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 “I’ll have an Iris that shall find thee out.” 

 WHEN one sees the rainbow banners of the Iris unfurling along the borders in the sunshine it seems highly probable that the mantle of their namesake has fallen upon them, and that they are indeed messengers of the gods, and it seems well to incline one’s ear and open wide one’s eyes lest we miss some smallest shade of meaning in this rarely illuminated message brought to us by these brave couriers across the wintry wastes.

The period covered by the blossoming of the Iris is full of enjoyment to me. Since the days when all my knowledge of this great and varied family was vested in the common purple Iris of old gardens and the gay Flag-flowers, which lie in June upon our moist meadows, “like the silent shadow of a cloud,” their spell has been upon me, and it was a discovery of much delight that these two were but lowly members of a great company that would gladly bloom in my garden; would fill it from April through July with a lovely, unexacting throng demanding little attention and no special conditions, and from whose ranks I might draw subjects for every sort of situation.

I do not speak of the rare and difficult species and varieties belonging to the Oncocyclus, Juno, and Regalia groups, for these unfold their flowers only for those able and willing to provide them with very special conditions, but of the many fine Irises that may be found under the heads, Pogoniris and Apogon, two at least of the Evansias and some of the bulbous species, which will bloom cheerfully under ordinary conditions in the open garden.

There are so many species in this great genus, and the intermarriages have been so numerous and so confusing, that classification has become difficult; yet very little of this genealogy is necessary to us who simply wish to realize in our gardens the highest decorative possibilities of this splendid flower.

For the purposes of the open garden the genus Iris may be divided into four sections: Pogoniris or Bearded, Apogon or Beardless, Evansia or Crested, and Bulbous. The “beard” is a “collection of closely set hairs” on the “falls” or drooping petals of the Iris flower. Irises without this decoration are called beardless. The “crest” is an “elevated line or ridges on the segment of an Iris.”  

"When one sees the rainbow banners of the iris unfurling along
the borders in the sunshine it seems highly probable that the
mantle of their namesake has fallen upon them, and it seems well
to incline one's ear and open wide one's eyes lest we miss some
smallest shade of meaning in this rarely illuminated message."

The bearded section contains the best known and most easily grown of the Irises. They possess a thick, fleshy rootstock, creeping along the surface of the earth, and delight in the sunniest situations in the garden. Among them may be found plants from four inches in height to three and one-half feet, all bearing large, conspicuous flowers above the erect, sword-like foliage, the strong vertical lines of which are so valuable in the borders where so much is uncertain or spreading.

Most important in the Pogoniris group are those known as German Irises which include, not only I. germanica, the type, a May-flowering species with few varieties, but many closely allied forms blooming in June; as pallida, squalens, amoena, aphylla, florentina and others, each of which has numerous garden hybrids. The familiar blue-purple Flag of old gardens is typical of these German Irises    hardy and patient-blooming with prodigal generosity under the most untoward conditions. How often we see it holding high its splendid head close to the dusty roadside whence it has found its way through the broken palings of a neglected dooryard, or keeping guard in great spreading patches with the enduring Lilacs over the crumbling ruins of what was once a home.

Some of the other varieties of I. germanica are much finer than the Old Purple, though none are more willing and few are better for mass planting, as:

I.  Kochii, deep claret-purple, twenty-three inches.
amethyst standards and violet falls, thirty-two inches.
Crimson King,
splendid red-purple, twenty-one inches.
strong violet-purple, large flowers, thirty-three inches.
standards white, falls tender gray, orange beard, seventeen inches.

