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My Victorian Garden: Growing Heirloom Bearded Iris

Updated on February 4, 2019
chezchazz profile image

Chazz is an Interior Decorator/Consultant/Retailer, amateur photographer, cook, gardener, handyman, currently restoring an 1880 Victorian.

Iris Violacea Grandiflora, 1856

Iris Violacea Grandiflora was collected by DeBerry in 1856. It is medium-toned blue-violet self. (Violacea means violet and Grandiflora means large flowered.)
Iris Violacea Grandiflora was collected by DeBerry in 1856. It is medium-toned blue-violet self. (Violacea means violet and Grandiflora means large flowered.)

Dramatic Antique Heirloom Bearded Irises

Irises are a favorite in our Victorian Garden. This page will introduce you to some of the Antique Heirloom Bearded iris we are growing, their history, and the terminology used to describe these lovely spring flowers.

You'll also find helpful tips and instructional videos about how to plant and grow irises.

The Antique Heirloom Bearded iris shown here is Quaker Lady. It dates back to before 1900.
The Antique Heirloom Bearded iris shown here is Quaker Lady. It dates back to before 1900.

Irises are often called "the poor man's orchid" and, after roses, irises are the most popular garden flower in the United States. They are named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow who carried messages between earth and sky.

Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris are sensual, dramatic and, if the scent has not been hybridized out of them, exquisitely scented additions to the perennial garden.


Note: I am aware that any iris over 30 years old is considered an heirloom iris, but this page focuses on older antique iris varieties that might have been planted in the garden of my 1880 Victorian home around the time it was built and during the time the original owners lived there.

Heirloom Iris Pallida Dalmatica predates the 1600s
Heirloom Iris Pallida Dalmatica predates the 1600s

Irises Have a Very Long & Colorful History

The iris is an ancient flower. Estimates are that irises have been grown as far back as 7000 BCE. In ancient Egypt, irises were listed as medicinal plants and they are depicted in heiroglyphs and on monuments and tomb walls.

Pictures of irises have also been found in the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete and in ancient Persian documents.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used Irises for medicine and were the first to use orrisroot, a powder made from some types of bearded iris rhizomes, to freshen breath and flavor wine, in addition to using it in perfumes. Orrisroot is still used today as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri.

From Dioscorides (who wrote the five volume De Materia Medica almost 2,000 years ago), we learn that irises were also thought to remove freckles, induce sleep, and heal ulcers. Archaeologists tell us that early Christians carved rosary beads out of sweetly scented orrisroot and wore them around their necks. Around 1100 - 1200 CE, the iris, the fleur-de-lys, was adopted as the symbol of France.

Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris 'Perfection' from 1880
Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris 'Perfection' from 1880

More About Growing Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris

Heirloom Bearded irises bloom from April to June. Irises are among the most disease resistant and pest free plants.

Irises will grow in most types of soil as long as they are properly planted and have good drainage. (There's an informative video that will show you how to do that farther down this page.)

Although Antique Bearded irises do multiply, they are easy to divide and are not invasive.

In fact, many antique irises have survived because they were so easily shared and "passed along" to friends and family members. As you might expect, many antique plants still with us today are referred to as Pass-alongs.

The origins of many pass-along irises may never be known for sure, but some have been identified and a few are even available commercially. I am sure there are many others that a lucky few have inherited from an old aunt or grandmother or that they found growing on an old property they purchased.

Tall Bearded Iris Perfection: An Heirloom from 1880 - Hybridized by Barr

Fittingly named, 'Perfection' is a vigorous, beautiful and reliable bloomer. 'Perfection' is a neglecta iris with light lavender standards over rich velvety distinctly white veined (netted) purple falls. The falls have a nice flare that is rarely seen in irises this old and that lends 'Perfection' just the right touch of style. This elegant heirloom iris grows to 30" high and blooms mid-season.

Basic Iris Terminology

(Study hard - there will be a Quiz for extra points)

Bearded iris take their name from the fuzzy caterpillar like hairs along the lower petals. These hairs guide insects toward the pollen. Bearded iris are also generically known as Iris Germanica or German iris, although not all Bearded Iris are necessarily Germanica.

These are some of the most frequently used terms you may come across when reading about or shopping for irises:

Amoena: An iris with white standards colored falls

Beard: The fuzzy attachment at the base of each falls petal

Bicolor: Irises that have lighter standards (the upper petals that stand up) and falls (the lower petals that "fall" downward) in a deeper contrasting color.

Bitone: irises that have standards and falls in the same color, usually with the falls being a darker tone.

