Swan Lake’s “Magic Rainbow”

Next week, May 25-27 to be exact, Swan Lake Iris Gardens will come alive with the annual celebration of Sumter’s Iris Festival.  Visitors from all nearby states (as well as several that are pretty far away) will converge on the gardens for three days of music, flowers, art, food and fun during the peak bloom season for the Japanese iris.

At the Swan Lake Visitors Center, we usually begin fielding calls around mid-March, asking when the irises will bloom, if they’ve already bloomed, and other related questions.  Most people are surprised to hear that they make their appearance so late in the year, usually not until the second or third week of May.  This is because the word “iris” generally conjures images of the bearded iris, which is altogether a different kettle of rhizomes (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?).  So—here’s a crash course in “Irises 101.”

The name “iris” comes from a Greek goddess, believed to lead the souls of women over a rainbow bridge and into heaven.  The flowers come in many varieties, sizes and colors—a literal rainbow of blossoms.  Swan Lake, however, is most famous for the ensata or kaempferi species, more commonly known as the butterfly or Japanese iris.

There are important differences between Japanese iris and the more common bearded iris, which generally bloom around Easter in South Carolina.  The bearded iris comes in many colors and sizes, but is recognizable from the form of its six petals:  three stand upright, and three hang.  The hanging petals, called “falls,” have a thick, fuzzy line running down the middle, called a “beard.”  The familiar French fleur-de-lis design was based on the shape of the bearded iris.

Japanese iris have larger flowers, with a flatter shape, and no beards.  They come mostly in varying shades of purple, from nearly white to deep indigo and all shades in between, with touches of yellow.  Cultivated in their native Japan for more than 500 years, they form large clumps that thrive in the moist, acidic soil bordering Swan Lake.

So, why here in Sumter?  Here’s the history:  the Iris Festival dates from 1940, but the Japanese iris began making a home at Swan Lake many years before, in 1927.  Hamilton Carr Bland, local businessman and garden enthusiast, purchased a swampy lake property on what is now West Liberty Street.  He hoped to turn it into a private fish pond, garden, and bird sanctuary.  In the process of cleaning up, he built several “islands” using various materials, including rubbish from various sources around town.  At the same time, he was cultivating one of Sumter’s most extensive private gardens and decided to add the beautiful Japanese iris to his collection.  But it was hopeless on the grounds of his Hampton Street home.  After consulting a top horticulturist, Mr. Bland decided not to waste any more time on the recalcitrant flowers, and added them to the trash piles.  The next year, the blooms were spectacular.

What started with a handful of discarded bulbs has become the scene of Sumter’s biggest annual celebration.  By the late 1940’s the Iris Festival was already known as “the South’s most colorful floral festival” and was attracting crowds numbering in the thousands, and it has continued to grow every year.

We look forward to seeing you at this year’s Iris Festival.  The Visitors Center will keep special hours on Saturday and Sunday, open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  For more info, please call (803) 436-2640, 1-800-688-4748 (toll free), or visit online at www.sumtertourism.com.  For a full listing of festival events, please see www.irisfestival.org.

Amongst the excitement of the festival crowds, please take the time to pause and enjoy the gardens’ namesake flowers.  A thing of true beauty, they have been a joy for more than eighty years.

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