There is a springtime ritual at the Barataria Preserve every year, probably since the Bayou Coquille Trail was first opened as a shell-and-dirt path through the swamp. People call the visitor center and ask, "Are the irises in bloom yet?"
For years, a springtime walk along the Bayou Coquille Trail meant a spectacular show of giant blue irises in bloom. Since 2003, the once vibrant iris population along the Palmetto, Visitor Center, and Bayou Coquille Trails has declined dramatically. Where have all the irises gone?
The last impressive bloom of giant blue irises was in 2002. That September, Hurricane Lili briefly filled the preserve with several feet of brackish water. Irises are sensitive to salt water, which retards flowering or even kills the plants.
Spring 2003 saw a great reduction in iris blooms. Although the springs of 2004 and 2005 encouraged some optimism that the fields of blossoms would eventually return, 2005's hurricanes caused another setback for the irises. Like Hurricane Lili, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita filled the preserve with several feet of brackish water. Although the water drained away in a few days, the effect of the water and decreased oxygen levels in the soil may have damaged the delicate irises. The residual salt left in the swamp may have damaged them even more. For months after Hurricane Rita there was no significant rain and so salt from the brackish water was not flushed out.
Irises slowly seem to be making a comeback in some of their old locations along the trails. It's hard to know just what has happened and why: there are so many variables in a wild landscape that precise predictions are very difficult. Was it the salt water? Disease? The new plants growing in iris territory? What is known is that several hits by hurricanes certainly stressed the irises, and that the irises are multiplying during recent years with little or no storm activity, so hope for an iris-filled future continues to grow.
Last updated: April 8, 2019