Iris: A Brief History

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: June 4, 2014

According to Greek mythology, when the gods wanted to communicate with mortals on earth they sent a messenger. The messenger was a goddess who, with golden wings, traveled to earth on a rainbow. Legend has it that wherever this goddess set foot on earth, colorful flowers sprung up. The goddess in question was Iris, and the flowers that were said to grow where she set foot bear her name.

In spite of the fallacious nature of the above, the fact is in the Greek language the word “iris” means rainbow. And, indeed, the flower bearing iris as a name can be found in nearly every color of the rainbow.

The genus Iris is a member of the Iridaceae family and contains nearly 300 species. Most species of iris (also is its common name) are perennial plants growing on creeping rhizomes and producing showy flowers. Additionally, there are numerous inter-specific iris hybrids which adds to the complexity iris taxonomy.

The use of iris as a garden plant dates back to 1469 B.C. and King Thutmose III of Egypt. Apparently, the king was an avid gardener and coveted plants the way many at the time coveted gold. When Egypt conquered Syria, the king found irises growing in abundance and introduced them to his gardens. Iris soon became very popular and was regarded by Egyptians to symbolize both the essence and renewal of life. The three petals of the flower were thought to stand for faith, wisdom and valor. Its rhizomes were used for medical purposes and for the manufacture of perfumes and incense used in religious ceremonies.

Iris is a monocot whose flowers are in parts of three. Its three sepals droop downward and are referred to as “falls”, while its three petals are exerted more upright and are known as “standards”. The shape of the iris flower was the inspiration for the “fleur-de-lis” emblem. In the Christian world, the fleur-de-lis came to be particularly associated with the Virgin Mary and purity. It was adapted by the powerful ruler Frankish King Clovis I in 500 A.D., following his conversion to Christianity. Throughout the ages, this emblem was widely used in heraldry and still can be seen today in architecture and other venues where symbolism is common. For example, the Boy Scouts symbol has the fleur-de-lis as its basis.

Irises made their way to New World as European settlers arrived. Early records indicate irises were planted in Virginia in the 1600s. The first great American iris enthusiast was Michael Foster (1836-1907). Foster was a physician and professor of human physiology who (somehow) found time to garden. He was succeeded by a young protégé of his by the name of William R. Dykes (1877-1925) who greatly advanced the study of iris taxonomy. The culmination of his work resulted in his 1913 publication The Genus Iris. In honor of the contribution made by Dykes, the top award that can be given to an iris bears his name: The Dykes Medal.

The most popular garden iris today is the German or bearded iris (Iris germanica). The common name is derived from the thick, bushy “beards” that appear on each of the falls of the flower. This species has been so widely hybridized that many cultivars are no longer morphologically typical of the original German iris. Thus, Iris ‘Bearded Hybrids’ often is listed today as its scientific name.

The American Iris Society recognizes six different classes of bearded iris, based mainly on plant size and flower morphology. The tall bearded class probably is the most popular and widely planted of the group. By careful selection of bearded irises, one can enjoy a remarkable range of colors and a bloom season extending for months. Some bearded irises blooming again in the summer or fall and are classified as “rebloomers”.

Most species of iris (included bearded) are relatively easy to grow. They require at least six to eight hours of direct sun and a well-drained garden loam. Tight, heavy soils should be amended with organic matter to improve drainage. Although an iris can be transplanted any time one can get a shovel into the soil (i.e. the ground is not frozen) late August through mid-October is best for our latitude.

Iris is propagated vegetatively through the division of fleshy rhizomes which have at least one growing point (fan) attached. It is important to plant iris at a depth that allows the top of the rhizome to be exposed to the sun. Spacing iris between 12 to 24 inches apart is the norm. Closer planting will a more results in immediate effect, faster clump formation, and more color. However, the clump will need rejuvenation (division) in two to three years.

Water newly-planted rhizomes immediately. Once established, irises can be watered less frequently. Watering frequency will depends greatly on their environment. It should be noted that over watering of irises is a common mistake. Whenever water is needed, less frequent deep watering is better than frequent, shallow watering.

Irises are fairly heavy feeders; therefore proper fertilization is important. Soil type and native fertility largely will determine fertilizer needs. When fertilizer is added, use a well-balanced fertilizer (e.g. 13-13-13 or 5-10-10). Fertilizers high in nitrogen should be avoided since excessive nitrogen encourages soft, vegetative growth more susceptible to diseases. Generally, a light application of fertilizer in early spring and again a month after bloom is sufficient. When applying fertilizer, take care not to place any directly on the exposed rhizomes.

Japaneese Iris

Irises are susceptible to a number of insect pests, the most troublesome being the iris borer. The latter is a moth whose larvae feed on the fleshy rhizomes. This, in turn, allows for the entry of bacterial soft rot which can quickly kill the rhizome. Inspect plantings frequently and discard infested plants. Additional insect pests include bud moth, iris weevil, thrips, and slugs and snails.

Common diseases of iris include bacterial leaf blight (spot), fungal leaf spot, bacterial soft rot and fungal crown rot. Good sanitation, keeping the garden free of debris and planting to encourage good air circulation all help in lessening disease occurrence.

When irises decline in the number of blooms produced it a signal the clump needs to be divided. Under normal conditions, this should be done every three to four years. One can either thin the clump by removing several divisions (leaving a portion of the clump in the ground), or remove the entire clump, improve the soil and replant a few large rhizomes.

A discussion of iris would be incomplete without the mention of Siberian iris (Iris siberica) and Japanese iris (Iris ensata). Siberian iris bears smaller blooms and has relatively narrow foliage. It prefers cooler temperatures and a slightly acid soil. Available in a variety of bloom colors, Siberian iris grows two to four feet in height. Bloom date is several weeks later than bearded iris.

