Space-age iris have a certain something that is lacking in other iris. In fact they have three things! While most bearded iris have neat furry beards that lie on the top of the falls ‘space-agers’ have an outgrowth from the outer end of the beard that can vary in its size and form. In some it is just a jagged ‘horn’ that lifts off the surface of the fall and may be furry or knife-like. In others the ‘horn’ becomes petaloid and is then called a ‘flounce’ and in others the flounce may be held aloft on a stalk and is often then called a ‘spoon’. The shape of these can vary according to the vigour and size of the bloom and some that should produce flounces often only have horns, especially on the later flowers to open.
Although these iris are still not widely known they are not really new and these oddities have occurred spontaneously ever since iris have been hybridised but at first they were seen as monstrosities and not really liked. The first space age iris to be introduced was ‘Unicorn’ in 1954. It was bred by Lloyd Austin (1898-1963) who obtained his stock from Sydney Mitchell (1878-1951) who had found them among his seedlings but had no fondness for them. Lloyd Austin was the first proponent of these iris but enough people showed an interest in them to further the progress of the form. The late Monty Byers was probably the most important early developer of these flowers and he produced several important cultivars including the Dykes Medal-winning ‘Thornbird’ and ‘Mesmerizer’. Space-agers are often criticised because their appendages are often erratic and this is true but I feel it makes them more exciting. Also some of the early hybrids did not have great form or had strong haft markings and were introduced for their novelty value and perhaps were not great plants. But that has been addressed now and there is no compromise in quality with these flowers.
‘Special Feature’ is a good example with good flounces (though as you can see from the top photo one of the falls had a thin horn instead of flounces). It was bred by M. Osborne and introduced in 1988. It is moderately tall (80cm) and a rich violet blue with flaring, lightly ruffled falls and nicely domed standards. It has pale violet beards tipped orange in the throat and is sweetly scented.
The colouring of the bloom is fairly simple but that allows the flounces to be seen more easily and it is a good garden plant that makes a colourful clump that repays close attention.