Blend: Iris with a combination of two or more colors smoothly or unevenly mixed

Falls: The lower three petals of the iris bloom

Flounces: Appendages extending from the tip of the beard that look like little petals

Hafts: The top part of the falls near the center where the falls connect to the stem

Horns: A spike like extension of the beard that turns upward and disconnects from the falls

Neglecta: An iris in blue or purple bitones with lighter tone standards

Plicata: Darker margins that look stippled, dotted or stitched on falls of a lighter color

Self: Refers to standards and falls in the same color

Signal: A patch of contrasting color surrounding the beard, usually white or yellow

Spoons: Appendages extending from the tip of the beard like spoons

Standards: The three upper petals of the iris bloom that stand erect

Variegata: Yellow or near-yellow standards with darker falls of brown or purple

Iris Germanica 'Mrs. Reuthe'

An Antique Heirloom Iris from 1899

Iris Mrs. Reuthe is a delicately feathered Plicata introduced by Ware in 1899.

This heirloom iris is a diploid with white standards veined and shaded pale lilac blue and white falls frilled in a very pale blue.

Iris Germanica 'Mrs. Reuthe' grows about 24 inches tall and blooms mid-season.

Did You Know?

Irises are Naturally

Deer & Squirrel Resistant

Iris Kochii

Iris Kochii is a deep blue purple self with a coarse yellow-tipped beard. Iris Kochii is native to Northern Italy and has been cultvated and available in the trade since 1871.

In 1912, the Biltmore Nursery catalog raved about Iris Germanica Kochii, describing it as "Unexcelled in beauty and profusion of bloom" and deserving of "the most widespread planting" because "The flowers are so large, and are borne in such masses, that a clump of them becomes a huge bouquet in May or June."

Iris Germanica Indigo, 1854 - Very Rare and Hard to Find

Historic Bearded Iris Germanica Indigo from 1854
Historic Bearded Iris Germanica Indigo from 1854

Iris Germanica 'Kharput' (Prior to 1895)

Collected in Turkey by Barr in 1895, Kharput is named for the village of Harput, in Turkey, where it was discovered growing.

Iris Germanica Kharput is a velvety deep blue-violet purple intermediate bearded iris with a yellow-tipped white beard. It is an early season bloomer and grows to about two feet high.

Iris Kharput is also known as Asiatica, Italia, and Karput.

Iris Germanica Vulgaris, 1753

aka Blue Neglecta

The Anitque Heirloom Iris 'Neglecta' is a naturally occurring European hybrid. There are several cultivars that vary slightly, but all are blue or purple bitones.

In the United States, Iris Germanica 'Blue Neglecta' can be frequently seen growing along roadsides as well as in gardens. These are the irises immortalized in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. (You can scroll down to see two of his Iris paintings.)

Bearded Iris Germanica 'Blue Neglecta' is an early blooming variety that varies in height from 24 to 36 inches.

What's your favorite heirloom flower?

Which of these Heirloom Flowers Do You Prefer?

See results

How to Plant & Grow Bearded Irises

Light Blue Lilac Heirloom Iris
Light Blue Lilac Heirloom Iris

A Scentimental Pass-Along Heirloom Iris

This iris was given to us by good friends and neighbors who got them from her mother's garden and has a special sentimental meaning for us.

We have brought rhizomes of this beauty with us whenever we moved over the years and it always brings back wonderful memories.

I believe this may be either Iris Odoratissima (prior to 1797) or Iris Pallida Dalmatica (prior to 1600), as it is very similar to some we purchased as that (see photo near top of page). It has a lovely scent and multiplies nicely, enabling us to share it with our new friends and neighbors as well.

The Only Garden Tool You'll Ever Need - For planting, dividing and transplanting irises and more

Nisaku NJP650 Hori-Hori Weeding & Digging Knife, Authentic Tomita (Est. 1960) Japanese Stainless Steel, 7.25" Blade, Wood Handle
Nisaku NJP650 Hori-Hori Weeding & Digging Knife, Authentic Tomita (Est. 1960) Japanese Stainless Steel, 7.25" Blade, Wood Handle
The Japanese Hori Hori Garden Landscaping Digging Tool is known as "The Swiss Knife for Gardeners." And the one made by Joshua Roth is the best on every score from the way it feels when you hold it to the very sharp edge.