Japanese iris has been hybridized for over 500 years and bears some of the most exquisite, showy flowers in the genus Iris. It prefers slightly acidic soil and demands adequate soil moisture. Wet in the spring and moist in the summer is a good rule for Japanese iris. Japanese iris blooms about a month after bearded iris.

Garden Bearded Irises

On this page we are listing bearded iris that do not have seeds with a fleshy appendage. Most belong to the subgenus Iris and include plants with a stout rhizome, fans of leaves, and falls with a distinct beard. Flowering stems are simple or branched and falls and standards well developed.

Iris × albicans is a natural or ancient hybrid from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It has fragrant pure white or blue flowers with a white beard tipped yellow. Historically this iris was planted on graves. Cemetery iris flowers in March and April, and tolerates dry summer conditions. Growing 15 to 24 inches tall, it spread to Africa and later to Spain and Europe. It is sterile, and spreads through rhizomes. It grows in many countries around the world and in the southern and midwest United States. Photos by John Lonsdale.

Iris attica is a dwarf species from Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. It has bright blue beards with various colored flowers. Photos by John Lonsdale and Hans Joschko.

Iris bicapitata is a medium bearded species endemic to the Gargano peninsula in northern Apulia. This species has been for a long time confused with the related but smaller Iris lutescens which occurs on the other side of Italian peninsula and has only recently been understood and described as a valid species. I. bicapitata bears two nicely scented flowers atop of the 30-40 cm stalk, hence the specific name. The flowers open in succession of a few days or even together. It is normally seen in the deep violet form but uncommon colour variants exist, with combinations of yellow, white and violet in the standards and falls. All photos in habitat by Angelo Porcelli. In his experience, this species takes to cultivation exceedingly well. His plants start to flower intermittently from November to March and turned into large clumps from single rhizomes in just two seasons. Shown below are some of the varieties. First the typical form followed later by double head seed pods. Then a couple of yellow forms, the second with nice yellow standards, one with dark violet falls with a picotee margin, and one with pale blue standards and violet falls.

More variations including a pure white form, one with white standards and pale violet falls, a gray-lavender, and finally a vigorous clump.

Photos below from John Lonsdale.

Iris × flavescens, lemon-yellow iris, is a cultivar of collected, probably hybrid, origin. It is seen along roads in Kansas, in Ohio, in old yards, cemeteries, sometimes just scattered. In Jim Waddick’s words, it is “old, sturdy and long-lasting.” Dennis Kramb gave plants that are probably this hybrid that had naturalized where he lived the name ‘Wild Lakota’. Photos from Dennis Kramb and Janos Agoston.

Iris germanica is an European hybrid that became the basis for many tall bearded varieties. It persists after cultivation in many old gardens in eastern North America, the Midwest and West Coast; WHZ 3-8. Brian Mathew notes that it is probably not a true wild species, but a natural hybrid; WHZ 3-8. Photos 1-3 from Janos Agoston. Photo 4 from David Pilling, the coin is about an inch in diameter.

Iris germanica ‘Wabash’ was bred by E.B. Williamson in 1936. It has won a handful of awards and is one of the most popular in the tall bearded class, still frequently sold to this day. Plants are distinguished by white standards and dark purple falls edged in white. The beards have little to no white. Photos by Travis Owen. Plants pictured below had not bloomed for several years, yet when transplanted to a sunny location in fertile soil flowered vigorously.

Iris kochii is supposed to be an Italian species, but actually it’s a sterile ancient hybrid, belonging to the medium bearded Iris. The plants I have seen so far appear to be virused, but flower and spread happily, totally neglected. Photos by Angelo Porcelli.

Iris lutescens is a variable species with plants that can range in size from ca. 8 cm to ca. 45 cm including the flower. There is usually 1 flower per stem, but in some location we can find plants with up to 3 flowers on shortly branched stems. This species is distributed from central Italy westwards to central Portugal. The westernmost populations are usually included in Iris lutescens subsp. subbiflora because their leaf width is over 2 cm, but even wider leaves are found in Tuscany, Italy both in pure wide-leaved populations and in mixed ones. 2n = 40. The first photo from Mark McDonough is of two color forms of this dwarf bearded Iris, grown from Mike Salmon seed (collections from Italy and France). The second photo is from John Lonsdale. All the other photos were taken by Gianluca Corazza. In the third photo he compares the leaf width of a giant and medium form. The rest of the photos were taken in habitat in Tuscany, Italy.

Iris pallida , sweet iris, is native to the Dalmatian coast, former Yugoslavia, and widely naturalized elsewhere. Flowering in mass, in an abandoned homestead in the south of Italy, I estimated over a thousand plants. At a later check, none of these plants have set any seed. Photo by Angelo Porcelli.

Iris pallida ‘Aureovariegata’ and a nearly identical form with white variegation are now the most readily obtained forms of this long cultivated plant. Unlike so many of the old garden irises with botanical names, Iris pallida is apparently a good species. Although small-flowered in comparison to modern hybrid bearded iris, this iris has never lost its following. Its wonderful fragrance may be one reason for this, and its early bloom and shining color allow it to be combined with a wide variety of other spring flowers to charming effect. This plant was photographed by Jim McKenney in his Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, zone 7 garden.

Iris pseudopumila is a dwarf bearded species, endemic of Apulia and Sicily. It is thought to be the ancestral form of all the bearded Iris. Usually yellow with brown falls, occasionally blue-violet even with intermediate specimens, it is also scentless. It grows in shallow stony soils and flowers from January to March. This single-flower species is stemless, but the long floral tube acts as stem. Photo taken in habitat in Apulia by Angelo Porcelli.

Iris pumila, dwarf iris, is native to central Europe and the Caucasus. It is a natural hybrid between Iris pseudopumila and Iris attica. It prefers dry grassy areas, and persists for years after cultivation; WHZ 4-9. Photos 1,2 from Janos Agoston. Photos 3,4 are the two color forms of the species taken in its habitat in Georgia by Oron Peri. Photo 5 of seed by David Pilling.

Iris reichenbachii from Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania has yellow or purple flowers. Photo by John Lonsdale.

Iris schachtii is a short species with yellow or purple flowers found in central and western Turkey. Photo by John Lonsdale.

Iris sicula Tod. is a beautiful, very tall, bearded species, endemic to Sicily and minor islands such as Pantelleria and Malta. There is still a doubt about this species, but in my opinion it is clearly a valid one. It is vaguely related to Iris pallida according to some Italian botanists, but this is a more robust plant, with large flowers up to 20 cm across and a strong vaguely chemical scent. It is totally summer dormant and the rhizomes are very thick and large, with distinctive leaf scars. These plants set seeds regularly in my yard. Photos by Angelo Porcelli.

Iris suaveolens , a species from the Balkans to northwestern Turkey has yellow flowers, with or without spots, or purplish-brown flowers with a yellow or bluish beard. Photos by John Lonsdale.

Iris Index – Beardless iris A-K – Beardless iris L-R – Beardless iris S-Z – Crested Irises – Garden Bearded Irises – Juno iris A-I – Juno iris J-R – Juno iris S-Z – Aril Irises – Miscellaneous Irises – Pacific Coast Irises – Reticulata Irises – Spanish Irises – Belamcanda – Hermodactylus – Pardanthopsis

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The Iris’s characteristic linear form – three upright petals (standards) sitting atop three larger outer sepals (falls) makes it one of world’s most recognizable flowering plants. But with over 250 different species and countless cultivars, the taxonomy can leave one befuddled. Here’s a quick classification…

Types of iris

Irises can be classified into two broad groups – rhizome irises and bulbous irises. Rhizome irises are thickened horizontal stems that mostly grow underground, though they can be also be partially visible above the soil line at times. Rhizome irises have overlapping, sword-shaped leaves and three well known sub-divisions.

The Bearded Iris

Bearded irises are composed of four major parts – standards, falls, stigma flaps and the telltale beard. The bearded border iris, dwarf bearded iris and tall bearded iris are some of the most popular bearded iris varieties.

The Beardless Iris

The beardless iris comprises the standard standards, falls, and stigma flaps in addition to crests. The Dutch iris, Siberian iris and Japanese iris are some of the most beloved beardless iris varieties.

Crested Iris

Crested or Evansia irises comprise standards, falls, stigma flaps along with a yellow or orange crest. The flat flowers are marked by fringed petal edges and a clove pink aroma.

Bulbous irises grow underground from round or pear-shaped bulbs and are noticeably smaller than rhizome irises, usually both in plant and flower size. Two common types of bulbous iris are the Reticulata (early spring bloomers) and the Dutch bulbous(mid summer bloomers.) Bulbous irises need a period of dormancy after they finish blooming wherein the plants rest and replenish for the next season.

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Bearded Irises

One of the oldest iris varieties, the bearded irises can be often found adorning your grandmother’s garden. These irises are also known as flags or German irises. In fact, a noted 18th century Swedish botanist named Carolus Linnaeus was the first to name the tall bearded irises their binomial scientific name Iris germanica. In 1753, Linnaeus published his work on botanical taxonomy called “Species Plantarum”. In fact, this book was the first to explain binomial nomenclature that all of us use today. Nevertheless, Linnaeus made some mistakes in naming Iris germanica, whose sample was sent to him from a German garden. In Germany, this plant is never found growing in the wild. Precisely speaking, the plant Iris x germanica is actually not a species. Instead it is possibly a natural iris hybrid that grows up to a medium height.

For the sake of records, the entire predecessors of the bearded irises have their origin in eastern, central and southern Europe as well as the Near East. In fact, role of the bearded irises has been vital for the family Iridaceae for such a prolonged period that details regarding the origin of this much loved perennial plant are covered with the haze of time. It is possible that several iris species were crossed with other species naturally mainly owing to the closeness of these plants. In addition, it is also possible that even the early growers have been hybridizing irises since several centuries back. It is highly possible that in the initial stages of iris breeding the process involved choosing attractive irises developed from crosses that occurred due to pollination by bees, instead of the artificial pollinations undertaken by humans in present times.

Nearly all taxonomic botanists are of the view that the present day bearded irises came into existence following cross-breeding among the 14 different iris species found in the wild, which includes albertii, mesopotamica, gatesii, cypriana, variegata, kashmiriana, trojana and pallida. As the size of the progenies varied following such breedings, currently the bearded irises have been categorized into six distinct groups, depending on their growth habit as well as plant size.

Plant characteristics

All bearded irises are basically elegant plants. Irrespective of whether they are tall or short, flowers produced by all bearded irises have stately forms. The plants emerge from a rhizome and have fans of bluish green leaves that are sword-shaped, and sculptured. These leaves may be stiff and erect, or curve stylishly at the tips. Some varieties of bearded irises produce leaves that may have an amazingly beautiful purplish-red shade at their base. If the leaves are coated with a wax-like substance, it signifies that the plants are in excellent health. The healthy plants will bear strong leaves with a bluish dash and grow robustly right from the center of the fans.

The rhizome (actually a distended stem) of the iris is the place where the plant accumulates moisture and nutrients for use during unfavourable conditions. These stored substances also help the plant to endure some amount of stress. The growing season of the plants occurs during spring, just after the flowering season. Generally, the growing season of irises lasts for about a couple of months.

