The folks at Delaware Valley College don't call Carol Ann Moyer "The Iris Queen" for nothing.
She wears iris pins and iris blouses, and every spare moment in her busy life she's knee-deep in the school's iris garden, which she's almost singlehandedly restored over the last six years.
The 80-foot-diameter garden, now neatly planted with 11,000 irises, will be dedicated Sunday as the Carol Ann Moyer Iris Garden. It's an honor that leaves this retired science teacher from Buckingham Township positively giddy.
"I'm not used to all this attention," she demurs, but in two seconds flat she's at it again, preaching her gospel of the iris.
"They bring a touch of heaven on Earth," she says, grinning as she describes in her giveaway Chicago accent their "delicacy of flow, variation in height, and massiveness of blooms."
"This garden is the joy of my life," she confides.
It's also "the jewel of the campus," according to Bill Rein, class of '87, now the horticulturist for the Henry Schmieder Arboretum, which occupies 60 of the college's 571 acres west of Doylestown.
The jewel is looking mighty fine. This is prime iris season, especially for the tall bearded ones, which are the most popular - and the biggest showoffs - in the iris world.
There are thousands of iris varieties, ranging from 6-inch miniatures and ground covers such as Iris cristata (a U.S. native) to the bearded iris, which can top three feet. Most grow best in full sun, but some thrive in woodland or water.
And the season doesn't just hug Memorial Day. With proper planning, you can have blooms from April through July, with repeats in August and September.
Hey! That doesn't sound like the irises of old!
"People always talk about Grandma's irises, and I certainly remember that in my background," says Ron Thoman, president of the Delaware Valley Iris Society, which has 110 members in Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.
The deep-red purple, bearded iris 'Eleanor Roosevelt' was ubiquitous then and can still be purchased - and spotted in cemeteries, backyards and abandoned lots. But as any collector will tell you, the modern iris is a world removed.
"It gets very complicated," cautions Thoman, a retired mechanical engineer who grows about 100 irises in his West Goshen garden.
Here's a taste of that complexity involving just the bearded irises, named for the bushy "beards" on their lower petals. Originally, most of these were native to central and southern Europe.
They include miniature dwarf bearded, the tiniest and earliest to bloom, and standard dwarf bearded, which are a little bigger and bloom next, followed by intermediate bearded, border bearded, miniature tall bearded, and (plain old) tall bearded.
There are also aril irises, which have peach-fuzzy beards but technically aren't considered bearded. These hail from the Middle East and are hard to grow in all but the warmest and driest parts of the United States.
Finally, there is the beardless-iris group, most from Asia, which comprise spurias, Siberians, Japanese, Louisianas, Pacific Coast natives and species.
As for color, irises now come in every possible shade except tomato red, including combinations of blue and violet, such as 'Before the Storm,' that are near-black.
The modern iris also looks and feels different. It's got more buds per stalk, individual blooms last more than three days, and the plant can flower for two to three weeks.
"Grandma's had maybe three buds, bloomed for one day, then looked like a wet washrag," Moyer says.
And the modern flowers are firm and rigid, nothing like the tissue-papery, see-through antique petals.
"Most people haven't a clue about the new iris," says Moyer, who's put burgundy and pinks together in the new garden, and yellows and bronzes, and blues, purples and whites.
The old garden had 14 straight beds, like soldiers on parade, which felt unnatural to Moyer, a recently minted master gardener. The edges were flooded, the raised beds sunken and overgrown. Some records were scribbled on a paper plate, but most of the irises were unmarked.
"It was goofy," Rein says.
As Moyer puzzled over the redesign, she happened to visit the Health and Wellness Center at Doylestown Hospital, where she walked through the labyrinth.
"It was so calming," she says.
It also sparked an idea. For ease of walking and viewing, for comfort and meditation, Moyer decided her new iris garden would be round.
And so it is: Four paths intersect three ovals and lead to a century-old cutleaf Japanese maple that's high, wide and deeply red. When Rein was a student, this magnificent tree was hidden by arborvitae. Now, it's visible from nearby Route 202.
The garden was rebuilt with four truckloads of topsoil from the campus farm, two loads of weed-squashing screenings, or small pebbles from a local quarry, mulch brought in by students, and a combination of old and new irises.
Moyer spent $50 on spray paint to site the new beds and paths, then charted everything on graph paper. Her husband, Jim, and son Daniel helped, but Moyer did all the planting herself.
Before she retired from teaching last year, she'd head to the college after work and garden till nightfall. She made time, too, in summer, when she's the volunteer head of the Science Center at Ockanickon Boy Scout Camp in Pipersville.
"Everything in my life, if I'm committed, it's either all or nothing," Moyer says. "I'm not a halfway person."
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