Tall Bearded Iris History, by Jake Croft, Adlington Hall Head Gardener
This year we are having some very strange weather again, it has been unusually cold at night for weeks now and I think the plants are a couple weeks behind. I am going to do May’s blog on my absolute favourite plant, the tall bearded Iris.
If you are not sure a tall bearded iris is a rhizomatous plant with fans of blueish green leaves that are sword shape, some have a purplish – red shade at the base of the leaves. The flowers are large and come in a large range of colours. The flower has 3 upper petals called ‘standards’, 3 lower petals called ‘falls’, 3 inner petals called ‘style arms’ and each fall has a beard that can vary in colour. Flowers can be scented. Flowering time is usually around May. To be classed as a tall bearded it must be over 70cm in height.
More modern tall bearded irises can now have ruffled petal edges and they can also be laced with fine serrations on the petals. Another development originating in the USA are broken colours with darker or lighter or white streaks in the flowers.
There are some irises that have extensions on their beards that can form ‘horns’ and some have petaloid additions called spoons and flounces because of the shape. Those irises are classed as ‘space age’.
Some tall, bearded iris can flower again later in the summer and those irises are classed as ‘remontant’.
Irises have a long and established part in history, the name Iris comes from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris, who was the daughter of Thaumas and the ocean nymph Electra. In Greek mythology it is said that when Iris visited earth under her footsteps rose the flower of which bears her name today. To the Egyptians the Iris was a symbol of power and majesty. The temple of the Pharaoh Tutmoses III at Karnak has images of Irises on the Reliefs. They also placed Irises on the sceptres of their kings believing the 3 petals of the flower typified Faith, Wisdom and Valour. 4,000 years ago, in Crete the Minoans depicted what is thought to be the oldest picture of an Iris on a fresco in the palace at Knossos. The Romans dedicated the Iris to Juno the wife of Jupiter. In Medieval times the Iris was associated with the virgin Mary. In France the Iris has been used since 1180 in the form of the Fleur-de-lis as a badge of the kings.
Irises have many uses; they were used for medical purposes by the Greeks and in more recent times the rhizome is used to make Orris root which is used in perfume and to make Chianti wine.
The Iris is part of the larger Iridaceae family. It comprises 200 species. Tall bearded Irises belong to the subgenus Iris. They are sometimes called Pogon Irises and often called incorrectly Iris germanica. Thanks to the work of amateur botanist William Rickatson Dykes (1877 – 1925) he corrected 350 years of misidentification, before his work, most notably his book The Genus Iris (1913), it was believed that all the different colours and patterns where different species. The ancestor of all tall bearded Iris was wrongly thought to be Iris germanica but that plant is itself a sterile hybrid, thought to be a cross between Iris aphylla and Iris variegata. The range of tall bearded Iris we have today are sprung from natural hybrids of Iris pallida and Iris variegata. Tall bearded Irises geographic origins are unknown, partly because of its use by Muslims on their burial grounds, it travelled, but they are believed to have originated from a small area of central and southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
The tall bearded Irises we can buy today ancestors first originated in the early years of the 19th century, when garden varieties where put on sale around 1820 by Paul de Bure who was experimenting with crosses of Iris pallida and Iris variegata. His first to be sold commercially was I. ‘Buriensis’ of which he named after himself. He influenced many other French breeders of the time including Henri Antoine, head gardener to King Louis-Philippe and nurseryman Jean-Nicolas Lémon. Many new varieties where being raised and introduced by the 1870’s and 1880’s by nurseryman such as Robert Parker of London, Thomas Ware of Feltham and Peter Barr ‘the daffodil king’. Although all their introductions had a variation of colour there was no advances in achieving larger flowers, stronger stems or vigour.
Sometime between 1885 and 1889 plants where introduced from the near east by the likes of Sir Michael Foster ‘the father of Iris breeding’. The introduction of those larger flowering species including I. trojana, I. cypriana, I. mesopotamica and I. ‘Amas’, had a massive impact on the future of the tall bearded iris. It wasn’t known at the time of there introduction but they where all tetraploids and the huge difference they brought about was because tetraploids have 4 chromosomes compared to diploids that only have 2 chromosomes. Sometimes when those new species where crossed with older ones they would produce a fertile tetraploid with larger flowers, improved form, substance and greater vigour. Sir Michael Foster most notable successes where I. ‘Caterina’, I. ‘Lady Foster’ and I. ‘Kashmir White’, he was the first person to use I. cypriana and I. mesopotamica in his breeding.
The well know French breeders Vilmorin-Andrieux and company, which is still active today, produced in the early 1900’s a couple varieties that have been widely used in breeding. I. ‘Oriflamme’ in 1904 and the very vigorous, bitone I. ‘Alcazar’ in 1910. Lots of other breeders around Europe took Fosters work and expanded on it, they include Goos & Koenemann in Germany, Cayeux & La Clerc in France and Sir Arthur Hort and Amos Perry in England.
The next big advancement in the breeding of tall bearded irises came from retired mining engineer and soon to become well respected iris breeder Arthur John Bliss. In 1917 he introduced a rich purple iris with velvety falls called I. ‘Dominion’. He was at the time, trying to produce a crimson or plicata with golden ground iris, so didn’t pay much attention to ‘Dominion’ till it was pointed out to him by his niece Phyliss Bliss. ‘Dominion’ had a huge influence on future iris breeding. Three of Bliss’s other irises are also ancestors to many new cultivars today, those three are I. ‘Cardinal’, I. ‘Bruno’ and I. ‘Grace Sturtevant’ together they are known as the ‘Dominion race’. The reason for the dominion race being used so much in breeding was the intense colour, large flower and wider falls.
In North America around 1900 the tall bearded iris was developing in much the same way as in Europe, the first great American breeder was Bertrand H. Farr he imported the entire of Englishman Peter Barr’s collection and other irises from French and German breeders. Farr bred his own tetraploid crosses his biggest success being I. ‘Quaker Lady’. In the same pre-war period other famous American breeders where having notable success, Grace Sturtevant who Arthur Bliss names one of his Irises after, had I. ‘Shekinah’. Bruce Williamson with I. ‘Lent A. Williamson’. Hans and Jacob Sass, known as the Sass brothers, had I. ‘King Tut’ and I. ‘Ramesses’.
In England W. R. Dykes had produced hundreds of seedlings from his iris breeding, but his most famous was the iris that bears his name I. ‘W. R. Dykes’, it was named for him by his wife following his death in 1925. At the time it was the largest and clearest yellow yet created. In 1926 the British Iris society decided to start an award in memory of W. R. Dykes, awarded each year to a breeder of an outstanding iris. In France the most famous breeder of the time was Ferdinand Cayeux, before the second world war he won 10 Dykes medals in 10 years, most notably I. ‘Jean Cayeux’, I. ‘Pluie d’or’ and I. ‘Deputé Nomblot’. In the years to follow back in England, G. L. Pilkington was winning medals in 1935 with his I. ‘Sahara’. English iris breeding was full of amateur breeders in later years introducing many good irises, the likes of Harry Randall and Sir Cedric Morris to name a few.
Post 1940’s the biggest iris movement is most definitely in the USA, there has been a boom in tall bearded iris breeding and thousands of new cultivars, with many different colours and forms have been introduced, the most famous breeders being Schreiner’s of Oregon, their nursery and gardens are world famous. Other American breeders to mention are Paul cook, Edward Essig, Carl Salbach and many more…