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The plants take some rest or lie dormant during the middle of summer. Fresh growth occurs again during the fall, just before the leaves wither away and the plant again goes into a dormant period for the cold winter months.

The rhizomes of irises grow horizontally all along the soil surface and giving rise to leaf fans upwards, while sending the roots down from their budding end. The rhizomes become tough as the summer heat increases, thereby protecting the moisture and nutrients stored inside them. At the same time, the hardened surface of the rhizomes prevents pests as well as diseases from getting inside. Nevertheless, prolonged wet weather conditions, such a long spells of rain, may make the rhizome soft as well as weaken it. This is the time when slugs and various other pests gain easy entry into the rhizome and have a good meal.

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Every year, the iris rhizomes divide as well as multiply naturally, gradually forming an intricate interwoven mat. In order to make sure that the plants produce enough flowers every season, it is essential to divide the irises before they enter this phase. In fact, an iris rhizome only blooms once each season and subsequently develops new rhizome just behind the flowering stem of the present season. Occasionally, they also grow new rhizomes from the buds along their length. Increasing in this manner enables the plants to avail more nutrients from newer soils. In fact, the leaf fan of irises is the sign of the growing point. It is from here the new plant moves away from the worn-out mother rhizome. Different varieties of irises grow as well as increase at different speeds – at times producing a great number of new plants every year, while there are some other varieties that produce relatively fewer new plants annually.

Flower characteristics

Similar to all other iris varieties, the flowers of bearded irises have three falls, three standards and three style arms – the number three being important in the case of all irises. The standards of bearded irises have a graceful dome shape and they close up above the blooms, shielding the style arms. Usually, the style arms of bearded irises come in attractive hues. The female portion of the bearded iris blooms, also known as the stigmatic lip, lies under the standards, while the anthers that contain pollens (the male elements of a flower) are concealed just below the stigmatic lip.

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The lower petals of bearded irises, which are also known as falls, curve both downward and outward, displaying the beard. The falls are rather akin to a large hairy caterpillar – the key distinguishing trait of bearded irises.

The beards of this group of irises have several different colors – sometimes their color is same as the flower, which presents an intense effect in general. An excellent example of this is the “Night Rider”, which has intensely ruffled purple-black beards. In addition, the color of the beards may also be completely different from the flower, as in the case of “Stately Art”, where the gorgeous blue flowers are aptly complemented by an amazing red beard.

Beards actually contribute to the charm and character of the blooms, augmenting as well as complementing the hues, especially during the fall. In the case of a number of hybrid bearded irises, the beards may also come with horns or extensions as well as other attractive appendages like flounces and spoons. In fact, “Mesmerizer,” a white bearded iris comes with lacy flounces which make it appear like a double flower. On the other hand, “Thornbird” has a bizarre tan hue and it comes with noteworthy dazzling violet horns. Irises that have such unusual traits are called “Space Age” irises.

The falls of bearded irises may have various shapes and forms. They may be smooth, frilled or ruffled; narrow or broad; and sometimes they may even stick out prominently like a saucer; droop downwards gently or recurve beneath the bloom.

After they open up, the bearded iris flowers will stay in excellent condition for more or less three days, subject to the temperature outside. Removing the spent flowers is quite simple, as they close after blooming. To remove the spent flower you first need to hold the base of the new bud firmly and turn the spent flower downward and away carefully with a quick movement. This will make the spent flower snap from the socket without any problem.

Even the color patterns of bearded iris flowers differ greatly. While some flowers have only one hue, there are others that come in multiple colors, including veining, streaking as well as thumbprints. Specials names have been assigned to indicate specific color patterns. For instance, a single color is referred to as a “self”. In fact, “Blenheim Royal” is a good example of a true, vivid, purple “self”.

In an ideal condition, bearded iris’ flowering spike should bear a minimum of two branches having stems and branches and producing many flowers. It would be best if a good flower spike has branches that curve outwardly from the main stem and supports the blooms in a balanced as well as erect manner – very much different from that of a candelabra. It will be called a perfect situation when three flowers open simultaneously in a balanced manner and at a uniform space, the length of the spike.

Thumbprints are quite common in dwarf bearded irises. This variety of bearded iris comes in thumbprints that have rich contrasting hues just under the beard. However, this is a new pattern, which is just starting to materialize in the irises belonging to the bearded group.

Flowering spike

Selecting the foreground as well as the background for the bearded iris has a direct relation to the plant’s flowering spike.

Like there are a variety of popular characteristics in plant habits, the flower spikes of the plants too have a number of desirable attributes. Some of these traits are discussed briefly below.

Strength: Ideally, the flower spike ought to be strong, capable of supporting the flowers properly and also be suitably inflexible with a view to make sure that the winds will not blow it away. In fact, any good quality iris is one that never requires a stake in the garden.

Proportion: The flower spike should be in right proportion to the plant’s foliage. In fact, the spike ought to be quite toll so that the flowers are always on top of the foliage to make them clearly visible. In addition, the branches comprising the spike ought to be spaced evenly along the flower spike.

Presentation: Another important characteristic of a desirable flower spike is that it should be properly branched and each of the branches should have the aptitude to display the flowers elegantly as well as in a neat manner. In addition, all the branches should ideally have numerous branches to make sure that the flowering season is quite prolonged – preferably each branch should have not less than three branches and six flowers. Some iris species/ cultivars are just as satisfactory if they bear less number of buds on the flower spike, but carry multiple spikes from the rhizome. “Vanity”, an attractive pink iris, is an excellent example of the latter iris type. Often, this traditional beauty bears just four buds on a spike, but sometimes, it can send up as many as three or even more spikes from just one rhizome.

