What can you do with a blackberry lily? The answer is, anything you want. All gardens are made better with the addition of this persevering heirloom iris. You thought I said blackberry lily, and now I am referring to it as iris. Yes, Virginia, it has always looked like an iris from the standpoint of foliage, and recently its scientific name has been changed from Belamcanda chinensis to Iris domestica.
I have had great fun over the name change with Stan Gray, a tall bearded iris guru and sibling of the famous northeast Gray’s Iris clan. As he tirelessly seeks to find the most suitable bearded iris for Georgia’s torrid heat and humidity, I simply point to this historical iris and comment that it has no problems and blooms all summer. He mutters something, and we part ways, me normally grinning.
Indeed it does bloom and bloom, and has ever since George Washington was growing it at Mount Vernon along with the settlers in Williamsburg, Va. But that is recent history compared to Chinese literature dating it as a medicinal back to A.D. 25.
If you have never grown this tough perennial, you may wonder why it is called a blackberry lily when indeed it is an iris. The reason is that after the bloom fades, the resulting fruit and seed look just like a blackberry ripe for the picking. These seeds are definitely viable, which is precisely how the plant made its way from China to Europe in the 1730s.
Don’t think you have to live in Savannah to grow it. It is cold hardy over a huge range, from zones 5-10.
The flowers only last a day, but the bloom period lasts throughout the summer. The freckles or spots give reference to its other common name, which is leopard lily.
The blackberry lily is available in various shades of yellow, orange, red, pink and coral and every mix in between, it seems. Although grandma’s cottage might seem the most appropriate location over the years, I have seen them in dreamy, well-planned meadows with a host of wildflowers, including the colorful monarda, or beebalm. They would also fit in a tropical garden grown in a sweep of color with bananas and elephant ears.
They perform best with at least six hours of sunlight per day. The soil should be fertile and organically rich. Tight, compacted clay yields an inferior plant. Amend the soil with 3-4 inches of organic matter, and till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. While they like moisture, they will abhor wet winter soil, so the improvement for drainage will pay dividends.
Garden centers that maintain a good selection of perennials will normally have the plants. Container-grown stock can be planted any time, really, but you may want to shop early to get your plants. This is considered a short-lived perennial, but letting your seeds fall to the ground and sprout will generally make sure you always have plants.
George Washington grew them and probably your grandparents as well, if they were gardeners. Consider stepping back in time this spring and incorporating this great heirloom iris in your landscape too. You'll be glad you did.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm.