The wild irises of California are a spring delight. You can see them in forest clearings and meadows, sometimes in great green and purple masses. Other times one plant will appear singly, a burst of color against the browns of an understory. With their many variations in color and decoration they are a never-ending visual treat ranging from dark purple to pale yellow.
The three largest, lower petals can look like a cross between a watercolor and a stained-glass window, with dark veins blocking out yellows, whites and purples – but with the color fading gently towards the edge of the petal. Above it is what appears to be a paler, less gaudy petal (it’s actually part of the pistil). Sandwiched between the two is the dark purple tongue of the stamen, dusted underneath with pollen, and invisible unless you pry the flower open or look very close. Often you’ll see bees rummaging around and coming out with their legs laden with pollen.
Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) is the most common wild iris species, but coast iris (Iris longipetala) and ground iris (Iris macrosiphon) are also somewhat common. And keying them is a trick!! Every book or expert gives different suggestions about how to distinguish one from another. The Marin Flora says you can identify a Douglas iris if the pollen is yellow and the surface of the leaf is shinier than the underside and the long purple tube below the flower (the perianth tube) is about 2 centimeters long. But the Flora of Sonoma County suggests two ways to ID the Douglas. First is if the leaf bases (but not the entire plant!) is reddish. Second is if the perianth tube is less than 3 centimeters long. So take your pick! Once I get a confident ID on another species I’ll post about those as well.