Historic Iris Mexicana (Prior to 1859)

Iris Mexicana is a bearded iris with a lovely but smaller bloom. This vivacious bicolor features medium yellow standards and falls in shades of red marked with white. Height ranges from 20 inches to two feet tall.
Iris Mexicana is a bearded iris with a lovely but smaller bloom. This vivacious bicolor features medium yellow standards and falls in shades of red marked with white. Height ranges from 20 inches to two feet tall.
Renoir's Favorite: Iris Nepalenses Purple King from 1830
Renoir's Favorite: Iris Nepalenses Purple King from 1830

Iris Germanica Nepalensis, 1830

As you might guess, Iris Nepalensis comes from Nepal. The iris is actually much older than the 1830 date, which is the year it wasy discovered by Wallich, who brought it back to England and introduced it to the West.

Iris Nepalensis is also known as Iris Germanica Atropurpurea, Himalayan Iris, Iris Decora Wallich, and Purple King Iris. It is a lightly and pleasantly scented bitone and a prolific bloomer.

No wonder it was Renoir's favorite!

Don't forget...

We're planting a lot more

Heirloom Irises and will have

more varieties as they bloom,

so bookmark this page and

be sure to check back!

Early 20th Century Irises

Left: Iris Wabash from 1936. Right: Iris Red Cloud from 1913
Left: Iris Wabash from 1936. Right: Iris Red Cloud from 1913

Iris Sindjkha

Iris Sindjkha was hybridized by Grace Sturtevant in 1918.
Iris Sindjkha was hybridized by Grace Sturtevant in 1918.

Iris Germanica 'Loreley' - An Historic Bearded Iris from 1909

Iris Loreley was introduced by Goos & Koenemann in 1909. A hardy and drought tolerant intermediate iris, Loreley grows to 20 to 24 inches high. With soft canary yellow standards and velvety purple veined falls edged in yellow, no wonder this captivating bloom was named Loreley.

If this Iris sings to you, perhaps it is because Loreley (or Lorelei) refers to the German equivalent of the sirens who lured Ulysses and his crew in the Odyssey. The Lorelei would perch on cliffs along the Rhine and entice sailors to their doom with their enchanting song.

I(ris)-Q Test

view quiz statistics

Iris Indian Chief: Introduced by Ayers in 1929

Indian Chief is an unusual "maroon" bitone that will even bloom in considerable shade here in our zone 5 garden. The netted standards are finely edged with a thin line that matches the deep rich velvety falls. It has white hafts and the beards are yellow. An exceptionally vigorous iris that seems to thrive on neglect, Indian Chief is also sweetly scented and a prolific bloomer.

Artwork for Iris Fans

Van Gogh's "Irises, Saint Remy, 1889," shown below, depicts the garden of the hospital where the artist spent the last months of his life.

Suffering from severe depression, Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) believed he could remain sane by painting and continued to do so while hospitalized. Irises, Saint Remy was the first picture he painted as a patient there. In 1987, this painting set a world record by selling for $49 million.

Irises, Saint Remy, 1889  by Vincent Van Gogh
Irises, Saint Remy, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh | Source

Irises by Van Gogh, Monet, and O'Keefe

Above artwork described below. All are available in various sizes and formats at
Above artwork described below. All are available in various sizes and formats at | Source

Left to right:
Vase of Irises against a Yellow Background by Vincent Van Gogh

The brilliant artwork of post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) has had an impact on countless artists and artistic movements. In ten Van Gogh, like Monet, painted outdoors. He had a talent for capturing the subtleties of nighttime light and shadow. Selling only one painting during his lifetime, Van Gogh has endured as one of the last century's most influential artists.

Irises by Claude Monet

Traditional artistic expression was forever altered by Impressionist Movement forerunners including the master painter Claude Monet (1840 - 1925). In order to portray the continually shifting effects of light and color, the Paris-born Monet only painted outdoors, often painting the same subject at different times of day. Influenced by the artistry of Japanese floral screens, his richly colored Irises were painted in his Giverny garden.

Black Iris by Georgia O'Keefe

Groundbreaking Modernist painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) rejected artistic norms to express her own unique vision. Best known for her flower paintings, O'Keeffe was first inspired by nature while growing up in Wisconsin. O'Keeffe enlarged flowers until they became abstract forms whose sheer size commanded attention. O'Keeffe was the first woman honored with her own exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

More About Irises

Classic Irises And the Men And Women Who Created Them
Classic Irises And the Men And Women Who Created Them
Written by Clarence E. Mahan, an internationally recognized authority on Irises. An excellent, well-researched read with beautiful drawings, paintings and photographs. This book is itself a work of art.

Do you grow any antique heirloom irises in your garden?

Are you lucky enough to have inherited a "pass-along" iris?

Do you have a tip about iris care you'd like to share?

© 2012 Chazz

Are You An Iris Fan?

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    • chezchazz profile imageAUTHOR


      17 months ago from New York

      Definitely, Mariska - you can still get diploid (aka "tall bearded") irises.