Other tall-growing, May-flowering Irises are I. florentina, albicans, Billioti, Cengialti, benacensis, and flavescens. Florentina, from the root of which is made the fragrant orris powder, is only less familiar as a charming inhabitant of old gardens than the Purple Flag. It is one of the loveliest of Irises, and its French-gray crÍpe flowers are invaluable to us in creating May pictures. It is fine with the Dicentras and tall pink Tulips of the Cottage and Darwin types; with the yellow Doronicums and the pretty lavender-flowered Phlox divaricata, and is splendid in spreading groups near pink-flowered Crabapple trees. Albicans and its variety Princess of Wales are forms of florentina blooming a little later and with flowers very nearly a pure white.

Iris Billioti is a tall plant bearing very fragrant red-purple blossoms late in May, and I. benacensis, in two shades of purple, grows only eighteen inches tall and blooms in the early part of the month.

I. Cengialti, which Miss Jekyll mentions as the nearest to a blue Iris, is a slender plant    not so firmly erect as many of its kind, but very pretty. Its two varieties Loppio and Zephyr, the latter more lilac in colour, are well worth possessing. Flavescens, bearing large, soft yellow flowers, very sweetly scented, is one of the best of the May-flowering sorts. It grows about two and a half feet high.

Besides these tall, early-flowering Irises there are a number of dwarfs, some of which bloom in April. The different species and their varieties are rather badly confused in catalogues, and I don’t know that it makes a great deal of difference as they are much alike, save that it is interesting to know the true names of one’s plants. Lurida, with its beautiful coppery-bronze flowers, is too distinct to be easily confused with other sorts. With me this plant blooms twice, first in early May and again in late October, but as I have not seen this generous behaviour ascribed to it I do not know if it be its regular habit.

Varieties of I. Chamaeiris and pumila are constantly sent out misnamed — that is, the former is nearly always sent where the latter is ordered, and this is irritating since pumila is both dwarfer and prettier than Chamaeiris and may be easily distinguished by the fact that it has no stem, while the taller sort has very distinctly an inch or two. The loveliest variety of pumila is caerulea, a four-inch mite, very nearly sky-blue in colour, and there is also a pretty sky-blue sort called Attraction. Chamaeiris has a number of good sorts — red-purple, blue-purple, citron, pale yellow, and I believe white. I. gracilis bears a charming silver-gray flower shot with mauve and sweetly scented. I. lutescens is pure yellow of a very fine warm tone. There are also the Hybrid

Crimean Irises in large variety, varying from six inches to a foot in height.

All these Dwarf Irises bloom in April and May, and are very charming in spreading patches along the edges of the borders between the mounds of Arabis, Aubrietia, Iberis, and Alyssum, backed by ranks of early Tulips and Daffodils. They spread quickly and blossom so freely as to produce sheets of solid colour.

A good and representative collection of the tall June-flowering German Irises which are among the most valuable of hardy plants is the following: 


 L’Innocence, ivory-white with gold beard, twenty-six inches.
Mrs. H. Darwin,
blue and white, orange beard, twenty-eight inches.
rich purple with white markings, thirty-six inches. 


Black Prince, standards lavender, falls blackish-purple, two and one-half feet.
two shades of rosy-lilac, two feet.
Willie Barr,
standards French-gray, falls white traced violet, eighteen inches. 


Dalmatica, splendid large clear lilac flowers, broad, strong foliage, forty inches.
silvery-lavender, three feet.
Her Majesty,
standards soft rose, falls deeper in colour, two and one-half feet.
Madame Pacquitte,
shades of claret, two and one-half feet.
Queen of May,
rose-lilac, almost pink, thirty-two inches. 


Bridesmaid, white and silvery-lilac, twenty-seven inches.
Madame Chereau,
white frilled lavender, thirty-eight inches.
fine white flower with lilac edges, two feet. 


Innocenza, pure white, gold crest.
primrose-yellow and lilac.
Maori King,
golden-yellow and maroon. 


 Jacquiniana, copper colour and claret, two and one half feet.
Dr. Bernice, bronze and maroon, two feet. 
clouded yellow and rose-lilac, twenty-six inches. 

