Rain­bow-coloured bearded iris

Flow­ers of the many-coloured bearded iris put on a daz­zling show, en­hanced by ruf­fles, frills, lace and falls

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

bil­low­ing in the breeze like sail­ing ships, the blooms of bearded iris fill the early sum­mer gar­den with all the colours of the rain­bow. Their large flow­ers com­bine beauty of form and pu­rity of shade, as well as a sub­tle, sweet per­fume. Eas­ily recog­nised, these ma­jes­tic flow­ers of­fer a beauty un­ri­valled by any other hardy peren­nial. Grow­ing from thick­ened hor­i­zon­tal stems, called rhi­zomes, bearded iris bloom as sum­mer pro­gresses, de­pend­ing on the type. Care­fully adapted to al­low ac­cess for pol­li­na­tion by large bees, the flow­ers are re­mark­ably com­plex. The three outer petals open wide and of­ten droop at the tip. These are called falls. At the base of each is the furry beard, from which the name de­rives. This is usu­ally showy and may be a dif­fer­ent colour to the petals. The large, prom­i­nent in­ner three petals usu­ally stand erect, and again are of­ten a dif­fer­ent colour. These are the stan­dards. Above the three beards is a sin­gle sta­men, and above that is one arm of the three-branched stigma. This is of­ten showy and petal-like. On the un­der­side, near the end, is the stig­matic flap that catches the pollen from a vis­it­ing in­sect, un­der the style crest, a con­spic­u­ous, petal-shaped ap­pendage. Bearded iris are di­vided into dif­fer­ent classes, based on size and flow­er­ing time. They range from minia­tures to

the most widely planted, the Tall Bearded iris (TB). Reach­ing up to 40in (100cm) or more, these are the most dra­matic. Peak­ing in late May and early June, they have seven or more blooms per stem. Their flow­ers are larger than all other types, with a great va­ri­ety in shape and colour. Early types, such as ‘Deputé Nomblot’, have falls that hang down al­most ver­ti­cally. Today, mod­ern va­ri­eties, such as ‘Paul Black’, have been bred for flar­ing, al­most hor­i­zon­tal falls. Over the years, breed­ers have worked at de­vel­op­ing thicker petals than those of the orig­i­nal wild species. This has led to big­ger and longer-last­ing gar­den flow­ers, bet­ter able to with­stand sun and rain, as well as brighter colours. Lace is an­other fea­ture of mod­ern iris, where the petals are finely crin­kled around the edges, such as ‘Lace Legacy’.

De­vel­op­ing new looks

The plants used to breed mod­ern gar­den iris came from the Mediter­ranean area, and in­cluded blue-flow­ered Iris pal­l­ida. From the wild species, bearded iris de­vel­oped only slowly un­til the early decades of the 20th cen­tury. Then, in the 1920s, Bri­tain was at the fore­front of iris breed­ing. Larger and brighter flow­ers were pro­duced, some of which are still grown today. Vi­o­let ‘Deputé Nomblot’ was in­tro­duced in 1929. Three years later, it was de­scribed in the Amer­i­can Coo­ley’s gar­den cat­a­logue as “the world’s great­est iris”. A year ear­lier, Cayeux’s ‘Pluie d’Or’ was the epit­ome of the yel­low iris, de­scribed in the raiser’s cat­a­logue as “the first large flow­ered iris deep yel­low of ac­tual value put into com­merce”. Un­til the 1950s and ’60s, the new va­ri­eties had rather droopy falls. Then, in the 1950s, ruf­fling of the petals ap­peared. ‘Blue Rhythm’ is typ­i­cal of iris from this era, with sim­ple, lightly ruf­fled flow­ers. Today, hun­dreds of new iris are in­tro­duced ev­ery year. Most fade into ob­scu­rity, but a few stand the test of time, such as the cu­ri­ously coloured cho­co­late and yel­low TB ‘Proven­cal’ from 1978.

To sur­vive, an iris needs more than beau­ti­ful flow­ers. Vigour and the num­ber of buds also count. More buds on the stem mean more flow­ers and a longer sea­son of bloom. Har­di­ness and a good name mean en­dur­ing fame.

