Iris A-Z

The iris beds at Myddelton House with ‘Gracchus’ in the foreground

As we approach February, often thought of as the dullest month of the year, I will indulge myself a little with an A-Z of iris. At the very least it should provide some colourful images. If you don’t like iris, my apologies, but perhaps I will convert you, though I may bore you instead. My apologies. Once we get to Z I will get back to more regular posts.

My involvement with iris is now a long one. It really began when I was Head Gardener at Myddelton House (Enfield, Middlesex). When I began the restoration of the garden some areas had been recently and rather carelessly cleared.

The iris beds in Bowles’ times
And again, looking at the rose garden, similar area to the top image

The iris beds, which were very overgrown, beside what was a branch of the New River, were stripped of everything. While this did give me a clear area, which was much appreciated since the garden was very overgrown, I did quickly learn that some of the plants should have been saved. Huge Yucca gloriosa were dug up and burned, as were massive Crinum x powellii. These were certainly remnants of Bowles’ plantings. Gladiolus byzantinus had seeded prolifically in the beds and survived the clearance. It flowers at the same time as bearded iris and the foliage is rather similar so you could regard it as a good complement or a terrible weed! (some old images are scanned from my trannies so poor quality)

And part of the iris collection with ‘weedy’ gladiolus

Anyway, I decided to replant the iris beds even though the river had been filled in and would no longer provide reflections. As far as I could tell, the beds were originally planted with Iris pallida and its forms and other bearded species and some contemporary (to 1900-1930) hybrids. This was an extensive area and the work involved considerable so I chose to establish a National Collection. I decided to collect and grow plants that had won various award schemes, most notably the American and British Dykes Medals, the most prestigious award that can be given. Planted in chronological order, from left to right in the beds, the aim was to show the development of the plant.

Much later, after moving and having written a book about iris, I began collecting bearded iris and visited the Pacific Northwest to see nurseries and the latest plants. My memories of visiting Cooleys, Schreiners, Monty Byers, Salmon Creek, Mid America, Salmon Creek in Washington state  and others are some of the most wonderful days. Although I had hundreds on my allotments – the garden was too small – work pressures meant that they were neglected and my Irish move meant they were largely lost. I regret this. But now I have more space and, as I tame this garden, I hope to rekindle my association with iris.

So the iris I feature will be rather random. Some will be those that I grew and I feel are special. There is an American bias. Most are rather old by today’s standards though general plant suppliers still sell some ancient varieties. Hundreds of new varieties are introduced each year and I fear that many I show may no longer be available. If so then these posts will be an archive. Some iris are those that  I saw in the USA and liked and many are those I once grew. A few I still have. Being featured here is no recommendation except that I like them or think they are interesting. All are TBs (Tall Bearded) unless otherwise mentioned (as I revisit this I must admit that quite a few are not TBs). There is no real reason for this except that to do otherwise would make things too complex. I do like other iris.

I will try to keep each post about the same size but obviously there are fewer iris for ‘Q’ than ‘P’.

Anyway, here we go with ‘A’

Alcazar

By coincidence, the first is one of the oldest iris I have grown and here it is at Myddelton. It was introduced in 1910 and bred by the Vilmorin nursery in France. It is probably more common than its age would suggest because some of these old iris are tough and survive along railway embankments and near stations, the remnants of well-kept station gardens, thriving in the clinker where other plants would die. It is not a lovely thing by modern standards: the falls are narrow and droopy, the hafts are very stripy and the flower has poor substance. But it would be wrong to ignore it even if only to illustrate just what has been done by breeders in the past century.

I realise I need to add a glossary of kinds so have included one below.

‘Afternoon in Rio’

Introduced by Schreiners in 2005, I loved this from the moment I first saw it and I still have it – which is something of a miracle. I happen to like mauve/violet/purple and this is a lovely violet purple that I would call methyl violet – though I am not sure if it is. The pale patch below the beard adds a freshness and the blooms often seem a different colour each day. There is a band of reddish brown around the edge of the fall which has obviously intrigued breeders and shows in lots of varieties. It does ‘edge’ the petals and makes each bloom defined in a clump.

