It is easy to be distracted by the look-at-me glamour of the modern irises but I have a great fondness for many of the historic irises, not least because they have proved themselves to be garden plants with real staying power. We have something over 160 different historic varieties. Historic is perhaps a somewhat flexible term. I take the cut off as 1970. That broadly corresponds with a change in style from flowers whose form was still similar to the wild type, albeit in a wider range of colours, towards much more elaborate, ruffled flowers. But of course there are irises before and after that date that buck the general trend.
At all events, I thought I would use this post to introduce you to some of our golden oldies.
First, a little iris (only 45cm tall) that has been in Italy since at least 1500: Florentina. The delicate pearl white flowers are so intensely perfumed that just one will fill a room with scent. The roots, when dried and then distilled, are the source of orris butter, a precious extract with the scent of violets and used in the perfume industry to fix other scents. This used to be a major industry around Florence and we hope eventually to have enough plants to experiment with distillation, with the help of some friends running a nearby lavender farm who have a still for lavender oil. It requires patience though, as the roots have to be dried for two years before you distill. Florentina is a vigorous grower, with foliage that persists in winter, and great for mass landscape planting.
Here is an iris that could make a claim to be the father of most modern tall bearded irises: Amas, collected by Sir Michael Foster in 1885 in Eastern Europe, would be easy to walk by but has proved to be highly significant in Iris breeding and is still an excellent garden plant. Parent to Dominion, Alcazar, Oriflame and Lent A Williamson, amongst many others developed in the early 20th Century. Those have in turn been important progenitors, appearing in the pedigrees of very many modern irises. It is reported that the pollen, only, is fertile but I have not yet experimented with this myself. I found it to be notably healthy and long flowering in its first season with us this year and the classic two-tone blue is still lovely.
A personal favourite of mine is Ma Mie, a French iris registered by Ferdinand Cayeux in 1906. A quick foray into plant genetics: before the hybridisers got into their stride, most irises were diploid but a few, such as Amas (above), were tetraploid. Basically, more chromosomes equals bigger in every dimension, in this case. The leap in the size and complexity of flowers in modern irises came with the introduction by Foster and others of crosses with tetraploid irises. This produced thicker petals, bigger flowers and more robust stems. The new tetraploids proved so popular that few of the older diploids survive. Ma Mie is one of those survivors and it demonstrates that the diploid irises have their own very real charms. Its slender, elegant stem and large numbers of small flowers are characteristic of the diploids. Unlike some modern irises, the flowers open in a mannerly succession, never blocking one another, or dissolving into an unsightly mess as they age. In our garden Ma Mie is the first of our tall bearded irises to flower and continues for much longer than many. The individual flowers are exquisite: perfectly formed, scented, and with the most delicate plicata stitching around the edges. I would not be without it.
Modern irises may seem to come in every colour of the rainbow but that is, to a degree, an illusion. Like the pursuit of a black tulip, the pursuit of a red iris has been the holy grail for many hybridisers. No bearded iris is a true spectrum red but nowadays some get close enough to fool our eyes. One of the earliest steps in that journey was Indian Chief, a name that would now no doubt be regarded as somewhat politically incorrect but we have to aim off for the fact that it was bred by Dr Ayres in the US in 1929. It was listed in a wholesale catalogue in 1932 at $5 per rhizome (something over $87 today), which gives you an idea of its rarity value at the time. It is still a very garden-worthy plant: a rich pink and red bi-tone, and I find the colour doesn’t fade in the sun.
If asked to pick a historic iris from the 1930s, I imagine most iris afficionados would go for Wabash – undoubtedly a very beautiful amoena, which won the Dykes medal in 1940 and remains deservedly popular today. But I am going to go for Shah Jehan (Neel, 1932) because I think it deserves to be better known and more widely grown. It is another amoena but with cream standards and dark red falls (whereas Wabash has white standards and purple falls). Of the two, I have found Shah Jehan to be more generous in its flowering, and continuing longer than many others. It is well worth getting hold of.
The first of four top picks from the 1940s: Ola Kala (Jacob Sass, 1942). An abundance of vibrant orange-yellow flowers, scented and an incredibly vigorous grower, rapidly increasing to a good-sized clump. What’s not to like? And the judges evidently thought so too, as Ola Kala won every prize going in the US within a short time of being introduced.
And now a true class act: Blue Rhythm (Whiting, 1945). No, not just another blue iris. It is the blue iris par excellence for a mass landscape planting. The blue of a summer sky. Never needs staking. Persists and flowers generously even when neglected. Lemon scented. Its virtues are legion. In the same category of well-behaved garden plants that will never let you down are Cliffs of Dover (1953), a pure white, and Matinata (1968), a deep purple (pictured growing in a mixed border, at the top of this post). They are beautiful individually or in combination.
Next, another French iris, again from Cayeux (a famous iris nursery run by four generations of the same family, who have developed vast numbers of beautiful new irises). This one is Seraphita. When backlit by the sun, the effect is of a proper shocking pink. She provides the stridency of colour of a loud modern iris (and sometimes, after all, subtle isn’t the effect we’re after) but that is combined with the elegance of form of a true historic iris (and indeed, I should think, a diploid, as the small flowers and slender stem would indicate). What’s more, Seraphita is long-flowering.
The fourth of my picks from the 1940s is Chantilly (Hall, 1945). In terms of iris development, Chantiilly represents two features that were preoccupying breeders in the US in the 30s and 40s: better pink irises and irises with lacy edged petals. A purist would say Chantilly has poor form (code for droopy petals). But it is just so pretty. A delicate shell pink with a golden heart. Good, elegant stems. And scented.
And now a British iris: Benton Nigel (1957), one of the many beautiful irises bred by Sir Cedric Morris which are now enjoying a real renaissance after being much admired at the RHS Chelsea flowershow in 2015. I do have to admit that Nigel proves to be a rather delicate soul, by comparison with others of the Benton irises (we have 19 of Morris’s varieties in our collection, to date). So far, he’s shown a tendency to die on me and on present evidence he’s yet to prove himself as a truly good and robust garden plant. But where’s the fun in being consistent about one’s own rules. Benton Nigel is such a very, very beautiful blue that I’ll keep moving him about until I find a place where he’ll thrive and, I hope, multiply.
Benton Nigel retains a classic tailored form. However, in the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Butterscotch Kiss (Plough, 1957) combined lace-edged petals (see Chantilly, above) with a flower of modern form. And so began the search for ever more extravagantly ruffled and embellished flowers: either the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on your tastes…
Since writing this blog two years ago, we have increased our stocks of a number of the plants mentioned here, such that we are now able to offer them for sale through our nursery website: Alcazar, Indian Chief, Shah Jehan, Wabash, Ola Kala, Blue Rhythm, Seraphita, Chantilly.