June borders made up of groups of these German Irises intermingled with tall blue and white Lupines, Lemon Lilies, Foxgloves, and Peach-leaved Campanulas, with a background of Persian Lilacs and such free-growing Roses as Stanwell’s Perpetual, Madame Plantier, and the yellow Briers — Harisoni and the Persian — and edged with double white Pinks and Nepeta Mussini, are a joy indeed, if one has sufficient room to give up a whole border to a single month. Often such a border as this may be made in some inconspicuous part of the grounds where it need be visited only when in festal array.

All these Bearded Irises with fleshy, creeping rhizomes or roots should be planted with the rhizome partly above the surface of the ground, for the health of the plant requires that this should be well ripened by the sun, and the best time to set them out is just after they have flowered. To increase one’s stock pieces of the thick root may be broken from the parent clump, the foliage cut back to an inch or so, and the ‘root set firmly, but only part way in the earth. These plants should be large enough to bloom the following year.

The Evansea or crested group is a small one and but two of its members known to me are suitable for the open garden. A jagged “crest” replaces the “beard” of the Pogoniris and the rhizome is thick and creeps along the surface of the ground very much as do the roots of the latter.

I. tectorum, the Japanese Roof Iris, from the roots of which the ladies of Japan make a famed cosmetic, is to me one of the most beautiful of the family. The reflexed leaves are slightly glaucous; the flower stalk about eighteen inches high, bears several very large flat blue-purple flowers curiously clouded with a deeper colour and further embellished by an ivory crest. There is a rare white variety which is surpassed in elegance and distinction by few flowers known to me. Though tectorum is often spoken of as not very amenable, it grows here with great freedom in a slightly raised sunny border protected on the north and east by the garden  wall, and bears its esthetic flowers in satisfying profusion. I have raised many plants of tectorum from seed gathered from my own plants many of which have bloomed the second year.

Wee Iris cristata, a native American found in parts of Maryland and Virginia, has the appearance of some thing rare and costly, but grows like any weed in the borders and makes a charming edging. The plants grow only about four inches high, and the large spreading lavender blossoms made brilliant by a conspicuous gold crest are so profusely borne as to quite hide the foliage. They flower in May, and I like to plant them in front ol the orange-scarlet Geums or between mounds of deep. purple Aubrietia.

Many delightful plants are to be found in the Apogon or Beardless section of the rhizomatous Irises, and most of these, while as easy to grow and as showy as the German Irises, are, save for the Japanese sort, rare in gardens. Perhaps this is because they are looked upon as water lovers, and while this is true of a large majority of them I have not found any that will not grow and flower contentedly in rich, deeply dug garden soil. The blossoms of this type of Iris are more delicately modelled than those of the Bearded group and seem poised like gay butterflies above the slender grass-like foliage, and instead of the fleshy root there is a bunch of slender rootlets.

Of the Beardless Irises preferring the dryer parts of the garden, I. missouriensis, a native, is the best. It is an early bloomer producing its yellow-blotched lavender blossoms very freely. I. foetidissima, growing wild in Great Britain, is unique among its kind, for, while the blossoms are dull and not lovely, the orange-scarlet seeds, which cling all winter to the flaring pods, are pretty and decorative, and are useful at a season when colour in the garden is at a premium. This Iris is also one of the few which does not abhor shade, but it has a drawback in the disagreeable odour which emanates from its handsome foliage when bruised. A low-growing and very pretty Iris for near the front of the border is I. graminea. Its gay, reddish-purple blossoms are almost hidden among its narrow, grass-like leaves. It is easily grown in any sunny border and has an agreeable fragrance. I. fulva, which I have not yet been able to flower, is described as bearing handsome terra-cotta flowers on stems two feet tall. Mr. W. R. Dykes speaks of it as “difficult” and says it demands “a hot and dry position if it is to produce its remarkable blossoms in any profusion.”

