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The Dry Garden: Behind the scenes of Bob Sussman's iris laboratory and his experiments in bulb beauty

October 12, 2009 |  2:38 pm

IrisCollage
In the fleeting scheme of nature, irises happen. This story is about a concentration of them in Moorpark.

Part of a larger family of that includes lilies, crocuses and gladiolas, irises are native to many parts of the world. The fire-prone hills of southern Ventura County are not one of them, nurseryman Bob Sussman says. It’s too hot. He reckons that their native range in California ends roughly in Santa Barbara.

IrisYellowEdge.jpgYet irises started appearing in Moorpark in numbers when Sussman began breeding them here five years ago. He started with the tough native Douglas irises. One thing led to another. The lavender-colored Douglases got crossed with the purple and yellow Mission Santa Cruz and white Canyon Snow.

He began experimenting with delicate-leafed Oregon types and Louisiana ones that could sit in a swamp. Soon he had simple irises fit for a nun and showy maroon bearded ones too camp for a bordello.

As Sussman crossed different irises, then planted seeds, he had little idea what would come. The same two plants can produce offspring with flowers ranging from violet to chocolate, with intense veining or very little. By the time customers buy the hybrids from him, he will be selling clones separated from bulbs so they get consistent flower choice.

Most of his stock — Sussman reckons his inventory is in the “low hundreds” — are unregistered crosses that he grows after testing their tolerance for Moorpark heat. If they don’t “toast out,”

DryGardenIrisSussman says, he propagates them for sale.

As a specialist in native plants, he pushed California and Oregon irises hundreds of miles past their native ranges precisely because at the root of those delicate-looking flowers often exists a resilient bulb. Most of the irises he sells will take little more than weekly watering in summer and need little irrigation beyond normal rainfall in the winter.

To Sussman, this adaptability makes them classical elements of the California garden. Douglas irises are ideal for planting under oaks. The more sun-tolerant ones can offer heart-stopping early spring grace notes in meadows.

In her book “Gardening With a Wild Heart,” Marin seed propagator Judith Larner describes using Douglas irises along with hummingbird sage near the outfall of her gray-water system. My own preference has been to dot the blameless classic Canyon Snow among the native lilac along the oak-shaded path to the front door, where they will be in flower in early February.

If you don’t have a garden, it doesn’t matter. All you need is a balcony or front steps with room for a pot. This is a particularly good option if you have dogs that dig up plants and chew the roots. Iris bulbs are poisonous.

To see the latest generation of Sussman’s breeding experiments in flower in Moorpark, go in late winter or early spring. Or do as I did recently and go in the autumn. Take Sussman a list of what you want by way of color and foliage and where you plan to put it.

He will cock his head and ask if you’re near a beach or mountain, in shade or sun, before disappearing among his rows of cans.

In the past he has told me what to expect. This year I wouldn’t let him. But he couldn’t resist a wicked hint. “This will be the big year for chocolate browns,” he said, grinning.

Willie Wonka, is he?

Sussman breeds irises along with an inventory of native California plants at Matilija Nursery, 8225 Waters Road in Moorpark; (805) 523-8604.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here every week. She also writes on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photo credits: Bob Sussman (flower details) and Emily Green (nursery view). 

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