Searching for Iris

Bearded Iris are superstars of our gardens, their elegant flowers have been gracing our borders for well over a century and luring us to try and extend their range of colours but what happens when you forget the name or inherit a beauty?
Here’s what I did…

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Since working at Ulting Wick there has been an exceedingly prolific Iris onsite which has eluded identification. Not that unusual given that many Irises were bred by amateur growers that kept little to no records, but I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of all things garden plus I needed to occupy my brain which is receiving less and less of a workout these days!

I didnt realise exactly what I had committed myself to though when I decided to try this…

First we have to estimate when it arrived at the garden, there are several interesting trees onsite which date back in their popularity to around the 60’s so it could be from around that time? But maybe this is a red herring?

Second we can eliminate the obvious! So we know its not ‘Earl of Essex’ which is a beautiful lavender blue uprights with frilly falls of white edged in lavender blue.

An Iris breeder local to Essex, well localish, would of course be Cedrick Morris, having searched through all of the available info on himself and the pictures available of his plants I can say I’m pretty sure its not one of his… despite the elegant, well proportioned falls.

I ended up in a complete internet Rabbit hole one Saturday morning whilst looking up Iris breeders and National Collections which culminated in reading up on the tragic and horrible (I recommend NOT googling this) death of one time Rose and Iris breeder Hilda Murrell, who had been involved in the design/planting of the white garden at Sissinghurst.

So I drew back, regrouped and started asking google different questions and honestly I’m not sure if I could back engineer my route! I’ve been told several times its completely impossible to trace a variety once its name has been lost but mum always told me there’s no such word as can’t so I stubbornly kept on…img_20200516_090429

I stumbled onto the American Iris society’s website which is brilliant! This told me that the questions I needed to be asking needed to be aimed at Tall Bearded Iris that belonged to a colour class of S3D. Suddenly Google images threw a plethora of similar coloured iris at me! From there it was literally just a case of ploughing through the images and descriptions to find the ones that matched! As you can see time of day, light levels and the age of the flower can also affect the way it photographs too as the petals are remarkably iridescent.

There were of course many that came close, for example ‘Rhea’ who was looking very promising for a while but I eventually discounted. From its description and pictures the colour of the haft was distinctly wrong.

‘RHEA’

Standards Light Lobelia. Falls Pansy Violet with tawny haft

So I traced its parentage up, on one side the pollen parent was unknown but the ovary parent was ‘Isoline’. Mr. Eden Philpotts waxed lyrical about its virtues “It resembles nothing but itself. There mingle in its immense uprights and broad falls all pale shades of auburn, sepia and rose. The beard is of bright gold. I have haunted the magnificent thing for a week and yet know not how fittingly to describe its glory.” however I personally didn’t find this description particularly helpful so resorted once more to pictures for clarification. Sadly this too was not successful ‘Isoline’s Beard was too lemon yellow to be our mystery Iris.

All the while this is going on I’m realising I’m learning a whole new lexicon specifically directed at the description on Irises… this is turning out more complicated than I’d realised initially. From colour codes to naming parts of the flower, re-learning the difference between a tetraploid, triploid and a diploid, information I hadn’t used since college! This was getting a bit more involved than I had initially realised, never mind how many Iris look superficially similar, no wonder there are so many Iris which are lost and lurking un-named in peoples gardens…. I digress… back to the mystery Iris

I realised both ‘Rhea’ and ‘Isoline’ had come from the Vilmorin stable of hybridising so took a punt that the gene pool I was fishing in wouldn’t be that far removed so it might be worthwhile concentrating my search there. It was still quite a big pool as Vilmorin were one of the biggest hybridisers of the early 20th century but it was at least a place to start. I thought id start by reading up on the history when I came across this picture almost at the bottom of the page ‘Alcazar’

Now while there is always a chance I’m completely wrong I feel confident in saying our Iris is ‘Alcazar’  pretty much everything, in my view, matches but that of course is just my view and I do not consider myself a Master of Iris, just a Jack.

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This did get me wondering exactly how many Iris are kicking round in peoples gardens unidentified? I have one here I’ve sadly never seen flower, I must dig it up and see if I can persuade it to do something. So I asked on my local village FB group and was honoured to have such a lovely response. Quite a few people had relatively modern varieties …. I say relatively modern ‘Sable’ always a favourite for its beautiful velvety iridescent petals of purple so deep its almost black was bred by Paul Cook in 1938 and ‘White city’ a pure white with an almost ultraviolet tint to the petals was bred in 1937 by Olive Morrell.

Here is a selection of some I have volunteered to TRY and identify!

Above: Golden standards with a bronze tint. Plum falls with gold beard and gold tint to the haft. Height 90cm

Below: Peachy, orange standards, pale maroon veins. Plum maroon falls with orange beard. Height 40cm

There was however one garden that has promise of providing some exciting historic Iris. A lady who was incredibly generous with her time showed me her incredible garden which had literally 100’s of roses festooning the sides and trees throughout the garden. Some of which I’m very familiar with from Ulting Wick, but in this much more relaxed environment look completely different. Enough about roses though! I came for Iris and she had them in spades, however sadly the garden was escaping her and most are very congested to the point of not flowering or are being submerged by other plants.

This one though was flowering beautifully and it was with immense joy I realised that this was potentially ‘Benton Apollo’!!

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This gave me great hopes for the other Iris, after all most of the ones she has are older than 40 years so there’s a chance of some special babies in there. I immediately offered to give her a hand and so for the next few weeks at least ill be trying to tame rampant borders on my weekend and very happy I am about it!

The lady in question is an artist and as we were talking she remembered she had painted one of the older ones she owned and brought this fabulous watercolour out, then very kindly gave it to me, im SO delighted! This will get framed and will live in pride of place on my wall.

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I’ll end today with a few of the more modern purchases I saw, please do leave a comment with your favourite varieties or excellent suppliers you know of!

7 thoughts on “Searching for Iris

  1. Hi Lou,
    A few years ago I researched the names of the Iris’s I inherited from my families gardens. It is fascinating although time-consuming exercise. I found Anne Milner very helpful also the British and American Iris societies. One of mine was ‘Alcazar’.

    Anne Milner has a collection of Bliss Iris her website is:
    https://www.blissiris.co.uk

    Sarah Cook, previous head gardener at Sissinghurst, has a national collection of Cedric Morris irises. She is I believe interested in trying to find more.

    I recently posted an article on my blog about the system for growing Iris at Doddington Hall, they also have the Bryan Dodsworth collection of bearded iris.
    The link is below.

    Doddington Hall Garden Visit and Growing Bearded Iris

    https://brimfields.com/2020/04/01/doddington-hall-garden-visit-and-growing-bearded-iris/

    I hope you find this useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Brian that’s lovely thank you. I know Sarah Cook well as she was a bit of a legend even by the time I was working at Sissinghurst! Strangely I watched a webinar held by plant heritage just last night with herself and Sue Applegate of Kelways fame, who also holds a national collection. Doddington was of course just down the road from me in Kent but sadly and shockingly ive never visited so I shall take time to read that with delight!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Go to Plant Heritage, Events. They have a few upcoming ones including one by Peter Marriott from David Austin Roses that looks good!
        I think they recorded it so you might be able to get a copy

        Like

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