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Jim Exline's rainbow of irises a feast for the eyes

May 20, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Jim Exline stands among his two-acre graden of irises about five miles east of Berkeley Springs on Potomac Road. He has more than 1,800 color variations of bearded irises on his property.
Photo by Richard F. Belisle

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — Nearly 40 years ago, Jim Exline’s wife, Twana, asked him to plant a row of dahlias to brighten up their yard.

That’s the reason Exline now has a two-acre garden exploding with the glorious hues of more than 1,800 color variations of bearded irises.

Exline said he told his wife that he didn’t want to dig up and replant dahlias every year.

Instead, he visited an iris garden owned by Harry and Whrelda Pittman in Warfordsburg, Pa., in 1973. He bought irises from the Pittmans over the next four or five years until the couple told him they were going out of business.

Whrelda Pittman told Exline that since he liked irises so much, he should start his own garden and sell them. It wasn’t a hard decision, he said.

“Irises are the easiest perennial to grow,” he said. “They require very little care and give you the most colors. They’ll grow just about anywhere. All they need is a half day of full sun on fairly dry ground. They don’t like wet feet.”

They need to be separated every three to five years, but that doesn’t pose a problem for Exline, since plant sales eliminate that chore, he said.

The garden is about five miles east of Berkeley Springs on Potomac Road.

Exline, 65, doesn’t promulgate irises. He buys them from growers in the Northwest.

“I buy 30 to 40 new ones every year,” he said.

He said all the color varieties in his garden have names, some plain, some more exotic like Supreme Sultan, Harlem Hussy, Hello Darkness, Grand Alliance and Stepping Out.

Supreme Sultan has become a favorite among husbands who come with their wives to the garden, he said.

“They’re gold and red, so the men call them “Redskins,” he said.

The popular Harlem Hussy is a dark purple flower that is so dark it looks black.

“There are no true black irises, or red or green ones,” Exline said.

A favorite of Exline’s is the Grand Alliance: “It smells like grape Kool-Aid,” he said.

Some irises are like Stepping Out, a brilliant combination  of purple and white. Some multicolored varieties have striated lines running through their petals.

The blooming season for irises in this climate runs from mid-May through mid-June, Exline said.

“It was two weeks earlier this year,” he said.

They go dormant from mid-July to early September, a time when they get nourishment as their tops dry out. It’s also the time roots are established before the freeze.

Customers come to the garden to choose their colors while the irises are in bloom. By late summer, they’re ready to go. Exline ships the plants to customers who have paid upfront. Those who leave a deposit have to return to the garden for their plants.

Prices range from $3 to $12, Exline said.

His email address is jim@exlineirisgarden.com.

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