In much the same way that visitors swarm Washington, D.C., for the annual cherry blossom display, savvy plantophiles from across the region seek out the New Orleans area this time every year to enjoy native Louisiana irises in bloom.
Happily, there are several locales open to the public where the irises can be enjoyed at their peak this weekend.
But the experts warn against waiting too long: The window of opportunity to view them at their best is fast closing.
“It is never easy to predict exactly when they will peak because so much depends on the kind of winter weather we had,” said Eileen Hollander, president of the Greater New Orleans Iris Society. “If you wait past this weekend, you might miss them and then you’ll have to wait another year.”
To celebrate the peak bloom of irises in her home garden, Hollander hosted an open house last week.
“We even had a contingent from Mississippi come by,” she said.
A couple of days later, she and a group of volunteers made their way to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park, where hundreds of irises in a rainbow of colors are in bloom.
“Now is the best time to visit the Sculpture Garden for viewing the irises. We tagged them all and they are labeled, so someone who is interested can walk along and see what they look like in bloom, then write it down so they know what to buy and plant in the fall,” Hollander said.
Giant stands of irises have developed from plantings of three to five rhizomes of each color that the iris society volunteers have installed over the years. Colors include white, red, shades of blue and purple, and yellow. Come autumn, the Iris Society will offer what Hollander calls “interlopers” — a red iris invading a stand of blue irises, for example — for sale.
Another prime spot for iris watching this weekend is the Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Park, where wild Louisiana irises are at peak bloom.
“They are blooming along all of our wetlands trails,” said Alicia Scott, site manager of the Barataria Preserve. “There are both giant blue irises — or Iris giganticaerulea — and copper- or red-colored ones — Iris fulva.”
The iris display in the preserve diminished in years past because a succession of hurricanes pushed brackish water into the environment, killing many of the plants. Tree loss from the storms resulted in a less dense tree canopy and the increased sunlight has encouraged the growth of competing flora.
Nonetheless, blue and copper irises are “on magnificent display in the swamp right now,” according to Scott.
“You may have noticed that the fleur de lis looks like an iris and that’s no coincidence,” she said. “The wild swamp iris is part of New Orleans’ culture, so come out and visit.”
Admission is free to both the Sculpture Garden and the Preserve.
Irises in peak bloom are also on “magnificent display,” to borrow Scott’s phrase, at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park and Longue Vue House and Garden on Bamboo Road, which are open by admission.
Bois D’Arc Gardens in Schreiver, (not far from Thibodaux) also reports peak blooms and offers native irises for sale as well as simply flower-gazing.
R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org