In addition, it is also important to have a harmony of the blooms appearing on the spike’s different branches. It is possible that one flower may open on each branch at the same time, presenting a wonderful display of colors and making the spike ideal for showing. On the other hand, the flowers on different branches of the spike may also open from time to time, thereby prolonging the flowering period in a garden.

The pace at which the flowering spikes come out from the foliage may often be amazing. You can often tell if a plant will flower by judging the visible curve in central leaves of the foliage fans. However, this guide is not a perfect one. You can also confirm the presence of the flower spike by lightly feeling the base of the foliage fan. In its initial stage of growth, the flower spike can be frail and even breakable. Therefore, it is essential to exercise extra caution so as to prevent breaking the spikes, particularly when you are trying to feel it or while weeding. Hence, it is very important to always keep the area where you are growing irises free from weeds, especially before the flowering season of these plants.

When the flower spike has grown up to its full height, the speedy change in its looks slows down. At this stage, the flowers increase in size. The time period between the coming out of the flower spike and the beginning of flowering differs very much. However, often it can be below two weeks.


The older iris rhizomes located in the hub of a clump usually become unproductive after growing for about two or three years. Division and transplantation of irises are necessary to sustain the vigour of the plants. Ideally, division should be undertaken soon after the flowering season, at what time the white fleshy roots are easily noticeable beneath the leaf fan signalling the growth phase of the plants. If the plants are divided during this period, they will be able to re-establish themselves quickly. It will help the rhizome to secure itself firmly in the soil and, at the same time, allow it to aptly sustain the subsequent flower stem without letting it fall down.

It is a very bad idea to transplant the new iris rhizome divisions when they are dormant during the winter months, because the new plant will not be able to survive on the resources stored in the rhizome. Moreover, since the following growth period will only occur after the flowering season, transplanting the rhizome divisions during this period will most possibly give rise to flower stems that are shorter compared to the usual. In addition, the blooms too will be smaller.

Dividing the existing iris clumps requires that you first excavate the entire plant with the help of a strong garden fork. Only retain the plumpest new rhizomes having new, vigorous, green leaf fans and an excellent root system. Make a clean cut to separate these types of rhizomes from the older plant. These rhizome parts should at least be of the size of a thumb. At the same time, cut back the leaves by roughly one-third of their original. Doing this not only helps to avoid wind-rock as well as loss of too much moisture, but also allow the new roots to get established sooner. Get rid of the older rhizomes that have become unproductive. These older rhizomes can be used for making composts.


If you are obtaining your irises from any nursery they will usually arrive by courier service or mail. The roots of these plants will be bare. Once you receive the plants, ensure that they have firm rhizomes. Also see if there are any dry leaves. Don’t get concerned if you find the leaves of the new plants having a tendency to become dry and turn brownish. In fact, this is absolutely normal. What you need to check for is the strong roots of the plants. These roots may have been trimmed evenly at the nursery, but in any case they ought to be no less than 4 inches to 6 inches in length. While you are preparing your iris bed, allow the roots to be exposed to the air and place them in a place that is cool, dry and away from direct sunlight.

While planting the rhizome, ensure that its top is at the same level with the soil’s surface. When the bed has been prepared, make a planting hole in it, sufficiently wide to accommodate the young rhizome along with its extended roots. Place the rhizome in the middle of the opening on an elevated soil hump and spread its roots carefully downwards as well as horizontally. The roots should be placed deep enough to help the new plant to secure itself firmly in the ground. Remember, movement or wind-rock may prove to be the most harmful for the newly planted rhizomes of bearded irises, as this can rub off the roots the moment they emerge. After placing the rhizome, fill the gaps around it firmly with the soil dug up to make the hole. Use your feet to press the soil firmly, but be cautious not to harm the plant. Ensure that the rhizome is at the same level or a little higher than the normal soil level in your garden. After the planting is complete, water the plant liberally. Subsequently ensure that the soil is somewhat moist till the new roots appear or for roughly two weeks. After the new roots have emerged, they will allow the plant to endure arid period.


All through its growing season, the iris rhizome develops the length of the ground with its new roots and leaf fans in the growth end. The new leaves emerge from the middle of the fan, while the older leaves are thrust to the outer surface. Eventually, the older leaves turn brown, fall on the rhizome, almost covering its surface towards the ground. When the climatic conditions are extremely hot, these decomposing old leaves may possibly protect the rhizome from sunburn. However, you need to be careful, because in places where the climatic conditions are more of temperate nature, the decaying older leaves may also form a shelter and hiding place for snails, slugs, earwigs, slaters in addition to a variety of spores that results in fungal diseases. Therefore, it is prudent to inspect the plants from time to time, especially during the summer months, and get rid of the entire old foliage. Remember, the leaves of any plant are the source of the nutrients they require for growth. Therefore, it is advisable that you allow the plants to retain as much foliage as possible during their growing season. This will ensure that the plants will remain healthy and grow robustly throughout the ensuing season.

At the same time, it is very important to ensure that the iris clumps are free from any invasion by weeds and also prevent other plants from overlapping the irises. It is not very difficult to keep the bearded irises clean and ensure their hygiene, provided you are familiar with their growth patterns. It is quite easy to remove relatively larger weeds having tap roots like dandelion or dock when you use a sharp spade. Only one deep angular thrust with the spade on the underside of the rhizomes (away from and avoiding the fans of the leaves) will be sufficient to slash the tap root of the invading weed. Placing your foot on the rhizomes firmly, pull out the weed. When you follow this method, the weed will come out effortlessly without disturbing the iris clump or causing any damage to it.

