My first encounter with ‘space age’ iris was 30 year ago when I was collecting iris for the National Plant Collection I was establishing at Myddelton House, North London. Because the collection comprised award winners and most of these were old, ‘space agers’ did not feature much. But the few I had fascinated me and, along with remontant or reblooming iris, became a mild obsession.
To be a space age iris the flowers have extra ‘bits’ on them. In addition to the three outer petals (falls that hang down) and the three inner petals (the standards that stand up), the distinctive furry beards develop into extra parts at their tips where they lift off the fall. You can often see the start of this in other iris where the ends slightly lift but in ‘space agers’ these are further developed. In the simplest form there is a sharp, dagger-like horn but where this becomes like a petal they are called flounces or spoons.
The ‘space agers’ were not universally loved by iris fanciers because they were a novelty and the early ones were selected for their ‘extras’ and the flower forms and colours were not always the best.
One of the earliest hybridisers of these was the late Monty Byers and I was privileged to meet him and Bill Gibbs at his home and nursery on a visit to the States. Possibly his most successful introduction was ‘Conjuration’ but the weird ‘Thornbird’ is one of his most memorable iris. A rather angular flowers with greenish brown flowers with pronounced purple horns it was unlike any other and produced its horns regularly. It also taught me what colour ‘ecru’ was!
‘Mesmerizer’ was one of his prettiest ‘space agers’, a beautiful white with large flounces, introduced in 1991 and winning the American Dykes medal (the top award) in 2002.
Over the years American hybridisers have improved the quality of these iris no end so the flower quality is high – important because the extra features are not always reliable and varieties with potential flounces often just have horns! So a good basic flower is important. The current century has produced some beauties such as ‘As You Were’ (Stahly 2001) with bonkers ruffling, lace and flounces.
Mid America Gardens, at the time celebrating the work of the prolific and successful Paul Black and Tom Johnson, produced two great and distinctive iris, The immensely flamboyant ‘Announcement’ (Paul Black 2002) and the irresistible ‘Powerpoint’ (Tom Johnson 2005), a real skyscraper of a plant with showy violet horns.