Bearded iris has been a long-time garden favorite that even found their way onto the most notorious prison island. There are five cultivars of bearded iris that are survivors from the prison days, blooming every May without fail. One survivor, Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ blooms twice a year, early spring and again in the fall. The other four cultivars are still unidentified, and we are working at finding out more about them.
My favorite iris is in bloom right now in Officers’ Row. This clump of iris was entirely covered by ivy and blackberries until 2003, when they were cleared and began to flower again. The 3’ flower stalks are heavy with lavender blooms that catch visitors by surprise with their bubble gum fragrance. Another survivor iris smells like root beer, clearly not your average modern iris.
The only thing better than five cultivars of bearded iris is more bearded iris! The Garden Conservancy’s first preservation project, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek is a garden haven for heirloom bearded iris. Ruth Bancroft’s collection matches the time frame of the penitentiary gardens, and so Alcatraz has received divisions of her iris for the past four years. We now have just over 30 cultivars of heirloom iris in a wide range of vibrant colors and rich scents. The iris are not troubled by the dry summers, winter rains or the salt breezes and fog. Occasionally, there will be aphids on the leaves but these are easily washed away.
The iris will be in bloom for only another two weeks, so now is the time to walk your nose around the island finding these heirloom garden beauties.