Aril and Arilbred Irises
Bearded Irises / Culture / Species
Bulbous Irises
Evansia or Crested Irises
Japanese Irises
Louisiana or Hexagona Irises
Median Irises
Miniature Dwarf Bearded Irises
Novelty Bearded Irises
Pacific Coast or California Irises
Reticulata or Dwarf Bulbous Irises
Scorpio or Juno Irises
Siberian Irises
Spuria Irises
Tripetala Irises

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When I studied in England, I visited a well-known garden called Hestercomb on a day in May when the tall bearded irises were in full bloom. In one of the garden rooms I found a long double row of tall bearded iris masterfully arranged in a way where one color family subtly gave way to the next. The border began with mahogany and ended with a blue as pale as a summer sky. In between there were iris blooms of sepia, ochre, gold, yellow and a whole range of blues. In my own garden, I don’t the space to recreate the tall bearded iris planting I saw at Hestercomb, but I have adapted the design’s approach to color. I have found that planting several varieties of all the same color family makes an elegant presentation. One example is where I have selected five different blue iris ranging from the palest, almost white, to azure blue.

When you plant tall bearded iris choose a sunny location. For those living in hot climates a little afternoon shade is beneficial. They like a slightly acidic, well-draining soil. Tall bearded iris grow from a rhizome; it looks similar to a ginger root. To plant, dig a hole and mound soil in the middle. Set the rhizome on the mound with the roots fanned out. Cover the roots and leave the top of the rhizome slightly exposed. Water well. If the rhizomes that you are planting still have their fan shaped leaves fully intact cut back to about half the size before planting.

Tall Bearded Iris Iris germanica Zone 3,4,5,6,7,8,9 Categories perennial, sun garden favorite Bloom Time May – June Light Full Sun Soil moist, well drained soil Plant Height 24 to 36 inches

Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Iris

Oh boy! Do we have a brilliant idea for you! No, seriously, adding a Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Iris (Iris germanica ‘Brilliant Idea’) to your garden is a wise decision. Planting of few of these blue, white, and yellow gals is a no-brainer. The Brilliant Idea Iris looks spectacular from every angle.

This amazing cultivar doesn’t just produce a few striking flowers, it produces up to sixteen blooms in one season! This amazing iris has two branches that will sprout with six to eight flowers on each from mid-spring almost into summer.

These flowers are true show-stoppers. They feature true-blue bands along the margins of each blue and white fall. These margins of blue show off these blooms’ ruffled edges. They also have honey-yellow beards and white standards that really make the blues pop.

When the Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Iris blooms, your neighbors might be inspired to share in your brilliant idea and order a few of their own. These large blooms are impossible to ignore but their color makes them easy to admire from a distance. They even attract the attention of pollinators.

The Brilliant Idea Iris stands tall on strong and stunning green stems. It also features an attractive mound of thick and hardy green leaves that are both rabbit and deer resistant.

Encourage the Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Iris to shine with large blooms by planting it in a mound of quick-draining soil. It does best when planted in July, August, or September. Keep its rhizomes exposed in cooler climates or buried just under the surface in hotter climates. Water it well while its rooting and less after it’s established. This variety will be ready to separate after about three years.

Impress your neighbors with a show of Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Irises as foundation plants. They also look amazing and will encourage your neighbors admire them when planted around your mailbox or along your driveway.

With Brilliant Idea Tall Bearded Irises, you don’t have to choose just one look. They pair well with other iris variety, peonies, and tulips for a long-lasting bloom season. Don’t miss the show. Let the Brilliant Idea Iris inspire you and order yours today!

Information About Bare Root Iris

Bare root Iris are shipped as nice fresh cut divisions with two to three fans of green tops. Keep in mind each Iris variety can have slightly different sized roots.

When planting, make sure 1/3rd of the rhizome is exposed to sunlight with the roots buried underneath. Note, it’s best to cover the rhizome with a thin layer of mulch or leaves to protect it during the coldest months but make sure to uncover in the spring.

How to Grow Irises in Patio Containers

bearded iris image by Alison Bowden from

Bearded irises are big, bold, beautiful plants that live for many years with minimum maintenance. Most bearded irises bloom in spring, but some varieties re-bloom in summer and autumn. The showy blooms are available in a range of hues, including purple, pink, blue, red, white and yellow. The bearded iris grows from fleshy tubers or rhizomes, which keep the plant well supplied with nutrients and moisture. The bearded iris does well in pots, and is available in dwarf and miniature varieties that are especially suited to container growing.

Choose a sturdy container with a minimum diameter of 12 inches. Be sure the container has at least one drainage hole in the bottom. Fill the container with a general purpose commercial potting soil.

Plant the bearded iris rhizomes in the container, with the top third of the rhizome poking above the soil. If you live in a hot climate, plant the rhizome slightly deeper, covering it with 1/2 inch of soil so it won’t sunburn. The number of bulbs you can plant depends on the size of the container, but allow about 6 inches between each rhizome, and 2 inches between a rhizome and the edge of the container.

Water the bearded iris deeply after planting, and continue to water regularly throughout the season until at least a month after the blooms have wilted. Plenty of moisture will keep the rhizomes healthy for the next growing season.

Remove the spent blooms and stems at the end of the growing season, but leave the sword-like leaves in place. The foliage will supply nutrients to the rhizomes for the next year’s blooms.

Move the container to a protected area during the winter, especially during the first winter after planting. A layer of mulch such as straw or leaves will also protect the iris, but be sure to remove the mulch as soon as the weather warms in spring, as mulch can attract rodents and pests. After the first year, the bearded iris will be established and able to survive winter without protection.

Divide bearded iris every three to five years, or whenever the container gets too crowded. Lift the rhizomes from the container with a trowel, then use your fingers to separate the clump into smaller groups of rhizomes. Rinse the rhizomes so you can see better, then cut off any sections that are soft, brown or rotted. Replant part of the rhizomes in the container and reserve some for a new container, or share them with friends.


