Like several other bloggers here, I have really enjoyed the irises in bloom in the Lilac Garden. They're stunning! While we all rhapsodize about how colorful the blooms are, and how marvelous the experience is, I keep going back and finding another gem in the display. (Of course, that is what we all do: whether it's Lisa's post or Joe's or Ellen's, you see the gems we've just uncovered and can't wait to share, whether its programs or people or plants.)
For me, its a treat to wander and compare the blooms and colors and impressions they leave on you. Iris isn't even my favorite plant (I refuse to choose!) but they were exactly the right display for me when I was out with my camera. On that day, the lilac were still in bloom, and their sweet scent reached me even before I turned into the garden. But once inside it was clear that the irises were stepping onto the stage.
It is true the most of the lilacs are on the sloping sides of the garden, while a mix of Iris, Hemerocallis, Paeonia and other plants stride across center stage. This is actually great horticulture because the plants bloom in succession so there is always something happening. Plus, an endless succession of Iris, Hemerocallis, Paeonia, or Syringa planted in scientific rows becomes just that: a long walk. But by creating slopes to the East and West and mixing plants in a conscious theme, the garden takes on far more interesting characters. Meandering paths, benches, and changing displays make real the promise of an earthly paradise.
Even if the lilacs aren't in bloom, walk up the grassy paths between them. You might just see a few hidden blooms. You definitely get a totally different view of the same space. See how it becomes a forest when you look across to the other slope? That is one measure of garden design: can a visitor get a wide range of experiences and sensations from the space. It is also a sign of really good gardening, good horticulture. If the plants can't hold up the design, than the design loses meaning and beauty.
Another reason I really appreciate this Garden is that the profusion of color comes from a garden that is in place year round. Sooner or later, everyone walks past a really beautiful display of blooming flowers that were all grown in a greenhouse and installed overnight. You see it at many Garden and Home shows, certain special events, and even in some public gardens. While I admire the perservereance and exactitude that such displays require, I also feel mildly put off by them: as soon as those plants look "off," another batch will replace them as they head for trash or compost. What a waste!
No, far better to have a garden that mere mortals can aspire to. Sure, the Lilac Garden gets better attention than any yard of mine will ever get, but I can still aspire to get closer and closer. In this picture, I can see the lilac blooms, but also the leaves of earlier bulbs, and the stems of plants yet to bloom. I'm learning the elements that make this part of the Lilac Garden successful, and I can decide if I like the idea of a lilac forest. Or I can find more plants to go under a lilac in a small urban lot. Or I can appreciate that I will be back the same time next year, seeing the lilacs blooming again, even if they are done for now.
Finally, there is a benefit to gardens organized around a genus or collection of similar plants. Just look at them all! The diversity that humans found, cultivated or created through breeding is all laid out for you. The same group of plants blossoming all at once allows you to really appreciate the with such striking differences in color and pattern. You can readily see why the goddess of the rainbow in greek mythology was "Iris". Here is Iris 'Batik'. I was completely arrested by the deep purple with the bright white streaks. On the other hand, look at Iris 'Bumblee DEElite'.
Much shorter in stature, its clearly an iris but will play a much different roll in a garden than 'Batik'. Even so, the plant habit is approximately the same. Irises are pretty much upright plants with flowers at the top and sword-shaped leaves. Even while I'm being enchanted by the blooms, the many plants in leaf create visual quiet, resting places that soften the insisitent message of multicolored blooms.
So if you can't tell, I like the Lilac Garden this year. I like the way it combines many favorite garden plants I like the way it displays the diversity within Syringa and Iris (and others). I like the range of different experiences it gave me. And I like the way it breaks new ground, at least new to me. While there are iris collections and lilac collections at other arboreta and gardens, this combination has something novel to offer. I think I will remember the lessons it has shown me for a long time.