Sunday, May 25, 2014

Antique Iris

The longer I live in my 100 year old house, the more I appreciate the antique flowers that surround my property. The iris, the ones that were here when I moved in fourteen years ago and the ones I have bought in the ensuing years, are exceptional this year.

Iris have been in cultivation for hundreds of years. There are upwards of 300 species in the genus.  I. Pallida, also known as sweet flag, has been in cultivation since 1597, if not even earlier. It has been used for centuries to make perfumes and medicines. The fleur-de-lis, a stylized iris, was used extensively in many family coat-of- arms and also figures prominently in modern day flags of many European countries. The standards, the upright petals, of this iris are the same light lavender color as the falls or the lower petals and has a wonderful “grape” fragrance. The petals are smooth and simple in shape, unlike some of the frilly, modern cultivars.

Here is another antique iris from my garden . I was curious what the cultivar name was and when it became available. The Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) has a wonderful photo gallery. I wonder if this is I. ‘Amas’, known to be one of the first tetraploid Irises to be widely circulated. According to HIPS, it has used extensively in early irisbreeding. I. ‘Amas’ was originally collected in Turkey in 1885. This iris could also be ‘Alcazar’ which was introduced in 1910 or ‘Ambassaduer’ , introduced in 1920. All three iris have similar stripes and prominent “beards” on the top part of the lower petals. You can see this iris around many of the older homes in Portland.
Here’s an interesting iris. Again, probably an antique with its simple petal shape. The standards are truly a beige or smoky topaz color with the falls a medium lavender even though in my photograph, they appear more blue.  The iris in the photograph below, is also more purple in color. I like how the color is just around the edges almost as if it had been dipped in blue dye. Both have bright orange “beards” and interesting striations which appear to be common to iris of this age.
Tall beared iris, I. Germanica, are the tallest in the iris family ranging from 28 to 48 inches. Many of the modern varieties have frilly petal shapes or sport spots or picotee patterns. Hybridizers have also developed iris in almost every shade of the rainbow, including a true black.
Iris are very cold hardy and appreciate full sun and dry soils particularly during summer dormancy. Although thought to be classic cottage garden plants, with interesting lance-like foliage, simple, antique iris such as these would also work well among agave, yucca, and cacti in a xeric garden.


  1. Nothing like a bearded iris in the garden that evokes memories of cottage gardens of my childhood. With so much breeding work it is hard to keep tack of them all, but the old breeds still are found, mostly as great pass-along plants. Thanks for the memories!

  2. Oops, sorry I didn't see your comment earlier! Yes, these old iris are so hardy, so stalwart, that they do make good pass along plants. I have had a few in a bucket for the last couple months, and they have sprouted new leaves. No water, no soil, and yet they still live!


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