Use the following Jump links to go to those topics or scroll down. * Types Of Seeds * Seed Sources * Seed Germination


Rhizomatous Iris Seeds

Subgenus Iris Subgenus Iris Subgenus Limniris Subgenus Limniris

As one can see in the images above there are considerable differences between seeds of various species. But seeds of closely related species can be very similar. It may not be possible to determine exactly what species one has by looking at the gross morphology of the seeds but often it is possible to narrow the possibilities to a small group of irises. The above images and those below were taken from Dykes famous monograph The Genus Iris and are linked to the Large classifications within the genus they represent. For a more complete photo gallery go to

photo gallery of Seeds by species

Subgenus Limniris Subgenus Lmniris Subgenus Pardanthopsis Subgenus Limniris
Subgenus Limniris Subgenus Lmniris Subgenus Limniris Subgenus Hermodactyloides
Subgenus Scorpiris Subgenus Scorpiris Subgenus Scorpiris


Seed Exchanges

For many years there have been two seed exchamges within the American Iris Society. One is for Pacific Coast Native Irises and is run by that section. The other is the Species Iris seed exchange run by SIGNA the species section. Many Irises grown from these seeds have been named and introduced by their growers. Each seed exchange usually offers the seed first to their membership and then what is left becomes open to the public. Not only are many very rare Irises offered but the price per packet is very small compared to commercial lists. It is hoped that those benefiting will grow and return seed later so that the exchange continues. Recently the Aril Society International has also started a seed exchange for these very rare Iris plants. Follow the following links to sign up for these groups: Pacific Coast Natives Species Arils Medians Another Iris seed exchange primarily for species is that of the British Iris Society


Seed Germination

Iris can be very rewarding grown from seed. The diversity of seedlings from a cross or even collected from wild species can be quite remarkable. It must be remembered that seed from a certain cultivar does not always reproduce that cultivar. If the cultivar is a seed strain than any progeny that fit the discription of the strain can be called by that name. But the usual case is that cultivars are clones and can only be propagated asexually. But there is the chance that a seedling may be even better than its parent and that it deserves a cultivar name. Patience is perhaps the most important part of seed raising. Seeds of many species may germinate immediately if removed from the pod just as the pod splits to open and quickly planted. But most often seed is stored and later sown. These dryer seeds may require a period of stratification. Stratifying usually is just leaving the seed flat outside through the winter exposed to rain and freezing and thawing. Some people have had good results placing the seeds in the refrigerator with a moist paper towel in a sealed plastic bag for about 6 weeks. Whatever the cold treatment often some or all the seeds may not germination until the following year and a second winter. Or sometimes they may germinate in the fall when the rainy cool weather returns. Unless the species is a tropical variety there is probably no reason to worry about the tiny seedling experiencing a cold winter. Dykes reported that some aril seeds took as long as 16 years to germinate. For most Irises, seeds will germinate the first spring, but if they do not, do not throw the flat away because they may sprout that fall or the following spring. A rule of thumb for how deep to place is a depth twice the diameter of the seed. But seeds will often germinate right on the soil surface if the do not dry out badly. Also seeds may emerge from an inch or two below the surface, a situation I have had when I reused the potting soil for a pot plant and was later surprised with seedlings. Please add your experiences with various types of Iris seeds. Recent revisions have placed the following genera into the Genus Iris: Belamcanda, Hermodactylus, and Pardanthopsis — Main.RPries – 2010-12-29


Up to about 1910 the Iris in American gardens were loosely known as Flags or German Iris. The word German came from the plant Linnaeus had named Iris germanica, because it had been sent to him from a German garden. It was to be seen in many gardens blooming in mid-May along with Florentina and a purple self similar to what we now know as Kochii. In early June in New England there were to be seen such varieties as Albert Victor, Flavescens, Aurea, Honorabile, Mme. Chereau, Victorine, Neglecta, Sambucina and Jacquesiana.

Most of the persons who had these in their gardens did not know these names or their origin. They were just “flags” and they bloomed year after year with little attention.

Between 1910 and 1920, new varieties began to appear in European and American catalogs. The few American gardeners who tried them were astounded at their color range and at the size of their flowers. They became so enthusiastic that through letters to nurserymen and articles in magazines they came to know each other and this in turn led to the formation of the American Iris Society in 1920.

Today when several thousand members of this Society in all parts of the world know each other, or of each other, it is hard to realize how isolated the Iris growers and breeders of the early part of the century were, how little they knew about Iris varieties, about their wild origin or hybrid parentage, or about what other Iris breeders, either in distant places or nearby, were doing or trying to do.

Through the American Iris Society and the Iris Society of England, the scattered literature on Iris was assembled. Iris history, past and present, was recorded, meetings and shows were held in various parts of the country and breeders were encouraged to make further strides in the improvement of the flower. As a result, we have the magnificent varieties of today.

It is true, of course, that not all the breeders’ “geese” are “swans”. Many seedlings of little distinction are introduced each year. Much more careful testing and rigid appraisal is needed.

It may be useful for the more recent converts to the cult of the Iris to pause and consider the status of Iris growing in the first two decades of the century. Some hundreds of varieties were listed in catalogs. Through the work of W. R. Dykes and A. J. Bliss, we know that nearly all of these were hybrids of the blue Iris pallida of Italy and the yellow and brown Iris variegata of Hungary and Bulgaria. At that time, however, they were grouped not only under these species, but also under the supposed species (really hybrids) amoena, plicata, neglecta, and squalens.

There was a wide color range, but the flowers were small, often of poor form and of poor substance, and were nearly always badly crowded on the stem.

