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Cult of the Bearded Iris

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Cult of the Bearded Iris

March 25, 2022

Some plants are long-term givers in the garden—flowering their socks off from spring right through to the last days of autumn. Others burst forth in a brief and dramatic flourish and outshine everything else. The bearded iris falls into the latter category, but her fleeting display is easily forgiven because these graceful stems are unlike anything else; the truly devoted will happily wait all year for the moment when Iris germanica unfurls her standards (the upper petals) and falls (the lower petals).

Photography by Clare Coulson.

Above: Bearded iris edge a narrow path at Tattenhall Hall in Cheshire, England

The bearded iris can become an enduring addiction. For some collectors the subtle colors and elegant shapes of the mid-century iris, such as those bred by the artist Cedric Morris at Benton End in Suffolk, England, are the most covetable. Each variety is prefixed with Benton, and amongst the most prized are ‘Benton Olive’ and ‘Benton Caramel’ with their velvety, deep burgundy flowers. One tip from gardener Sarah Cook, who spent years tracking down the Benton irises, is to very gently snap each flower off as it goes over—often another bud is lurking underneath to give you another bloom.

Above: ‘Benton Caramel’ bred by the artist Cedric Morris in the mid-20th century.

For other gardeners and florists, it’s the ruffled and frilled modern bearded iris that are irresistible. Especially when it comes to the unusual tones that are bred by specialists such as Cayeux in France and Schreiner’s in Oregon, who have both been creating exquisite bearded iris for a century. The latter’s ‘Cinque Terre’ is typical of the cultish rise of the brown iris (although this variety can segue from maroon and purple through to chocolate and terracotta in one season). It’s also a giant with floriferous stems that can stand four feet tall, with candelabra stems with ten to twelve flowers that will often appear in succession. Its softer paler sibling, ‘Downtown Brown’, is a true milk chocolate, while ‘Coffee Trader’ has stunning soft brown lilac with flushes of violet and orange beards.

Above: Iris “Cinque Terre’ bred by Schreiner’s in 2011. This variety is typical of the frilly and floriferous modern bearded iris.
Above: Iris ‘Cinque Terre’ in an arrangement with dwarf Iris ‘Cherry Garden’.

When it comes to cult iris, few can match the more diminuitive ‘Thornbird’. Bred by Monty Byers in 1988, it has soft olive green petals flushed on the falls, with pink and a violet and mustard horned beards. The amoena iris varieties, which have standards in shades of white with contrasting falls, may be equally popular with florist-growers. ‘Champagne Elegance’ has the softest cream standards with pale lemony buff falls, while Cayeux’s ‘Chateau d’Auvers sur Oise’ has very similar colors but with deeper copper falls.

Above: Iris ‘Chateau d’Auvers sur Oise’ bred by the French specialist Cayeux.

These are low-maintenance plants but they do need the right conditions—they flourish in a sunny position on very free draining soil. They need to be planted just beneath the soil with the top of the rhizomes proud of the surface, where they can bask in the summer sun (rhizomes are normally shipped in late summer to be planted in early autumn). They will appreciate a feed of bonemeal in spring and after flowering, too. And as they need to be divided every few years, it’s easy to create many more plants for free.

Above: How to use iris in a border: keep them up front so they get plenty of sunshine. Here, Iris ‘Indian Chief’ in the baroque border at Tattenhall Hall.

For more on irises, see:

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