Preeminent among the moisture lovers is the great Japanese Iris, I. laevigata or Kaempferi, which is one of the finest hardy plants we have but which does not do as well as some of the others of its class in the dry borders of the garden. Indeed in its chosen place by the water-side it is so truly magnificent it seems a pity to be satisfied with it grown under any other conditions. In very deep, rich soil, freely watered especially while the buds are forming, one may realize much beauty but may not command the same luxuriance of growth and splendid spread of blossom that one is graciously vouchsafed in a naturally moist situation. The huge blossoms of the Japanese Iris frequently measure six inches across and are most wonderful in colour and texture. Mr. Irwin Lynch in his valuable “Book of the Iris” gives the following as good varieties:

Alexander von Humboldt, pure white.
hyia, lilac and white.
Her Majesty,
violet, speckled white.
blush suffused and speckled rose.
Lady Scott Monorief,
white with rose halo.
Netta, white, edged rose-pink.
pale sky-blue passing to white with golden blotch.

The length of their blossoming period may be quite appreciably lengthened by planting some in partial shade. They are easily raised from seed, the young plants usually blooming the second or third year.

The next most important group of these beardless moisture lovers is the slender I. sibirica and its varieties    symmetrical plants with lightly made fairy blossoms poised delicately above the narrow, reflexing foliage. Particularly pure and lovely is the white sort, I. sibirica var. alba; and there are good blue, lavender, and purple forms. These Siberians are most effective planted in rather large groups, as a single plant is not strong enough to create any great effect, and as the frail character of their beauty suffers in comparison with their more robust German cousins they are best kept out of each other’s company.

A close relative of sibirica is I. orientalis, which is not to be confounded with that orientalis whose more familiar name is I. ochroleuca. Two varieties of the Siberian orientalis, Blue King and Snow Queen, are among the most conspicuous and valuable of garden Irises. The one bears intense blue-purple blossoms with reddish spathes and the other pure white in such profusion as to almost hide the foliage. The ripened seed pods are so numerous that they give the plant a very untidy appearance after flowering, so it is best to cut them off. All the Siberians are easily raised from seed, and the plants when once established should be left alone to perfect their beauty. They do as well in the rich borders of the garden as in the moist situations which their hollow stems tell us that they enjoy.

I. longipetala is the only tractable member of the beautiful and desirable California group. It bears a lovely sprightly flower with deep-toned veinings on the lavender ground of its standards and tender silvery falls. It is said that this plant should be moved only when in full growth. I. spuria and its various forms are well worth planting, though I believe they vary much in desirability. Mrs. A. W. Tate, the only form I have here, is a good plant with fine foliage and a strong stein carrying several deep-lavender flowers.

Closely related to this is I. guildenstaedtiana — a formidable name and a none too attractive species. The purple form is better than the dingy yellow, but neither need be included in any but a large collection.

Three fine yellow Irises for the border or waterside are I. aurea, Monnieri, and ochroleuca. The first bears a finely modelled butter-yellow flower with slightly crimped petals poised well above the foliage; Monnieri sends its lemon-coloured blossoms aloft on stems four feet tall, and has a noble relative, Monaurea, deeper in colour, which is said to grow six feet tall in moist situations. There is also another relative, Monspur, with striking blue and yellow flowers that is too good a thing to be omitted from a collection of any size. Ochroleuca, the Gold Banded Iris, is said to reach a height of six feet when well established in a moist situation, but it has not done this for me. The great thick-skinned ivory-coloured blossoms, deepening to pure gold at the base, are wonderfully beautiful, and one wishes that they might be borne with greater generosity. We have used these yellow Irises with the addition of Monspur and Snow Queen to encircle a little ever-overflowing pool in the walled garden. They bloom late — in late June and early July — but in May the little bed is gay with Forget-me-nots, Violas, and double Poet’s Narcissus.