The first novelties of the first decade of the century which began to whet the appetite of Iris growers were also of this parentage. A set from the German firm of Goos and Koeneman included the white and purple bicolor Rhein Nixe and the yellow bicolors Iris King, Loreley, Gajus and Princess Victoria Louise. Then came the first American seedlings, Glory of Reading, Mt. Penn, Quaker Lady, Windham and Wyomissing raised by Bertrand H. Farr of Wyomissing, near Reading, Pennsylvania. To these were soon added the new hybrids which were to revolutionize the Iris. They sprang from the pallida-variegata hybrids crossed with new large flowered species or forms from Asia Minor.

About 1880 an English amateur gardener, Professor (later Sir) Michael Foster had wanted to produce large flowered Iris. He asked missionaries in Asia Minor to look for wild plants bearing unusually large flowers. For nearly 20 years he received such plants identified only by place names. He used them for breeding and gave many of them to friends before they were named or carefully described. As a result, we do not know to this day the exact parentage of all of the new large flowered Iris.

Foster’s own large flowered seedlings were not sent into commerce until long after his death in 1907. They included Caterina, Crusader and Lady Foster – and were said to be hybrids of cypriana. (Various plants under the name cypriana were later identified as mesopotamica and trojana.) Foster’s friend, George Yeld, introduced a similar strain which included Lord of June, Halo and Neptune. They are now called hybrids of Amas which is not usually regarded as a true species, but were at one time regarded as trojana hybrids.

In France the nursery firm of Vilmorin had used what it had under the name of Amas and introduced first Oriflamme, then Alcazar and finally Ambassadeur, Ballerine and Magnifica, the last being reputed to have also Ricardi in its parentage. Ricardi which was widely used by the amateur, Ferdinand Denis, in Southern France, is now regarded as a form of mesopotamica. Denis’ seedlings included Mlle. Schwartz which was for a time popular in California but not reliably hardy in the east. That was true also of Magnifica, of Caterina and Lady Foster, and of the later introductions of Foster’s friend, Sir Arthur Hort (which are said to trace back to Caterina).

A third Frenchman and near neighbor of Vilmorin introduced during this same period the remarkable Souv. de Mme. Gaudichau with parentage first given as pallida dalmatica, but now generally supposed to have been Amas or something close to it.

Now we come to A. J. Bliss of Devonshire. Dykes had interested him early in the century in the controversy about the authenticity of the supposed species amoena, plicata, neglecta and squalens and set him to Iris breeding. From a plant he had under the name of Asiatica (and which he later lost) (it is now believed to have been Amas), he produced a deep purple seedling that he was sure was the greatest Iris in the whole world. It had a stout stiff stalk, a large flower of great substance, flaring almost horizontal velvety falls and wonderful texture. He named it Dominion. His boasts brought the nurseryman R. W. Wallace (who had just introduced Foster’s seedlings) to see it. He also thought it was the finest iris in the world and said so in his catalog, and to be sure that his customers would be properly impressed, he asked for it in 1917 not the usual 4 or 5 shillings, but 5 pounds!

It was this Iris, plus those I have just mentioned, that precipitated the Iris furore in Europe, and the flood of introductions from Bliss, Perry, Vilmorin, Millet, Denis and Cayeux and others in the decade 1920 to 1930.

Meanwhile, in America, Farr was introducing such varieties as Pocahontas and Anna Farr and his many seedlings were being widely grown and creating great Iris enthusiasm. E. B. Williamson, an Indiana banker, and later vice-president of the American Iris Society, used Amas in his crossing and introduced Lent A. Williamson. J. Marion Shull of the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture crossed this with trojana and introduced Morning Splendor. He became convinced that the five Iris, Dominion, Ambassadeur, Souv. de Mme. Gaudichau, Lent A. Williamson and Morning Splendor, raised by five different breeders in three different countries, all had the same or very closely related ancestry. A sixth breeder, Clarence Connell of Nashville, was soon to follow in this same pattern with Dauntless. Still another, Mr. Wareham of Cincinnati, was actively breeding with Dominion before 1920, and producing outstanding seedlings which, however, were not introduced until 15 or 20 years later when they were no longer unique. To all of these varieties the term “Dominion Race” was loosely applied, although the term was invented by Bliss to cover merely his varieties Bruno, Cardinal, Duke of Bedford, Moa, Titan, and one or two others.

In New England a totally different development was taking place. Miss Grace Sturtevant in Wellesley Farms was working with one or more forms of pallida (sometimes pallida dalmatica is mentioned, sometimes Celeste) (in the early days there was a good deal of confusion about pallida dalmatica and many people had Albert Victor, Celeste, Odoratissima, and Tineae under that name). This she crossed with Aurea and raised some charming blends such as Palaurea and Afterglow. One of these seedlings crossed with Celeste produced Hope, a variety of little importance, but from it in the next generation the variety Shekinah was produced. This was the most important yellow Iris of its day, but it was much more than that. It was the first yellow of known pallida parentage, and the first yellow to succeed in the warm climate of Southern California. Nearly every Iris breeder who has since worked with yellows has used it somewhere in the family tree.

The breeders I have mentioned laid the framework for the modern Iris of today. Modern breeders should recognize their important work and should be familiar with their most important varieties in order to more fully understand the varieties of today which are their progeny. A good collection of well grown old varieties is also often an eye-opener in showing to the complacent breeder that some of his seedlings are duplicates or near duplicates of their ancestors. My interest in the old varieties has led me to assemble on the grounds of Swarthmore College about 100 of them in an historical collection arranged chronologically. There is a similar collection in the Presby Memorial Garden in Montclair. I hope that New England Iris growers will visit both these collections and see for themselves how interesting they are.

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