided iris in the past, but not the africans which I’ve heard can be very difficult, especially 50 plants!