Our pretty native, I. versicolor, which Thoreau said is too gay “like some women’s bonnets,” and the yellow Water Flag (I. pseudacorus) , are a bit too free with their progeny to make garden life quite the thing for them. Far and wide the quickly germinating seeds are scattered, and before one knows it there are cunning baby Irises coming up all over the garden which in a surprisingly short time have grown into stout clumps, and choicer, less pervasive things are crowded out. But in the wilder parts of the place, the meadows, or along the stream or pond, these two may increase at will, and one is only grateful for their fruitfulness.

With the Bulbous Irises I have had no great experience though the few that are known to me have made me anxious to extend my acquaintance among them. Nothing could be more lovely than those belonging to the reticulata group. I have grown only three of these Irises including the type, but Professor Bailey gives quite a number as hardy in the vicinity of New York City. These Irises have curiously “netted” bulbs, hence the name, and the type and its variety Krelagei are characterized by peculiar four-sided leaves with a horny tip. The type is the most beautiful of all. I never cease to be quite overwhelmed at the appearance of these brilliant purple and gold flowers so early in the year, shining through their stiff, narrow leaves. Last spring they flashed forth while the snow still lay upon the ground, and in spite of the discouraging cold their delicious violet fragrance was discernible several feet away. I. Krelagei bears a duller flower, and neither this nor the variety histrioides has, save in a slight degree, the violet perfume. Histrioides blooms a little before the others and bears larger flowers which often expand before the leaves are well out of the ground. If taken into a warm room both this and Krelagei will give out more perfume, but the type seems quite undaunted in its determination to make sweet the cold March garden.

All the reticulata Irises are prone to a deadly disease which shows on the netted surface of the bulb in ink-like spots, and soon proves fatal. Professor Michael Foster recommends lifting and replanting the bulbs frequently, discarding those which show the blight, and another authority advocates soaking them for an hour or so in a-solution of formaline of the strength of one in three hundred parts. My reticulatas have done fairly well in a raised border against a wall facing south, where they are kept dry in winter. The soil is a mixture of sand and rather heavy loam, but I believe an admixture of clay is more desirable for these bulbs.

The so-called Spanish and English Irises are quite indispensable if we have a spot to suit them. The stem of the Spanish Iris (I. Xiphium) rises stiffly to a height of about eighteen inches and carries two flowers quite conventional in their chaste formality of line. They are so inexpensive that the bulbs may be bought by the thousand, and I know of no investment which insures a greater return in beauty. They are best planted in August that they may send up their narrow, onion-like growth, which seems a sort of guarantee of good faith, before frost. Any dry, sunny border suits them well, but they do not like to be pressed upon by strong growing perennials or robbed by greedy annuals, but after the foliage has gone they do not object to a carpet of such lightly rooting annuals as Sedum coeruleum, Ionopsidium acaule, or Gypsophila muralis. When the bulbs become overcrowded it is well to lift and replant them comfortably.

These flowers have been called the “poor man’s Orchid,” but rich and poor and all the middle-sized folk between will make no mistake in planting Spanish Irises generously both in a cutting garden, for they are lovely for indoor decoration, and all about the garden in nooks and corners as we like to plant the Daffodils. The white varieties are exquisite, and the great bronze Thunderbolt very striking. Leander is pure yellow and sweetly scented, and there are any number of delightful others running through many shades of cream, bronze, amethyst, lavender, blue, and yellow. These are among the few plants which may with safety be bought “mixed” — inharmony seems impossible to them.

The English Iris (I. xiphioides) requires more moisture than is usually to be had in our dry American gardens, and in my own garden, even with faithful watering, it has not been happy. it is very handsome with large spreading flowers in shades of blue, purple, and white which appear with the Spanish Irises in July.

These with other bulbous Irises should be planted in the autumn, and may be found in the catalogues of “Dutch Bulbs.” Another year I hope to add to my collection I. tuberosa, “the Widow,” I. persica, and two of the Juno group said to be the least crotchety — I. orchioides and caucasica.

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