Add dazzling variety to your garden with bearded iris


This spring, I have to admit, I went a little bearded iris crazy. The combination of the strikingly colored intricate blooms with silk, velvet or fabric textures and the fuzzy, upright, formal beards in the spring landscape is striking. I look forward to it every year. Hardy and often oblivious to drought and neglect, they persevere and bloom profusely, come what may.

I used to see them purely as individual plants with flowers that I liked. Every year I have new favorites. This year I took a closer look and noticed some details I hadn’t paid attention to before.

With flower shape and construction for newer varieties, the trend seems to be towards large standards of ruffled flowers (the upper petals) and drooping (the lower petals). The variations are almost endless, with colors ranging from the palest to the brightest hues, with many amazing and mesmerizing bi-colors, contrasting or complementary colors, splashes and color tones, all more interesting and fun than each other. others.

The barbs – or the anthers – can be contrasting colors with the offcuts and standards. Older varieties have simpler, often smaller flowers with a more open shape, and the petals lack elaborate ruffles and frills. Coloring is often calmer. Flower petals can have a translucent, delicate texture with falls that seem to flutter in the wind.

Some of the old varieties have distinctive scents. A very common iris has faded burgundy falls and lavender petals and smells distinctly of root beer, while others smell of vanilla. Many modern irises are not very fragrant, although iris nurseries have categories labeled fragrant.

Scan the landscape for irises

While exploring the city this spring, I really noticed the colors, patterns and textures of the irises I spotted. I even noticed how the sun on the flowers turned an almost black deep purple iris into a brilliant purple velvet. I loved the subtle shading of a lavender-edged white iris.

In another garden, a large clump of old irises with soft red sepals and soft orange petals complemented a picnic table painted bright red. Down an alley, a long line of neglected velvet purple and deep blue irises created a museum-worthy tableau.

Some were surprisingly fun, like an iris with orange petals and dark purple-edged sepals. Another had dark purple falls and blue standards. A very subtle iris, of an unusual color, was one of the palest apricot pinks, with a bright lavender beard.

At the local iris society’s annual sale last summer, I searched for the same shades of plum and dark purple I had seen in the gardens and realized how many shades there were of each. I also searched for irises in the same shade of light, bright blue that my mother had in her garden, only to find many with washed out colors and none matching what I remember.

Irises with scraps and banners in different colors and color combinations taught me a lot about color in general and opened my eyes to tints, tones and shades I never imagined coming together, and again least find in a plant. Thinking about color is interesting with irises but also useful in garden design, flower arranging, fabric selection and even house painting.

It wasn’t just the colors and shapes that were interesting. Spotting both old and new varieties of the same iris in city gardens showed the popularity of each at different times. I saw the same varieties of irises in several neighborhood gardens, making me wonder if these people were friends who shared plants with each other, brought together by a flower.

This year, I stopped to take photos of irises that I thought were particularly beautiful, and in doing so, I met a lot of people I didn’t know before. Most invited me back to get an iris rhizome later in the season.

Bearded irises are hybrids of Iris germanica. Irises were first grown in America in Virginia in the 1600s, but they weren’t popularly cultivated until the early 1900s. Today there are more than 70,000 varieties.

Bearded irises grow from horizontally branching rhizomes that grow laterally at or just below the soil surface. The rhizomes function as a reservoir of carbohydrates and water for the plant and grow roots and leaf buds.

Divide irises every three to five years. At the end of summer, replant the rhizomes as soon as possible. Don’t plant them too deep. The top of the rhizome should appear.

An interesting website for historic irises is the Historic Iris Preservation Society, at They have a photo gallery of historic irises with details on when they were bred and introduced.

Kate Frey’s column appears bi-weekly in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at [email protected],, Twitter @katebfrey.


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