    • profile image


      17 months ago

      Are there still diploid bearded irisesfor sale?

    • profile image

      Lorraine French 

      3 years ago

      I am looking for Crimson King, Iris Germanica to buy. Any ideas where I might look???

    • chezchazz profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York

      @vintage1832: Hi. Hadn't thought of doing that. There are several firms I deal with to purchase antique irises. These two provide dates with them so you can choose the period you want.

      Hope that gets you started. Let me know how it goes and thanks for asking.

      Best wishes,


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi! Would you happen to have any antique irises or iris seeds for sale??

    • profile image

      Lynn Klobuchar 

      6 years ago

      I have an orange iris that is pretty spectacular. I tried to grow some black irises with it as an easy decorating scheme when my sons graduated from high school (Tigers -- black and orange) but the black (nearly black--really deeeeep purple) ones did not cooperate.

    • chezchazz profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      There is an old abandoned bed of Iris on our ranch. Dates back to the first land run in Oklahoma. The Iris are small, dark purple with yellow beard. Has only one bloom per stem and bloom very early

      In February and March. Anyone out there have any idea what kind they might be.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Your article has reminded me that I have not seen the peach iris bloom for awhile. I still see the green in the area they should be in. For next year I think I have to give them some extra care. Maybe they will bloom again.

    • JuneNash profile image

      June Nash 

      7 years ago

      I don't have any in my garden, but they are one of my favorites. Maybe I'll put some in this year.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Wow, your Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris are beautiful and thank you for sharing all this wonderful information. We have several varieties of Iris that came from my husband's grandmother's yard and we thoroughly enjoy them.

    • microfarmproject profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a lovely lens Thank you!

    • compugraphd profile image


      8 years ago


      I love purple (and all shades thereof) and I particularly like the combination purple and yellow. That's sort of why I glommed onto irises -- I love the shapes too, but it's mostly the color. I'm totally ignorant when it comes to things botanical, particularly how to grow things (I have a major league brown thumb) and I got 0 out of 5 in your quiz (not even a lucky guess, lol) but I love the flowers.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Oh these are one of THE most beautiful flowers on mother earth. Thanx for the informative lens

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Oh these are one of THE most beautiful flowers on mother earth. Thanx for the informative lens

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      8 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Your iris photos are stunning. So lovely!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Stopping back to enjoy the iris, will return for new pictures....a beautiful reason to come back!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      " an iris found in a neglected cemetary", I heard myself laugh...even iris humor here! I can see why iris are so close to roses in being loved and one day may overtake them since they have so many possibilities these days for gardeners at all levels. Beautifully presented by you!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I absolutely love irises - and these are beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing your gardens. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      These are beautiful. My mother used to grow irises along a fence and this brings back some lovely memories. Thank you. Bookmarking this page to see what else you add. (ps. love the iris fan - very punny)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Chazz, you have touched my heart. This is my favorite flower - to grow, to sketch or to paint and she doesn't look bad in a vase either. Thank you so much.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      8 years ago from Colorado

      I'm a huge iris fan. It is my very favorite flower. I was delighted to learn here that irises are second only to roses. What a fascinating lens. It is such a pleasure to grow and learn on every visit to your excellent articles. Your gardens are exquisite.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I am so envious of your gardens. They must be magnificent. These irises are wonderful too. I don't know if I could really say what my favorite flowers are. There are so many gorgeous varieties. I do love roses, hydrangeas, and peonies.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 

      8 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Love my Irises - they are blooming right now and look lovely! :>)

    • tricomanagement profile image


      8 years ago

      When I lived in Japan, a neighbor and I collected natural bulbs from the mountains - We went to three separate ranges and got three different colors. They were beautiful i my front yard. Our Japanese neighbors called my house the Iris house.

      Loved the history lesson, Chazz, thank you!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I am a really amateur gardener. I found out from your lens that the Irises in front of my house are Kochii. Thanks, I enjoyed reading.

    • Camden1 profile image


      8 years ago

      I do love irises - I planted some last year for the first time. I'm so excited to see that they're already coming back this year!

    • jolou profile image


      8 years ago

      Beautiful photos and lens. I love irises.

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      8 years ago

      Irises are one of my favourites - so exoctoc looking, yet so hardy! The bicolor Gracchus practically grows wild around the old farms here, and I've managed a fair collection of other heirloom irises over the years by trading plants with neighbours. I'd not heard them called "the poor man's orchid" before, though - I like that very much!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      8 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I don't grow much of anything in my garden, but I do love irises and I'm always excited to see them blooming in the spring. We saw quite a few this year and they were beautiful!


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