In October, the area surrounding Camino is rightly named Apple Hill. Though, in May, it should be called Iris Hill.
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That’s because during May, Nancy and Mike Visman’s “High Sierra Iris and Wedding Gardens” at 3170 Hassler Road is a riot of blooming irises. There, on one hillside acre, 1,100 varieties of colorful irises emit between 20,000 and 30,000 brilliantly colored blooms.
The show is particularly intense at the Visman’s gardens, though irises flourish throughout western El Dorado County. Drive our backroads and you’ll find planted clusters of them at entrances to properties or in front yards. They are to our area what the camellia is to Sacramento or the rose is to Portland.
Drought tolerant, perennial and sun loving, irises do well here. They’re hearty plants that make a big impression with their ruffled “beards” and many colors, Nancy Visman said. The only color they lack is a true red, though maroon and deep orange-red blooms have been hybridized by growers.
Nancy Visman’s passion for irises began in the late ’70s when she was given her first iris on Mother’s Day. Soon after, she’d planted 20 varieties where an old apple orchard had stood and, by her own admission, became “pretty hooked” on growing them.
Twenty-five years later, Nancy and Mike Visman stock iris rhizomes to area nurseries, like Front Yard Nursery on Mother Lode Drive and Apple Hill markets, like Boa Vista in Camino. There’s no fee to visit High Sierra Iris and Wedding Gardens, which are open to the public from 9:30 to 5 p.m. daily during May (only). Though, for $6 you can take home a rhizome and get hooked on growing them as Nancy did.
Irises are at their glory in May, though Visman says there are reblooming varieties (she dismissed them as being not as spectacular) that will bloom again between July and September. To Nancy Visman, they’re the “Grand Ladies of the Garden,” with a history as impressive as their floral displays.
The earliest record of irises, Kansas horticulturist Jamie Hancock wrote, “date back to 1479 B.C.” in Egypt, after King Thutmose III conquered Syria and brought back rhizomes to plant in his gardens. Irises collected by Alexander the Great in the 4th century, still carry the names of the lands he conquered: Iris trojana, I. cypriana and I. junonia.
From the Middle East and India, varieties were transported to Italy, Germany and France, used as medicines, perfumes, as offerings to the gods, and their roots hung in barrels to keep beer and wine from spoiling. As early as Clovis I in the 500s, Frankish and French kings adopted the fleur-de-lis as their emblem until 1376 when French King Charles V placed three yellow fleur-de-lis on a blue field for his coat of arms. The iris then became associated with valor, faith and strength.
In North America, the iris, as embodied by the fleur-de-lis, is the symbol of Quebec, a former French colony; the state cultivated flower of Tennessee; the symbol of the New Orleans Saints NFL team and that of Louisiana, where some of the world’s most beautiful irises grow.
Famed naturalist John James Audubon is said to have discovered Louisiana irises in the 1820s. He was painting local birds and included an example of local flora in the background, which he identified as “Louisana flag.” Dispossessed French Acadians who relocated in Louisiana (Cajuns) quickly adopted the iris as reflecting their valor, faith and strength.
Though the earliest known European varieties came from the Middle East, those from Japan, northern China, Manchuria and Siberia have become popular with contemporary landscaping. And, so much hybridization has occurred that many countries now claim varieties. In North America, there are three major types: blue flag (Northeast), Pacific coast (California, Oregon and Washington) and Louisiana (Gulf Coast).
On the Vismans’ hillside garden, rows and rows of irises, from dwarf varieties to some that stand 46 inches tall are visited by butterflies and people who love beautiful gardens. One such visitor asked if she might hold her wedding ceremony among the irises. From that request, the Visman’s cultivated a new business hosting wedding ceremonies and receptions.
Mike and Nancy Visman constructed a wedding venue with landscaped wedding grotto surrounded by Eastern redbud, poplar and aspen, an emerald lawn and an idyllic clear pond dotted with lily pads and coursed by blue gill and bass. A staircase arched with papyrus and bordered with a wall of polished quartz field stones leads down to the reception lawn and its ceremony arch bordered by mock orange, snowball bush and white floribunda roses. Nearby, beverage service stands, a banquet deck and a wisteria-draped gazebo grill complete the facility.
“We now host about 25 weddings a year, and they’ve become a big part of our business,” Visman explained. “At first, I resisted holding them because I worried the brides would be too picky. But, I found that the kind of bride who wants to be married here loves gardens. She wants her wedding to be outdoors and accepts and appreciates our limitations. I haven’t yet met a bride who wasn’t a delight. I wish I could say the same for some of their mothers.”
It’s easy to see why brides are attracted to the Visman farm and its iris gardens. A speckled palette of pink, purple, blue, yellow, orange, auburn, copper, burgundy, lavender, gold and white irises, in varied shades, patterns, forms and colors, climbs the hillside above the wedding grotto, their names identified on nearby stakes … mother earth, Fresno frolic, grand metallic, heavenly encore, sharlee, ocean Pacific, devil’s riot, warm breeze, sybaris, honky tonk blues, syncopation and twist of fate, among their number.
After all, it was a twist of fate that started this family of Apple Hill farmers cultivating irises and romance, following a Mother’s Day gift, 25 years ago. Because of that gift, Apple Hill becomes Iris Hill, each May.
For more about the High Sierra Iris and Wedding Garden, visit weddingsnflowers.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.