The offer was one no gardener could refuse. “Would you like some seeds of a plant that came from Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello?” I’d visited there and thoroughly enjoyed viewing the plantings that Jefferson started way back when. In the gift shop, which I don’t think Jefferson designed, I found a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, a reprint of his garden journal (see the link below), and my dear wife purchased the book for me. She even included a pristine two dollar bill to use a bookmark. And now to have seeds that descended from Jefferson’s own botanical endeavors? I ask you, fellow gardener, what would your answer be?
The plant, Iris domestica, is the blackberry lily also known as leopard lily. I carefully placed those tiny gleaming orbs in flats the following spring and waited to see what might happen. And I was not disappointed. For more than fifteen years now blackberry lilies have graced our garden. The plant is an herbaceous perennial that self-sows if one leaves the seed pods to percolate. I find numerous volunteers popping up around the garden each year and transplant the ones I want, share the ones other gardeners want, and compost the rest. The yearly crop is not invasive like cleome and requires minimal effort to control.
The blooms of the blackberry lily remind me of the tiger lilies that grew wild along the ditches and creek banks of my childhood in the hills of West Virginia. The leafy fronds resurrect the pleasant remembrances of the iris beds Grandma tended along the edges of her vegetable garden.
Bumble bees frequent the blooms and the greater the space one has to allocate to the lilies the more impressive will be their display. My space allocation for blackberry lilies is about 2’ x 5’ and at the moment I count at least twenty adult plants with as many volunteers from 2” high to 6” high.
The adult plants grow to a height of between 2’ and 3’ though mine tend to sprawl. The flowers and seed pods at the end of the single stalk can be heavy, but I do not stake the plants. If a gardener is looking for little Marines to stand at attention in perfect rows, though, this may not be the correct choice.
I garden in zone 7 and the blackberry lilies bloom through July and August with the seed pods peaking in mid-September. The plant appears to be drought tolerant and does not require much tending. The leaves show a few holes from munching insects, but I don’t grow this plant for the greenery. Check out the collection of seed pods resembling, well, giant blackberries.
I leave the seed pods in place through the winter in case a feathered friend needs a snack. And the mother plants do fizzle out after a few seasons so the replacements that pop up in the next season can be transplanted to backfill as needed.
Are my blackberry lilies truly genetic descendants of Jefferson’s? I have no idea, but the tale does give a gardener something to ponder.