It is actually quite like one of its parents, ‘Serene Moment’. What a photo of a flower can’t show is the health and garden value of the plant. Some ‘flower out’ and don’t make enough fans to increase, while others may be shy to bloom. Some may have poor branching and so few buds, meaning a short season of bloom. Others may not hold their flowers well with bunched blooms. There are lots of ways to improve an iris!

Alizes’ 

This is an iris from Cayeux of France. I associate them with white and blue iris, often with red or orange beards, a combination that appeals to me. ‘Alizes’ is such a beautiful combination of white, fluffy standards and blue falls with that appealing white area around the yellow beards. Introduced in 1987 I think this stands the test of time.

Announcement

Here we have the first of what will be many bred by Paul Black, one of the most distinguished of iris breeders. Early on I became intrigued by Space Age iris, those that have ‘appendages’ at the ends of the beards. As I get older I do not always think these are necessarily beautiful but when they are transformed into ‘flounces’ I like them, provided they do not destroy the shape of the bloom. ‘Announcement’, registered in 2002, got an Award of Merit in 2006 and combines novelty with lovely colouring and good flower shape. I have to say that these ‘appendages’ which can be described as horns, spoons or flounces, depending on their shape, can be variable and not all flowers, that are capable of producing them, do so all the time.

‘Arctic Age’

White iris are rather plain but the lack of frippery does highlight the shape of the flower and, although ‘Arctic Age’ is not exceptional, it is a clean, lovely flower. It was bred by the great Schreiners nursery and introduced in 1999. Nice ruffling and a soft yellow beard just add to its charm.

‘Awesome Blossom’

And here we go, another Paul Black iris, this one from 2000 and with an Award of Merit in 2006. Bearded iris encompass almost every colour but not true red. I can’t decide what colour I like best, as you will see, but I do like orange shades. Awesome is the right word for this ruffled, fragrant beauty.

Glossary

Beard – the fuzzy ‘caterpillar’ at the top (actually the base) of the falls and disappears into the bloom. It tickles the bees’ tummy as they crawl in.

Falls – the three, outer petals that usually hang down. They can now be flared or horizontal. Modern kinds are usually ruffled.

Haft – the top of the fall where it is horizontal. Usually striped, breeders spent a lot of time cleaning this up and removing the lines. But, looking for something new, some have encouraged stripes.

Standards – the three inner petals that stand up. They curve and meet at the top in good flowers. Floppy standards are usually considered a bad thing.

Style arms – the female part of the flower consists of three styes but these are highly modified and the three ‘arms’ arch from the centre so one sits over each beard. There is a stamen, with pollen, under each. As the bee crawls in, over the beard, guided by the haft lines, it gets pollen on its back. As it enters the next bloom the pollen is caught on the stigmatic flap that is situated just under the two ‘style crests’ at the end of the style arms.

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2 Comments on “Iris A-Z”

  1. Annabel
    January 29, 2022 at 8:34 am #

    As I have never had or grown Iris we will see if you convince or bore me 😉
    When I think Iris, I think Monet’s garden (I’m French) and that they need to be planted near water?!

    • thebikinggardener
      January 29, 2022 at 8:53 am #

      Oh dear! I have a challenge then. Iris, in the wild, are found across the Northern Hemisphere, and in a huge range of habitats. There is an iris for every part of the garden, from the pond to the roof (Iris tectorum is traditionally grown on the roof in Japan). I am no expert on Monet and I am one of the few people that have not been to Giverny, but I think his iris were bearded iris which will not grow in water. iris always look good with iris and when my main pond is done the (dry) beds beside it will be planted with iris – just like the iris in the historic photos above where the beds beside the river were actually dry.

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