Care­ful place­ment

Be­cause of the range in sizes, bearded iris can be fit­ted into many parts of the gar­den. Minia­ture Dwarfs are suit­able for pots and rock gar­dens. They can be swamped in gen­eral bor­ders, where Stan­dard Dwarfs are bet­ter, es­pe­cially at the front. These are strong grow­ers, also do­ing well in gravel and on rock­eries. The big­ger types are good in herba­ceous bor­ders, as long as they are not crowded out by big­ger plants. Neigh­bours with up­right or ferny fo­liage that does not cover the iris’ rhi­zomes are best. Aqui­le­gias and lupins, which flower at the same time, make spec­tac­u­lar com­pan­ions. When out of flower, the sword-like leaves of iris add interest, and fit well with min­i­mal-style plant­ings. Roses are good com­pan­ions too, if care is taken not to mulch over the base of the iris. Many mod­ern va­ri­eties, such as ‘Lune et Soleil’, have hor­i­zon­tal falls and in­trigu­ing mix­tures of colours. How­ever, the hang­ing falls and sim­pler colours of the old cul­ti­vars tend to show up bet­ter in the gar­den from a dis­tance. Their flar­ing falls also help re­veal their beauty up close when viewed from above.


Bearded iris have two pe­ri­ods of root growth, in spring and in late sum­mer. This is when they should be planted, with July and Au­gust ideal, giv­ing them time to make roots be­fore win­ter. Pot­ted iris can be planted at any time, but those planted in spring may be un­steady when they pro­duce their first flower stems. These should be staked.

They need a sunny site and well-drained al­ka­line, neu­tral or acid soil. It is es­sen­tial that the rhi­zomes see the sun, so the ground should be kept free from weeds and other plants, and fallen leaves, at all times. The end of each rhi­zome flow­ers, and new sideshoots are pro­duced be­hind this. Af­ter a few years, these will get crowded and need to be di­vided. How long this takes will de­pend on the va­ri­ety, but most will need to be di­vided af­ter four years. Over­crowded clumps do not flower well. To di­vide, the clump is dug up and split, cut­ting or snap­ping off the new­est shoots with ap­prox­i­mately 4in (10cm) of rhi­zome. This should be less for the smaller types. The fo­liage is trimmed back to ap­prox­i­mately half its length, to re­duce wa­ter loss and help pre­vent wind rock. The old pieces are dis­carded. The soil is dug over, with high-potash fer­tiliser added, such as rose fer­tiliser. The pre­pared pieces are planted 6-10in (15-25cm) apart, de­pend­ing on the size of the va­ri­ety. Ide­ally, they are ar­ranged fac­ing the same way, with the cut part of the rhi­zome point­ing south. This helps pre­vent the leaves shad­ing the rhi­zome. The rhi­zome is not cov­ered with soil, which is pressed firmly around the roots to hold them steady. Deep plant­ing, es­pe­cially on heavy soil, causes rot. If it does not rain within two weeks of plant­ing, the plants are given a soak. Af­ter that, they only need keep­ing free from weeds. A high-potash feed is ben­e­fi­cial in March/April, when they start to grow. At this time, some of the old leaves can be pulled or cut away to re­duce rot and make them ti­dier. The new flower stems may need pro­tect­ing from snails. To make the dis­play ti­dier, the faded flow­ers can be bro­ken off. Once all the flow­ers have died, the whole flower stem should be snapped off at the base, along with the ad­join­ing leaves. With their in­tri­cate blooms and daz­zling colour, bearded iris are a cap­ti­vat­ing ad­di­tion to the gar­den, whether in bor­ders or con­tain­ers, and an el­e­gant cut flower for the home. Their aver­sion to crowds en­sures their sin­gu­lar beauty can be fully ap­pre­ci­ated as they stand slen­der and proud in the early sum­mer sun­shine.

Stand­ing tall, this hy­brid iris has del­i­cate blue falls and stan­dards (top). The true species, Iris pal­l­ida, show­ing the furry beard which gives these iris their name (bot­tom). Stan­dards Sta­men Falls Stigma Crest Beard Falls

The falls of ‘Deputé Nomblot’ hang al­most ver­ti­cally down, while those of ‘Paul Black’ are al­most hor­i­zon­tal (from left).

The cu­ri­ously coloured pli­cata flow­ers of TB ‘Proven­cal’. With its bright yel­low hor­i­zon­tal falls, ‘Lune et Soleil’ puts on a glow­ing dis­play.

Bearded iris help add height to a colour­ful bor­der dis­play. When rhi­zomes are di­vided, they are re­planted with the cut part fac­ing south, above the soil. Some bearded iris, such as ‘Vic­to­ria Falls’, are known as re­mon­tant iris, flow­er­ing more than once in the sea­son.

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